Architect: Thomas Pope, Thomas E. Pope Architect, 7009 Shrimp Rd., Key West, FL 33040; 305/296-3611, thomasepope.com.
Interior designer: Todd Richesin, Todd Richesin Interiors, 10005 Casa Real Cove, Knoxville, TN 37922; 865/675-5828, toddrichesininteriors.com.
Written and produced by Candace Ord Manroe
Photographs by Werner Straube
In 1846, what would have roared in today as a Category 5 hurricane (think Katrina) pummeled Key West, Florida, leaving only eight of the island's 600 houses standing. The unassuming yellow clapboard cottage with a long, sloping metal roof, black louvered shutters, and a white picket fence is one of those resilient rarities that survived the storm.
Now the vacation home of Tennesseans Melinda Story and her husband, Jim, the house was built in 1841, only 20 years after the Spanish land-grant island was sold off--twice--to unsuspecting Americans in one of southern Florida's earliest land scams. (Land-grant holder Juan Pablo Salas first traded the island for a sloop valued at $575 before turning around and selling the same land to another individual for $2,000.) Early in its history, the house was moved to its present location in the heart of what is now the island's historic district. Conveyance was smart and relatively labor-friendly: The house was rolled across logs to its new site.
"Its construction of Dade County pine, which is now extinct, is why this house survived the move and all those horrific hurricanes," theorizes interior designer Todd Richesin, who, like the homeowners, is from Knoxville. He collaborated on the meticulous restoration with Key West architect Tom Pope.
"The pine is notched, and it bends with the winds," explains Richesin. "Dade County pine is considered a hardwood, and if you've ever driven a nail into it, you understand why. We broke countless nails just trying to hang pictures."
Fully exposed, those dense pine walls and ceilings are the centerpiece of Pope's restoration, which received the Historic Florida Keys Foundation's 2009 excellence award for a residential restoration. Starting at the entry, the horizontal thrust of the wide honey-hued planks transports the eye from room to room in an envelope of warmth, antiquity, and craftsmanship.
"The restoration was so exacting that when we rebuilt the windows, we not only recycled all of the original rolled glass, we made repairs using old wood," Pope explains.
Antiques were a natural against these original backdrops."Our goal was to honor the age of the house with a collection of European and American antiques," says Richesin. "But at the same time, we wanted to make the house feel like Key West, which meant keeping it very fresh and light." Modern fabrics and upbeat colors were the answer. "I love color," notes Melinda, "and Todd chose a palette of my favorites."
It wasn't hard. This is the third home Richesin has designed for the couple. "Dusty blue, pale rose, and butter yellow are the colors Melinda likes to live with," he says. "I know her taste."
Even in picture frames. "One day when we were out shopping, I narrowed down the choices in picture frames for Melinda. I gave her options but knew exactly which molding she'd pick," recounts the designer. "She always goes for what's prettiest. As she confessed to the shop owner, she's 'addicted to pretty.'"
Richesin also knew that feminine toiles and florals in soft colorways were the right direction for fabrics. "But I always like to give my clients choices so that it becomes their home, not mine," says the designer. Melinda's favorite pick for this house--a blue-and-rose floral pattern in a luxurious lampas weave--was the foundation. "We really started the whole design with this fabric," says Richesin. "The weave is fancy, but the coloration makes it playful and fun."
Not only did he cover a pair of custom club chairs for the great room in the cheery pattern, he extracted portions of the fabric's motifs to include on a wool braided-and-hooked rug he designed for the space. With only a bit of the fabric's pattern repeated, the rug stitches the room together without making it appear too matched. "What I like about these rugs is that they're an old-fashioned product, recolored and made fresh," adds Richesin. "Yet still, it's a classic look." Classic enough for heads of state--the small North Carolina mill's stunning rugs decorate the public spaces in the White House.
A pale blue Ultrasuede custom sofa and toile-covered teak- and-cane chairs complete the great room's seating. "Comfort was of the utmost important," stresses Richesin. "Jim and I are both readers," injects Melinda. "It was important to us that every chair be comfortable enough to curl up in with a book."
Practicality figured in, as well. "This house is our escape," says Melinda. "We ride our bikes everywhere, we sit by the pool, we relax. We didn't want anything so precious that we wouldn't feel comfortable sitting on it in our still-damp swimsuits." And when their grown children visit or Melinda entertains a small group of friends over wine, low-maintenance functionality is even more important.
"Every fabric is durable but high quality," observes the designer. "The lampas weave on the club chairs has a very luxurious hand," he notes, "and the wool rugs in all the rooms are extremely soft on bare feet." Other fine touches appear quietly in the details--the elegant trim that finishes the great room's simple pull-back drapery panels and the delicate blown-glass fruit in the foyer's pair of jewel-tone chandeliers.
Amazingly, the restoration occurred within the house's existing footprint. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because the house was relatively untouched and in its original configuration," says Pope. "There were three downstairs rooms originally. The front room, now used as an office, was a parlor that you entered from the front hall, just as now. The other two rooms were a kitchen and bathroom behind the parlor. We combined those rooms into a great room by removing the walls and adding a structural beam above the ceiling line so the ceiling is continuous," explains the architect. The downstairs master suite, adjacent to the great room, is part of an earlier addition.
Pope opened up the back with French doors, created a covered porch, and built a pool. A small outbuilding that had served as a kiln for a previous owner was transformed into a charming guesthouse. Richesin picked up where the architect left off, extending the palette outdoors with draperies and all-weather upholstered furniture.
Antiques like the great room's Louis XV step-back cupboard--the first piece collected for the home--underscore the house's historic quality. "We wanted a mix of antiques," says Richesin. "Melinda's a passionate collector of nice antiques of all periods and styles." In addition to 18th- and 19th-century French and English antiques, a 1790 Kentucky pine cupboard furnishes the great room. "We needed large pieces for storage because there is not much cabinetry in the small galley kitchen behind the living area," Richesin observes.
Much of the home's personal feel, however, emanates from its smaller pieces--art and accessories. Tropical-bird prints dress the entry; rooster paintings and figurines honor Key West's legendary free-roaming chickens. Displayed as art, old plates serve up a healthy dose of pretty, and even new pottery features Melinda's favorite azure glaze. "You'll notice that not every wall is covered in art," says Richesin. "That's because the collection is still evolving. Every piece must have meaning."
More than any other space, the master bedroom says retreat. "It's light and ethereal, like being in a cloud," says Richesin of the sky-blue room with a cloud painting behind the bed.
But despite the vacation home's sense of airy escape, it remains rooted in terra firma--grounded, charmingly, in history.