Watching the dream in three dimensions

Built in 1953, 1310 Olivia was a simple, clean-lined concrete block structure. Essentially a rectangle with a double gabled, pitched metal roof, side porch as the main entrance and a small front extension that was the living room, the house was typical of mid-century houses built in The Meadows of Key West. The place had, as they say in renovation and design circles, potential.

We began with three goals:  

  1. Get the fundamentals right. That meant bringing electric, plumbing, foundations and mechanics up to code. Sixty years of wear-and-tear, surreptitious DIY projects and lack of professional maintenance had taken their toll.
  2. Develop an overall architectural style that would weave together the inside and outside hodgepodge into a seamless design;
  3. Do it right. That meant getting Historic Architecture Review Committee (HARC) approval and following to the letter the city codes.

We needed a controlling design philosophy. Ed and I have bought, sold and renovated or remodeled five houses almost a dozen times over 30 years. Despite our very different personal design and architectural preferences (I lean to Zen contemporary; he leans rustic cabin), we’ve developed our “couple style.”

It suits us both: The clean, straight lines of Shaker; the blend of wood, curved arches and substantial coziness of the Arts and Crafts bungalow; the geometry and interplay of light and shadows of Frank Lloyd Wright; the serenity of the ocean shoreline when the skies go gray and the sunlight bounces off white clouds; and the bold, primary colors of Oaxaca, Mexico.

This was our design philosophy: A Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired, retro-modern bungalow that meshes with the historic Meadows neighborhood and incorporates a pinch of Zen and a hint of the prairie.

Not a word of that sounds like Old Town Key West with its Conch cottages and Victorian and Queen Anne masterpieces. It’s not even close to the contemporary, stereotypical Florida “look.” Architect Matthew Stratton and general contractor Roger Townsend of Townsend Development and Construction, Inc. took up the challenge.

Much of The Meadows, which once supported the U.S. Army’s horses, cows and assorted food sources, became prime residential building lots after World War II. Within a 10 minute walk to Duval Street and the Seaport, The Meadows neighborhood is home to long-time and year-round residents. Lots are generally larger than in Old Town and streets wider. The older Meadows’ architecture includes the same Conch cottages, Craftsman bungalows, eyebrows and Victorian ladies as Old Town.

A building boom in the 1950s introduced nondescript concrete block structures to The Meadows. Similar rectangular homes are found extensively outside Old Town Key West, and to many they are the quintessential “Florida look”: simple, functional and often colorfully painted with Bahama shutters and aluminum awnings. The challenge with this style in Old Town and The Meadows is that it simply doesn’t always “play nicely” with the neighboring architecture.

1310 Olivia definitely didn’t play nicely. The 420-foot covered deck added somewhere during subsequent decades appeared to have been “stuck on” like an afterthought adding to the hodgepodge feeling. The barrier-like stockade fence hid the house and gardens and made the property feel cramped — not secluded and private.

But the bones were good. Very good. With more than 3,700 square feet of land, the property was huge by Key West standards. The house at 920 square feet had two bedrooms, two full bathrooms and a decent-size living area that opened into a functional kitchen. The flow was good, the structure was sound — and no matter its cosmetics, that covered front deck was an awesome outdoor living space with french doors that opened from the living room. A 200-square foot deck at the rear of the house provided another outdoor space. Ditto with the large swimming pool and surrounding patio.

First, the stockade fence came down, to be replaced by the ubiquitous Key West white picket. No Frank Lloyd Wright house ever had a picket fence, but in Key West it’s the only reasonable — and HARC approved — choice. The new picket fence anchors the house to the neighborhood, the first step in playing nicely.

Then came the remaking of the covered front porch and the replacing of the aluminum awning-covered side porch.

The side porch has been expanded, enclosed and remade into an 80-square-foot galley kitchen that opens onto a new patio next to the pool. From the outside, an Arts and Crafts-style column supports the traditional bungalow’s trellis across the front windows. The new addition will be stuccoed to match the original house finish.

Filled with light from the three bungalow-style windows facing the street and the glass side door and transom, the kitchen is a masterpiece in small space design. The kitchen is equipped with full-size, counter-depth appliances, including built-in dish washer, gas cook top, microwave and wall oven.

The covered front porch was designed by architect Stratton and custom-crafted by Dave Combs, owner of Custom Works Distinctive Carpentry. It was, perhaps, the project’s most difficult design challenge. Since the porch had been reconstructed in 2008 for safety reasons (it was sagging, disconnected from the house and in real danger of collapsing completely), we were not inclined to demolish it. That meant dealing with off-center and out of plumb construction — a major headache when the design called for symmetrical, perfectly aligned vertical and horizontal Frank Lloyd Wright- and Zen-inspired shapes.

But, when it was completed, the clean lines and geometry of Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie designs are obvious in the open cutouts that face the street and side gardens. The fixed louvers and the slatted front feature wall reflect soothing Zen lines through which the Key West sun- and moon- light play across the interior.

We chose 42-inch high, cypress, tongue-in-groove bead board panels for interior and exterior walls. The walls provide privacy and solidity for the outdoor room while preserving the open-air feel. The bright white of the new porch blends with the trellis over the kitchen and with the exterior wood trim of the house. Landscaping later this spring will soften the edges and provide both color and symmetry, further integrating the house with each of its parts and the neighborhood.

Scalloped metal panels complete the front facing under the roof line. The panels add a touch of “jewelry” to the front facade, bringing in both a sense of retro-modern and, with their fish scale design, a reminder that Key West remains a fishing village at heart. Note, too, that we kept the circular vent found in the eves of the original 1953 house. We did, however, replace the wooden vent with a custom-crafted steel one, a concession to hurricanes as well as design ethic.

Today, the exterior renovation remains a work in progress. Still to come: new stucco and paint; landscaping and palm tree planting; completion of the side patio; repair of the back deck; and, installation of the back awning. Oh, and we have to get those appliances off the front porch and into the kitchen.

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media, a news and information, social media consulting company in Key West, FL. She can be reached at [email protected]