They bought the house knowing it was all wrong. They were young, after all, just starting out with dreams of a family to come. The house, squeezed onto a narrow lot on Fort Worth’s west side, had only two bedrooms — both upstairs, a tiny kitchen, no laundry room to speak of and a sunroom with a curved glass ceiling that once would have been considered radical chic, but was by then reminiscent of a fast-food emporium.
Still, Leigh and Michael Bornitz liked the location and almost from the moment they stepped inside, Leigh imagined that this place could be their sanctuary and a showcase for all their favorite things.
Since imagining is what she does best, Michael let her have her way. At 30-something, Leigh is an interior designer and owner of Leigh Taylor Interiors. Michael is a principal with a private equity firm and a board member of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
“I could see it,” Leigh says of those first impressions. “I could look past all the obstacles. It was too small, but we could make it what we wanted.”
And so in 2012, they moved in, knowing a major renovation would follow. “We saved our money and worked on the plans for more than a year,” she says.
I could look past all the obstacles. It was too small, but we could make it what we wanted.
— Leigh Taylor Bornitz
Working the Plan
If this old house ever had any historical significance, it was gone long before the Bornitzes unpacked their first box, and yet Leigh and Michael turned to Brent Hull for help.
Recognized locally, and nationally, as an expert in historic restoration and architecturally correct millwork, Hull also does new construction and reworks all sorts of properties. Leigh and Hull had worked together before and knew what to expect from a collaboration. “Our work looks better when she’s in charge,” says Hull.
For Leigh, the choice of a contractor was simple. “Brent is so creative,” she says. “He has an in-house architect, too, and that made it easy … Brent is known for his beautiful woodwork and we wanted that.”
So the Bornitzes moved to a rental property and for 16 months, Hull Home’s craftsmen, under the direction of construction foreman Brett Teague, swarmed over the house, almost doubling the size and adding a three-bay garage at the back of the sloping lot.
Even when Leigh and Michael moved back in, the building project was not complete, but Leigh says the finished house was worth the wait.
Beyond the Welcome Mat
Hull’s millwork is a showstopping centerpiece in the dazzling entry hall with its emerald green lacquered walls.
“I wanted this entry to pop,” says Leigh. That meant the stairwell’s mirrored wall stayed. “It’s sort of retro, don’t you think?” she asks.
But the banister had to go. “The stairway that was here was way too plain, she says. “I like Chinese Chippendale and Hollywood Regency.”
She put the staircase redesign into Hull’s hands and couldn’t be happier with the result.
“That was really a fun piece for me,” says Hull. “They let me play … be creative.” He found inspiration in a Thomas Chippendale pattern book from the 1700s. “This is a blend of modern and traditional, and I did the pagoda on the stair newel post,” he says.
The bright green walls are an arresting backdrop for two of the couple’s favorite artworks: a David Bates artist’s proof, Leigh’s gift to herself on her 30th birthday, and a work by American Indian artist Stan Natchez, a Santa Fe find.
Leigh leads the way from the entry hall into the living room. Her blond hair is pulled back. She wears a simple gray sweater over slim pants. Her blue eyes shine. “I could never sell these ideas to a client,” she says, “but I love all of this.”
Revamping an old house is more than tearing old things out and bringing new things in, she says. Time leaves a desirable patina, but it’s a challenge to hold on to that while jettisoning things that shouldn’t be salvaged. Knowing what to keep and what to toss is the trick.
In the living room, Leigh kept the hand-carved wooden fireplace surround and the wall of mirrors behind it. She also kept the black-painted wooden floor. “It shows everything, but it’s so dramatic,” she says.
But she stripped fabric off the walls and opened two windows that had been covered with Sheetrock. Now the walls are painted a dark chocolate. “I like color, and I use clear colors. Nothing muddy,” she says.
Pushing the Envelope
“The kitchen was so small … really a servant’s kitchen,” says Leigh. She ripped out the linoleum floor and installed hand-painted wooden tiles, but she kept the vintage metal cabinets from St. Charles Kitchen and the countertops made of stainless steel and butcher block. Once a hallmark in the kitchens of the discriminating and affluent, St. Charles was a pioneer in fabricated cabinetry.
Long out of vogue, the metal cabinets, which might date from the 1940s, had been painted. “I had them redone in this auto body finish,” says Leigh.
A new backsplash, range and hood were installed, and the walls painted a pale celadon. The seamless transition from old to new begins here and is almost impossible to detect.
The addition includes a breakfast room, as well as Leigh’s ground-floor office, an item that topped their “must have” list, along with Michael’s study. Both have full baths.
“This could be a mother-in-law suite, a nanny’s room. … It’s really big,” Leigh says of her office.
The new space on the ground floor also includes a mudroom, a powder room and a laundry that doubles as a catering kitchen with an oven, sink with disposal and second fridge.
Stairs and an elevator are tucked into the new space, too. Both reach the basement, garage and wine cellar, as well as the second floor, where a new sitting room and three new bedrooms with baths were added.
In the master suite, Leigh moved the enlarged bath and closets from the front to the back of the house and added a cozy sitting room. Sheetrock that covered two windows was torn out here as well.
Michael’s study and a workout area are tucked into what was once attic space above the master bedroom. In order to capture light, Leigh added a pair of dormer windows and installed skylights in the workout zone. From inside or out, the dormers appear to be original to the house, as does the curved staircase that leads from the second floor to this snug aerie with aubergine walls.
Outside Comfort Zone
The glass corona above the front door stayed, but the once-gray exterior was painted white. However, the most extensive outside renovations can’t be seen from the street. This house hugs an intimate courtyard that is an extension of the living space. “I knew what I wanted this to look like, but I’m a black thumb. I can’t grow anything,” says Leigh.
For help, she turned to Brenda Pender, owner of Texas Gardens.
“Leigh took the lead,” says Pender. “She said she wanted it to look old, old, old … a relic.” So Pender brought in brick salvaged from the Chicago warehouse district. With chips and cracks, it looks as if it might have been there for decades.
A variety of plant material softens the space, but Pender was judicious in keeping planting beds small to free up the maximum amount of living space. When Leigh couldn’t find the fountain she wanted, she asked Pender to have her craftsmen build one from an old urn and pedestal she found.
But the custom-designed wooden fence that replaced a leaning masonry wall along one side of the yard was Leigh’s inspiration and Hull’s creation. “If you were doing a kitchen, you’d call that fence millwork,” says Pender. “This really was a collaboration of so many people. It took all of us.”
So, what was the biggest challenge? Leigh laughs. “Staying in the budget,” she says. “I know quality costs more. We were willing to pay for it. ...
“You know a designer can’t just settle.”