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Starting Over

Empty nesters discover that their new life in a modern house is full of just what they want.

Architect James LaRue designed places, such as the balcony outside Neil Dorflinger’s office, to look out onto the lake. LaRue also created space for interior views, such as the hallway shelving where the family’s collection of Dorflinger glass is displayed. The guesthouse is topped with grass because LaRue didn’t want the view to be dominated by a building with a metal roof.

Mary and Neil Dorflinger’s only child, Zach, graduated from high school and left for the University of Texas in the fall of 2011. His departure alerted the Dallas couple that they had arrived at that place on every parent’s timeline where there is a before and an after: “We had become empty nesters,” Mary says. What the on-the-go couple did next was push the milestone to the next level. They decided to sell their Preston Hollow house—including its contents—and start over. The process took three years, shifting the couple from an Old World-style manse to a modern wood, rock and glass dwelling designed by architect James LaRue with interiors by designer Debra Owens.

“We had been looking for a long time for a place to build,” says Neil, who is semiretired from the securities business he shares with his wife. When a lot in the Devonshire neighborhood came on the market at a good price, the couple acted fast. The property is in the middle of Dallas and is a lushly wooded, 600-foot-long, pie-shaped slice that terminates in a 3-acre lake. The Dorflingers bought it, sold their home, moved into a condo and hired Dallas designer Owens, whose stylish work Mary had admired at a showhouse. Then they started their search for an architect. “The lot is on a steep slope,” Neil says, pointing out that the terrain in Dallas is mostly flat. “We knew that we needed an architect used to building on difficult sites.”

Where else to look but Austin? There, the craggy terrain is a routine challenge for local architects, and the Dorflingers discovered that LaRue was one of the most virtuosic at siting. His well-considered residences take their cue from the geography, responding to ups and downs thoughtfully rather than defiantly (you won’t see a lot of cantilevering). “It’s an unusual site for Dallas,” LaRue says. After walking the lot’s gradual 8-foot descent, the architect contemplated how to fit in a house, a guesthouse and a 25-meter lap pool to accommodate the couple’s exuberant lifestyle.

“We are happy people,” Mary says, “and love to share our house with family and friends.” Therefore, the new house was going to be something of a party pad and should be forearmed accordingly. Mary was specific. “I wanted the wood floors to look like they had been in a busy restaurant for a year,” she says, anticipating wear and tear from guests galore. The architect’s grasp of traffic flow turned the 3,428-square-foot main floor into a model of graciousness and efficiency.

“People management had to be seamless,” says LaRue, who created many opportunities for social engagement inside and out. Guests enter a 400-square-foot central gallery and can linger by the grand piano or stroll through three glass doors onto a terrace that steps down to a limestone landing. “The stairs are wide enough for people to sit on,” says LaRue, who also added nearly 18 extra inches to the pool’s coping for impromptu seating for up to 80. To feed the throngs, caterers arrive at a garage that opens into a hallway leading to a Bulthaup kitchen where food prep is out of sight. Designer Owens did her part with the dining table: A concealed 4-foot-long insert rises with pneumatic efficiency when more table space is needed. Owens also provided 50 extra chairs to match the dining chairs (cached in under-the-house storage until needed). One of the architect’s most considerate gestures was in the kitchen. “The windows extend from the countertop to the ceiling,” he says, “so that Mary can see her friends when they come by to pick her up.”

Owens can see why Mary had so many friends. “She is the only client I’ve ever had who surprised me with a picnic lunch,” she says. Owens has been a mainstay in the Dallas design community for 30 years and notes that her own tastes have followed a trajectory similar to her client’s. “She was ready for a change and wanted to go modern.” The designer furnished the living room sparingly with low-backed tweedy Knoll sofas, a soft shag rug and a monochromatic color palette so as not to distract from the captivating vista, the focal point of the back of the house. In the master bedroom, two yellow Cassina Dodo chairs enliven the quiet room, extra-peaceful thanks to plush wall-to-wall carpeting. Except for colorful modern art, restraint informs all. “I wanted less stuff,” Mary says.

The reward was unexpected. Fewer possessions meant less disarray. “Everything has a place,” Mary says, reveling in the fact that she no longer wastes time looking for misplaced keys, among other things. “We don’t have anything in this house that we don’t want,” she says, “and we have nothing in it that we don’t need.” The Dorflingers are relieved to find themselves so unburdened, enjoying what seems to be the perfect solution for empty nesters: a nest that isn’t too empty, but just empty enough.


Single-family house


James LaRue, architect; Emily Haydon, project architect

Home Builder
Barry Buford, Dan Fancher

Cabinetry and Kitchen Systems

Home Systems
Pat Devlin

Interior Architecture
Debbie Settle

Interior Design
Debra Owens

Landscape and Hardscape
Mary Ellen Cowan

Lighting Systems
Ann Lindley, Palco

Steve Landers

Wall tile in powder room, master bath and pool

Scott + Cooner
Richard Schultz outdoor furniture, Fritz Hansen bar stools, Knoll dining table and chairs, pendant in dining room, Piero Lissoni Divina lounge seating in living room, Delta Topix wall light installation

Tony Horton Collection
Custom pieces throughout house

All appliances

Victoria and Albert
Napoli tub in master bath

Christian Liaigre Charpentier coffee table