In 1998, Lucille and Ted Gorski chose a lot on the bay next to a mangrove preserve in Boca Grande as the site of their island retreat. Ted Gorski, a research chemist and inventor who owned medical laboratories, intended to fish from his dock and enjoy vacation visits from the couple’s six children and grandchildren. A month into the construction of the spacious modern beach house, he died. It then fell to his widow, Luci, to either abandon the project or fulfill her husband’s dream. She decided to move ahead, working with architect Michael Epstein and interior designer Pamela Holladay, both with Seibert Architects in Sarasota, to complete the 5,500-square-foot home. The wood, glass and stucco house is now the joyful playground for three generations. In fact, Gorski enjoys the home so much she lives there year-round, taking only short summer trips back to Harrisburg, Ohio.
The architect, 43-year-old Michael Epstein, had to satisfy both the owner’s desire for a distinctive modern structure that captured views of Charlotte Harbor and the neighborhood’s strict deed restrictions, which mandated a peaked metal roof, wood siding, white trim and a "traditional" beach house aspect when viewed from the street. Coastal flood zone regulations meant the house had to be at least 13 feet above the ground. Epstein managed to create a thoroughly modern home within a more conventional shell complete with a street-side white pergola and colorful climbing bougainvillea vines.
In many ways the home extends the legacy of the Sarasota School of Architecture; that’s fitting, since the founder of Seibert Architects, Tim Seibert, has lived in Florida since 1942 and was briefly a draftsman for Paul Rudolph before opening his own architectural firm and designing his first
residence in 1952. Seibert, who has always had a strong interest in Florida Cracker architecture as well as modernism, now lives in Boca Grande. It was through mutual friends that the Gorskis discovered the architectural firm, which is now owned by Sam Holladay. The Gorski house was built by Tandem Construction.
"The house floats above the ground and has that appealing in-out relationship characteristic of Sarasota School homes," explains Epstein. "We extended the same cross-cut travertine marble flooring from the inside rooms out onto the porches and terraces; and we kept the ceiling materials (tongue-and-groove cedar), as well as the ceiling height and pitch the same inside and out." He says they also worked to achieve "the clarity of concept, clean geometry and honest expression of structure that you always find in Sarasota School designs."
The architect was able to capture the views that the client wanted. "No matter where you stand inside the house or in the outside spaces, you see out to the water," says Epstein. "Each circulation path ends in a view. You are always part of the larger picture."
Happily, this in-out attitude was incorporated into the interior design from the outset. The architect and designer worked as partners with the client. "That was a great luxury," says Pam Holladay, a University of Florida graduate who has been with Seibert Architects since the mid ’70s. "It meant we could choose the color palette, the furniture and the art as the house was being constructed with the sure knowledge that the result would be a single unified look. We brought this harmonious outlook to the smallest detail, like the octagonal, oil-rubbed bronze doorknobs. And we also collaborated on bigger decisions, such as not installing upper cabinets on one whole side of the kitchen because we knew Luci wanted an unobstructed view of the mangrove preserve and the water. Even Luci’s closet/ dressing room and the laundry room have windows with a view."
Gorski wanted a feeling of casual sophistication to pervade the main house and the connected guest suite. She chose comfortable, unfussy furniture in peaceful tones of gray-blue, watery greens and taupe. She decided on warm, soft white for most of the walls. "We selected modern furniture on legs so that it had that sense of floating above the floor," says Holladay.
Persian and Tibetan rugs in pale colors selected from Shiraz Gallery and Designer’s Source of Sarasota reinforce the color palette and harmonize with the simple lines of Barbara Barry and McGuire dark wood furniture. Sofas and chairs are upholstered in natural linen with a little texture. "The interior furnishings don’t scream for attention," says Pam Holladay. "They’re meant to embrace rather than compete with the views."
The great room is the heart of the home. It’s also the space with the most glass and (along with the master bedroom wing upstairs), the room with the most stunning views. The great room ceiling soars to 26 feet, where a gallery rings the room. Two giant artworks dominate the great room and are an integral part of the architectural taming of the huge space.
On one wall is Sarasota artist Virginia Hoffman’s 6 x 16-foot sculptural construction, which is itself a wall. It appears to be metal but is actually wood treated with a custom metallic paint made from industrial polyurethane powders. "At the housewarming party, people kept going over to the artwork and tapping it because they could not believe it was not metal," says Holladay.
Hoffman notes that each of the three panels weighs about 50 pounds. "If we had used metal, each panel would have come in at 300 pounds and we could not have achieved the subtle, soft qualities that we got with wood," she says.
On the other side of the room, a cherry wall behind the sofa conceals the staircase. The architect devised the wall to ground the furniture in the space and rein in the volume, making the room intimate as well as grand. The cherry wall measures 17 feet tall and 20 feet wide. Varying sized square windows have been cut into the wall. These niches allow natural light to flow through and provide pleasant views of other areas of the home, visually connecting the spaces inside and out. Some of the windows are small and set at a child’s height for grandchildren going up or down the stairs.
"All the spaces in the house have a direct relationship to the great room," explains the architect. "The windows in the cherry wall were one more way to maintain that relationship and also to maximize light in the stairwell. One of the tricky considerations was equalizing and balancing the light inside and out. We didn’t want glare or harsh light. So a lot of attention was paid to where light was coming from and how much light we wanted to admit. The walls of glass are on the east, or water side. On the west-the street side-the windows are deeply buried. That also means that Luci doesn’t need a lot of window treatment for privacy."
More artistic touches are seen on the ceilings and walls in the master bedroom suite and bath. Painter Larry Andersen created original textural patterns in soft swirling blues and greens that mirror the world beneath the surface of the bay-the same bay that provided the inspiration for the home and furnishings and for the way of life that Luci Gorski and her family have come to cherish. "We were looking for a house that was unique but in keeping with the surrounding community," Gorski summarizes. "We wanted an elegant home that would also feel casual. We wanted to feel connected to the environment, enjoy views of the water and be able to entertain with ease. We had a wish list pages long, and it all came to fruition."