The day Michelle Mize and Tom Leggett decided to buy their home, its fate as a creative showplace was sealed. The couple is thoroughly unequipped to produce a ho-hum renovation.
Michelle is an interior designer, a watercolor painter and a realtor who works in development. Tom is a writer, a guitarist-about-town and a teacher who apprenticed under a master carpenter a couple of years back. Bring to that equation Michelle’s vivacious temperament and Tom’s breezy, can-do attitude, and it begins to add up.
In the dining room, a deer antler chandelier. At the side and back of the house, chicken-wire glass sliding doors. In the bathrooms, 16-inch slate wall tiles. In the kitchen, custom-made transoms to let in fresh air and an industrial metal island that Michelle told Tom to pull from a dumpster.
Of course, the house itself brought important aspects to the creative process. “We feel very strongly that this house dictated its own look and its own feel,” Michelle says.
The cozy, rustic living room stands out because of the wide tongue-in-groove cypress planks that form the floor, wall and ceiling. Michelle and Tom discovered this after pulling off three layers of wallboard. Neighborhood lore has it that the entire block of houses was built for the employees of a lumber mill at the river end of an Uptown street. Because sections of the floor elsewhere in the house were plywood, the couple borrowed wood from another wall in the house to put antique floors in place.
Stepping through French doors onto the aluminum-rail front porch Tom built, Michelle explains how the design accommodates their frequent soirees. “Our living room now extends outside,” she says. “When we entertain, we spill out onto the front porch every time.”
Mize, 35, carries herself with the intonation of her native Oxford, Miss., punctuating conversation with lilting “yes-indeeds.” Leggett, 32, is from Little Rock. He has an all-American manner and a broadcaster’s voice. The two met in New Orleans about 10 years ago.
They bought the house on Valence—their first—in early 2006.
With construction of a deck in the backyard among the last items on the to-do list, the project is nearing completion. But it wasn’t always easy. To begin with, the house was in rough shape. Hurricane Katrina blew a tree down onto the back portion, damaging the roof and opening the way for water damage. And the prior inhabitant wasn’t exactly a clean freak. “The kitchen was an ever-lovin’ mess when we bought the house,” Michelle recalls.
The couple spent months living in an efficiency apartment with their belongings in storage. “Do you know a good marriage counselor?” Michelle laughs.
Even worse was living in the house during renovation. With their mattress buried deep in the storage unit, they slept amidst the sawdust on an air mattress for two months. “That’s like sleeping under your desk at an office,” Michelle says. And with all the splinters and screws lying around, Tom says, “We woke up a couple of times on a deflated air mattress.”
There were also times of uncertainty and financial stress. “When we were down and out, the best medicine was just to pick up a hammer and just start swinging it,” Tom says.
“At each other,” Michelle jokes.
But the couple learned a lot. They learned how critical it is to hire established contractors. They learned where to find architecturally authentic items. They learned the importance of planning. They learned how to do repairs. “I think it’s fair to say that, prior to this project, Tom didn’t know how to use a drill,” Michelle says.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Tom protests, “but my skills were limited.” Ultimately, he did the majority of the carpentry work.
Tom credits Michelle for her “unique vision” and an ability to see beyond the mess and decay they found at the start. “We collaborated on each part of it, but I have to admit a lot of the vision was hers,” he says.
Michelle says Tom brought practicality and found ways to execute her “kooky” ideas. “Every man fears that a woman will girly up a house,” she says. “But I think this house really reflects both of us.”
Now that the project is starting to wind down—the renovation should be completed by spring—the couple can spend more time appreciating life there. The neighborhood, on high ground in Uptown, is on the upswing, with multiple renovations ongoing in the immediate vicinity. It also offers close proximity to Magazine Street and other amenities in a pedestrian-friendly setting.
“Typically, if we leave this house at night, it’s on our bikes,” Michelle says. “We bike to go have a glass of wine. We bike up to Crepe Nanou to have dinner.”