JobSight: Growing All Natural

125_Bella Dura balustrade, stepsA Louisiana couple wanted a European look for a new custom-built home, and they found their focus with several varieties of Mexican limestone – indoors and out.



By This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

AMITE, La. – Just as clothes often make the man, a good use of natural stone can make a project.

For Mark and Monta Leto, their Mediterranean-inspired home built outside their hometown of Amite – about an hour’s drive north of New Orleans – could’ve easily been just another large residence on an estate-sized property.

200_Bella Dura Macedonia columns  wainscot pavingClick photo to enlargeThen, the couple fell in love with a Mexican limestone, quarried and supplied by Bella Dura Architectural Stone, while touring a showcase home. Learning that they could have the real deal for less than the man-made stone they’d considered (and aided by Bella Dura’s sister company, Architectural Creations) the scope of stone used in the project increased exponentially.

All that remained to create a unified look was the touch of landscape architect Roy Dufreche, who helped carry the stone from the front auto park through the home and out into a terraced and landscaped backyard – complete with more Bella Dura limestone.


Mark and Monta Leto knew from the start what they wanted from their new home. It just took awhile to hammer out all the details.

Their new home is the second the couple’s built; thanks to travels in Europe, they developed some definite ideas about the project.

“We wanted to build a European-style home, and we started by determining what style was most appealing to us,” Mark Leto explains. “We liked a French-Italian combination; once we decided that, we hired a designer to help us.”

The couple opted to work with Donald M. Gore Building Design in nearby Hammond, La. Having a good idea of what they wanted, the Letos turned to owner Donald Gore to help flesh out the details.

“A good designer is able to work with the clients, and he drew out our thoughts on the things that were most appealing to us,” Mark Leto says. “It was certainly a joint effort on the design.”

However, there were some issues that weren’t easily resolved. One was the appearance of the home.

“One of the unique things, in our opinion, that really defines a European-type house is stone,” he says. “We wanted some type of stone to enhance the look. We had even looked at some man-made materials, and we had almost made a decision to go that route.”

200_Dufreche P1130021Click photo to enlargeAlmost, but not quite. As part of their research, the Letos happened to visit a showcase home that included Yucatan limestone offered by Baton Rouge, La.-based Bella Dura.

Robert Day, Bella Dura’s president, explains that the showcase home was put together by a promotional company with assistance from several local organizations, including a television station, a high-end builder/developer and several subcontractors/suppliers. A two-weekend public open house raised money for charity.

“They had well-over 5,000 people go through this house over the two weekends,” Day says. “The Letos came through the house, saw our stone and said, ‘We have to have some of it.’

“We picked up quite a few projects from this showcase,” he adds.

Mark Leto says what struck the couple about the Bella Dura limestone was that, while the showcase home had little character, the stone gave the project extra height and dimension. And, it was used on both the interior and the exterior of the home. 200_Bella_Dura_MacedoniaClick photo to enlarge
“Our first thought was, ‘This is gorgeous; I hope we can afford it,’” Leto relates. “We found Robert Day and set up a meeting. Then, he gave us the price, and it was in line with the man-made materials we had looked at, and in some cases was cheaper.

“Once we learned it was affordable, we said, ‘Okay, we’re going to put it everywhere we want it.’ And, the project just grew and grew.”


Day isn’t surprised by the Letos’ enthusiasm. Although Bella Dura Architectural Stone has been quarrying and fabricating four of the Yucatan’s marble-like limestones for more than a decade, he previously brokered the stone for some of his competitors.

“It got to the point where we were doing large projects and I couldn’t depend on the other factories to do what they said they were going to do day-in and day-out, or to correct their mistakes, or to stand behind what they were doing,” he says. “I realized if we were going to be serious about this business, we had to control what we were doing.”

During his days as a broker, Day met a young man who worked as a contract carver for some of the fabricators in the Yucatan. Day put up some money to buy equipment, and put the younger man to work supervising their joint fabrication operation.

“We started with a couple saws and a lathe under a big piece of canvas supported by bamboo poles,” Day says. “Today, we have a 10,000 ft² factory on four hectares of land, with room to expand.”

200_Bella Dura Macedonia Wainscot Sink Pedestal window surround. paving Uxmal sink  Pool BathClick photo to enlargeToday, the company also has access to the output from four different quarries, which produce Bella Dura’s four different stones: Macedonia; Ostra; Sisal and Uxmal.

“Most of the rural land holdings are owned in common by the peasants,” Day explains. “In some cases they quarry the stone and we buy it from them. In other cases, we quarry the stone ourselves and pay them an extraction royalty.”

He adds that Bella Dura grew and expanded by buying up equipment that’s been abandoned by other quarriers and fabricators of marble and travertine in other areas of Mexico.

“For the most part, we specialize in large, three-dimensional architectural detail, like columns and balustrades and moldings and coping and carved mantel pieces,” Day explains. “We also do paving – mostly as an adjunct to contract jobs – and we fabricate tiles when we have spare time, just to build up inventory. We’re mostly project-oriented, and high-end residential work is our bread-and-butter.”

One additional benefit to the project that Bella Dura offered the Letos (and all its clients): the knowledge of Day’s partner, Mary Kay Davis.200_Bella Dura Uxmal Limestone handcarved sinkClick photo to enlarge 

Davis is the Architectural Creations portion of the operation. Davis, with a Master of Fine Arts degree, offers a range of services, including the scale and placement of architectural elements in both interior and exterior settings.

Because the Letos were interested in expanding their use of the stone well beyond what they had originally envisioned, Davis spent a substantial amount of time working with the couple to help them successfully incorporate the additional stone into their original plans.

Or, as Davis says, “When it came to the architectural detail, that’s where we stepped in.”


Davis says much of her work centered on providing scale and proportion to what the Letos wanted to do – as well as helping them keep an eye on cost.

“We did have a budget to work within,” she stresses. “So, instead of doing 13” door-frame moldings, we went to 10”, which was still massive enough for the doors. And, in some areas, instead of using solid stone, we did a veneer application and made it look like solid stone.”

That’s fairly typical for every project she does, Davis adds. While many clients step back from using the material structurally, the Letos’ project embraced it. For instance, most of the columns –done in the company’s light-colored Macedonia stone – are weight-bearing.

200_Bella Duraauto court fountain MacedoniaClick photo to enlargeOther uses of the stone are more-traditional. For instance, each of the home’s fireplaces has a limestone mantel; the challenge, Davis says, was the clients’ decision to go with Heatilator® gas fireplaces rather than masonry fireboxes.

“I had to proportion the scale and incorporate design elements to make them look more- natural,” she says. “I didn’t want them to look like little cookie-cutter slices out of the wall.”

Another area of concern were the floors. With Bella Dura’s Macedonia stone used extensively throughout the home for flooring, Davis looked for ways to both lower its cost and provide additional visual interest for the Letos.

“Over the past 10 years, the design industry has gone to using larger-sized stone tiles that are both thicker and more expensive,” she says. “I worked with smaller tiles and different floor patterns that would change and shift and – at times – be delineated by different colored stone.”

The flooring also tied in with the wainscoting appearing in areas such as the dining room, foyer, staircase, and the main kitchen. Naturally, the area around the stove and the backsplashes in the kitchen are also limestone.200_Bella Dura Mary Kay DavisRobert Day Front FountainClick photo to enlarge

Davis’ creative abilities really came into play outside the front door of the home. The driveway ends up in an auto court paved with the Macedonia limestone, and set off by a Davis-designed fountain.

“This is probably one of my very favorite fountain designs,” she says. “I gave them two different styles to choose from, partly because the fountain came near the end of the project. I knew what the Letos liked, where they’d been and what their eyes had probably been exposed to.”

The fountain is 10’ in diameter, with a 2’ high exterior ring and – in the middle – a raised octagon from which the water flows. Davis describes the end result as “just exquisite,” although she adds that the design is helped greatly by Mark Leto’s decision to properly light it.

“Lighting can make or break a fountain,” she contends. “When you’re driving on a country highway and you look through the pastoral, well-manicured topography of the land toward the house, the fountain looks like a beacon of light with water emitting from it. It’s just the most-magical thing to see at night, and it’s a very big statement for the overall effect of the property.”


While Davis was fine-tuning the use of stone within the home’s interior, the Letos turned to a Hammond, La.-based landscape architect to help do the same thing on the exterior.

200_Bella Dura  Sisal paving  Ostra Limestone columnsClick photo to enlargeRoy Dufreche, principal of Roy T. Dufreche and Associates Inc., originally worked on the property when the Letos were first weighing where to place their new home on their 300-acre parcel.

“We helped them site the house,” Dufreche explains. “Mark Leto called me very early on, when they were talking about where the road ought to go. I spent time with them walking the property and giving them some ideas about what I thought and where the home might best be situated.”

Dufreche hoped to do additional work on the project. Construction of the home was well underway before he was again contacted by Mark Leto, mainly for placing a pool behind the house.

As with the home itself, Dufreche says once he became involved in planning the landscaping, “things started to take on a life of their own.”

Rather than just a simple pool area, Dufreche says the Mediterranean architectural of the home seemed to call for a formalized back garden.

“Then, they talked about a glass greenhouse, and how they wanted a guest house with an exercise room,” he says. “We ended up dealing with them on multiple levels. Not only did we include the pool and the hardscape and multi-level terraces, but with focal structures and arbors and the design siting of the guest house, and envisioning how all those things might work together.”

Again, that’s where the Bella Dura stone stepped to the fore.

“The stone is a real traditional material for Mediterranean exterior spaces,” says Dufreche. “We took the stonework outdoors as paving and pool coping and balustrades. In short, we took everything they did in the front and through the house and into their backyard, so there’s a real strong consistency of material.”

Dufreche also supplied the design for the front auto court for visual consistency and complementing the look of the home.

“The auto court and the big formal circle are part of trying to put things in scale,” he observes. “This is a gigantic house – three stories tall – and how you approach it is really important.

“Even before you get there, you know it’s going to be something special on the approach to the house, and when you step out of the car and onto the stone, it says something special about the experience you’re about to have.”

As with much of the rest of the project, Bella Dura’s Macedonia provides the bulk of the stone used, including the paving for the upper terraces, the balustrades, and the front entry detail.

200_Bella Dura Macedonia Wainscot double panels staircaseClick photo to enlargeHowever, the company’s Ostra provides the stone for four freestanding columns within the garden, as well as the wall and molding surround for the outdoor shower. The company’s Uxmal – an orange/yellow stone – provides an accent for the paving on the outdoor pavilion and was used to create a top-mounted lavatory bowl in the pool bath.

And, some 10,000 ft² of Bella Dura’s Sisal went into the lower terraces and pool deck. Although given the use of stone throughout the project, it’s unlikely the Letos would have considered anything else for the pool decking – but Mark Leto says it also offers a very practical benefit.

“At our other home, we had poured exposed-gravel concrete, and the sun really heats that up; you almost couldn’t walk on it barefoot,” he says. “This stone is the coolest product we’ve found; it doesn’t heat up in the sun. We were pleased to find a God-made product was better than a man-made one in terms of looks and cost.”


The final step in the process – taking Davis’ and Dufreche’s ideas and executing them – fell to Harold Elbert, a Baton Rouge, La., mason who does much of Bella Dura’s installation work in Louisiana.

“This was quite a job,” says Elbert. “It went from doing floors to hanging stone from the ceilings. There were a lot of different looks and a lot of different patterns. We did inlays, we did columns; it’s a pretty complicated house.”

From an installation standpoint, Elbert and his crew of five utilized just about every method for affixing stone to another surface. Various aspects of the job involved thin-set mortar, mortar beds, anchors, pins and straps.

Making it all come together was even more-difficult. Elbert played his own role in making sure the correct stone was fabricated.

“Robert (Day) does a pretty good job of what,” the mason says. “We had the prints and then we do a lot of measuring to check against the prints. If need be, we’ll do a little modifying, and then we send them off to Mexico.”

In addition, he says he did bring in an engineer to advise on stress points and make sure that certain areas, such as the balconies, were adequately supported.

“We’d look at this or that aspect of the job and say, ‘Is this the best way to do it?’” he says.

Elbert also had the responsibility of scheduling the stonework around the schedule Mark Leto set for the other subcontractors. Leto acted as his own general contractor on the job, and Bella Dura’s Day says he did an excellent job of keeping the project on schedule and
paying attention to details.

“I’ve been on many jobs where the owner acted as his own contractor, and they’ve generally been disasters,” Day says. “The job is a real compliment to Mark.”

200_Bella_Dura_Sisal_paving_Macedonia_CabanaClick photo to enlarge“He’d basically lay out the schedule and ask if I’d have the material or when it would be delivered, and we’d go from there,” Elbert explains. “I’d basically go wherever they wanted me to be, and then we’d coordinate getting the material in that way.”

And, given his experience working with Bella Dura, Elbert says there really wasn’t much difficulty in getting the necessary stone delivered at the right time.

“Certainly, there are some things out of your control sometimes,” he says. “Weather can play a part, and also the port you’re shipping to; but, if you know what you’re doing, you can work all that in.”

And, obviously, with the scale of the project, it wasn’t done quickly. Bella Dura’s Day says he took the first deposit for stone in September 2008, with the work substantially finished in the fall of 2010.

However, the Letos added another 400 linear feet of baseboard to the project just before Christmas.

“The owner decided he wanted to do a baseboard practically around the entire perimeter of the exterior stone,” Day explains. “And, that isn’t the end of it. The driveway crosses a bridge for which we designed a pretty elaborate decorative balustrade system, and then at the end of the driveway there’s supposed to be a pretty elaborate gatehouse. Roy Dufreche designed that, and the Letos intend to do both of those, probably in the next year.”

Mark Leto agrees that using the imported stone probably slowed down the construction process somewhat, just in general. However, he also doesn’t seem to care.

“Things of this nature and this quality take time,” the owner observes. “It’s certainly not a quick fix, but you can’t buy this at the big box stores, either, and we’re okay with that.

“It took longer than we expected, but the end result is incredible. We’re so pleased, and we’d certainly do it all over again.”

Owners: Mark and Monta Leto, Amite, La.
Designer: Donald M. Gore Building Design, Hammond, La.
Stone Supplier/Fabricator/Installer: Bella Dura Architectural Stone and Architectural Creations, Baton Rouge, La.
Landscape Architect: Roy T. Dufreche & Associates, Inc., Hammond, La.

©2011 Western Business Media Inc.

Get the best in insightful and informed coverage of the stone industry every month with Stone Business magazine. Sign up for a free subscription (or renew your current account) and don’t miss a single issue – just click here.