A Ken Dixon painting hangs on the west wall of the living room of Suzanne and Kevin Levy's Westover Hills home. The acrylic work on wood-framed panels shaped like a gabled window alludes to the suffering of artist Frida Kahlo and the balm of nature. It is a study in contrasts, in subject and in execution, evoking both modern iconography and the wooden triptychs of the Renaissance.
As an artwork, it charges the room with energy that balances both the classic and globally eclectic elements of the decor. The painting's color palette and carved wood mesh with the soft metallic undertones of the room's stamped and hammered metal chests and the handwork in a gilded metal credenza, iron lamps and candlesticks. All elements meld in the room's spectacular centerpiece, an engraved brass tray purchased in Morocco in 1959 by Suzanne's mother and transformed into a coffee table cozied by powdered gold silk Chesterfield sofas.
The painting's jungle vines also draw organic elements into the room, a theme throughout the home. And perhaps, on a subconscious level, the artist's philosophy -- that as our lives evolve, sometimes into chaos, we can always tap into nature to find order and balance in each day -- also spoke to Suzanne, formerly a curator of education at the Fort Worth Art Museum (now the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth). Certainly, the connection of art and nature to comfort is central to the evolution of the Levy house into a home.
It was in 1995 that Kevin, an ardent gardener, called Suzanne to say he had found a great house. "When I saw it I said, 'You have found a beautiful piece of property with a 'dwelling' on it,'" Suzanne says with a laugh. They were both right. Essentially, nothing had been done to the home since it was built; then it sat vacant for a few years. Black-and-white linoleum floors in a dark and boxy foyer and more than a few awkward spaces made the 6,500-square-foot home the architectural equivalent of the tangled terraces of what was perhaps once a formal English garden.
From the outside looking in, much about the Westover Hills home is inconclusive. Built in 1939, the provenance of its architecture is open to conjecture, renovations having further complicated the debate. Spanish Mediterranean with Federal influences softened by French plantation home accents -- perhaps. Suzanne isn't bothered with formal definitions. "We made it look a little like New Orleans," she says. "But mostly, it is a comfortable house that we love living in." The redesign, she says, "stands on its own."
Pink-painted brick has been sand-blasted back to variegated terra-cotta tones. Tiered porticos are defined by stone arches and columns. A cupola rises above the tile roof. White Chippendale railings have been replaced with wrought iron of Suzanne's design -- not the frilly Victorian ironwork of the Big Easy, but curves with a lighter, almost modern touch. There is something vinelike, too, to the metal scrollwork when the same design eases into the house and climbs as a stair railing past a large painting of blossoming branches.
What is most certain about the character of the house can be drawn from the inside looking out. The narrative of the Levy home is first and foremost the story of Kevin's design for the expansive garden, which rolls down from the lot's highest point, a streetside privacy hedge, to embrace tile porches and flagstone patios with urns and beds filled with seasonal color, before cascading down from the back of the house in terraced plantings.
Bracketed by a formal herb garden and a custom-built glass greenhouse, a geometric planting of Japanese boxwoods overlooks a groomed expanse of lawn shaded by behemoth pecan and oak trees and fringed in a bamboo forest. Classic garden features include a domed stone gazebo and a splendidly seasoned iron armillary and swiveling copper bird feeders in the herb garden. Camellias bloom outside the family room, which has a wall of windows and glass doors onto the terrace's fountain level.
Ever-visible in the wide exposures of east- and west-facing windows and doors, the garden is the home's siren. A birdsong-serenaded seat on a patio, porch or gallery is but a few steps away. With the exception of the adjacent dining and breakfast rooms, the house is one-room deep from end to end, each space flanked by lanky windows or glass doors. The result is a translucence that leaves one keenly aware of shifting light and shadow play. This is the distinctive stamp of the Levys, who salvaged and refashioned original glass doors into windows that ensure every venue has a view (including the raised tub in the master bath).
Enter the stone tile-floored foyer (now blown open to light as it soars up to a sky-blue oval tray ceiling above the second-floor landing), intending to settle into overstuffed chairs in front of the sitting room fireplace; at the elegant, inlaid Regency dining room table surrounded by bird- and garland-filled Stroheim wallpaper; or in one of the geometrically fretworked Zorax gazebo chairs in the formal living room, and one is always lured on by sunlight as it moves through the house.
Even a hypnotically beautiful 14-by-20-foot meadow of an Oriental carpet (made for the living room, the rose-pink, blue and gold floral rug was sold by the home's previous owner in an estate sale, but proving too large, it was returned to the house by a neighbor soon after the Levys moved in) has stiff competition from the pods of garden furnishings. Plumply cushioned carved teak, iron bistro sets, broad expanses of modern wicker sofas and chaises -- further padded by bright ethnic- and geometric-print Sunbrella pillows -- invite changes in seating to follow the sun, shade or birds.
Accommodating large gatherings beneath a magnificently sculptural expanse of oak trees or conversational klatches under wooden beams and wisteria-wrapped trellises, the furnishings hail from Into the Garden, the west-side and Dallas garden stores conceived and owned by the couple (and managed by their daughter, Mary Elizabeth Havran).
The thoughtfulness of the home's flow is the result of the Levys having moved in with few renovations (other than the kitchen) and allowing the spaces to speak to them before the redesign. As the soul of the home revealed itself, small transformations gave way to large-scale interior renovations in 2000 and exterior work in 2004.
Interior walls were opened, doors moved and ceilings raised. The breakfast room became a sitting room; a former bedroom-cum-card room became the breakfast room. A staircase to the family room coved into the hillside beneath the main floor was relocated, replaced by a mahogany-paneled study alcove. Two walls of the subterranean space were faced in stone to match the original walls of the one-time storage and potting sheds incorporated into the room as a pair of flanking -- red and white, respectively -- wine caves. But other than an upstairs sleeping porch being incorporated in architect Archie Crow's foyer redesign as a solariumlike second-floor landing, the exterior walls were untouched and the footprint of the house remains unaltered.
Above the family room, the kitchen is the figurative heart of the house. Well-designed by Suzanne in the original renovation, the recent work done there was more of a light facelift. Several cabinets were given glass fronts to showcase vintage dishes; all were painted Benjamin Moore's "Fig" -- the deep burnished green of the unripened fruit. The bilevel island, topped in a granite veined in figgy colors, was restyled with faux wood grain. Stepped up to include counter seating, the island's lower level is the perfect height for the petite Suzanne to roll out cookie dough. She laughs to say it may not be as ideal for taller cooks.
The bone-white, handmade Ann Sacks tile backsplash frames the room. Above the stove, Sacks' hand is most obvious; the unique warp to each tile -- which made setting it into a design devilishly difficult -- creates a bright pane that helps transfer the glow of the garden light east to west.
There is both a country warmth to the open space and a modern efficiency. The north side opens to a sitting room featuring four overstuffed chairs and a mosaic-topped table. The former screened porch included -- ahead of its time -- an outdoor fireplace that remains as the central feature of the room, now faced in mirroring Ann Sacks tile.
It is a space for sitting and dreaming, pouring a second cup of coffee and planning one's day. Unless, of course, the sun is shining, birds are singing and flowers are blooming. Then one would be hard-pressed not to follow the light into the garden.