Some rooms are made beautiful by adding fine fabrics and furnishings. Others become lovely by what is taken away. In the case of husband-and-wife interior designers Jeff and Joyce Hart’s 1926 Ringling-era home on St. Armands, good bones and distinguished features were there all along. The Harts’ task was how best to reveal them.
"We bought the house in 1997 from my mother, Ruth Miller," explains Joyce, who works with her husband at Robb & Stucky. "My mother and father, the late Russ Miller, had lived there since 1968 and loved the place. Jeff and I had always felt it was something special, a real connection to Sarasota’s past."
Old tax records, documented blueprints and authentic articles confirmed the Harts’ notion that Dwight James Baum, the architect who designed the John and Mable Ringling mansion, had indeed designed the pretty ranch house on Washington Drive. It had been built as a spec house when their neighborhood was called John Ringling Isles and later, John Ringling Estates. The courtyard entry, architectural details and interior layout bear striking similarity to the gracious Venetian homes that caught Ringling’s eye. And the exquisite Portuguese tile surrounding the fireplace is an identical match to tiles used in a playroom in Cà d’Zan.
"This was a grand old house," says Joyce, "but she was a bit worn and dated. We decided to start in the living room, removing layers of dust, disrepair and bad add-ons to get a good look at who she really was." The first element to be stripped away was a wall of ugly jalousie windows, which had replaced the original windows in the 1950s. Once these were carted off and replaced with casement windows that closely replicated the originals, the Harts saw a profound difference. "At that point," says Hart, "the architectural integrity of the house came back."
The next step was to peel back the wall-to-wall carpeting from the 30-by-14-foot living room. When the worn shag rolled up to reveal solid oak floors in very good condition, Joyce and Jeff were elated. "We hired flooring specialists to come out, and they all talked to us about stripping the floors and bleaching the wood to lighten it, and we said no, no, no!" explains Joyce. "We could not make them understand that we loved the rich, dark patina achieved after so many years, and we wanted the 1940s heel marks. Finally, we sent everyone packing and refinished the floors ourselves."
Using rags and mineral spirits, the Harts hand-rubbed their wood floors to remove old paint splatters, then cleaned the wood and gently buffed the floors to remove scratches and mars on the surface. The final step was to hand-wax the wood back to a rich, dark gleam.
Following their work at floor level, the Harts straightened their backs and took a hard look at the ceilings. The exposed wood beams begged for attention, so the couple borrowed ladders and went to work with tongue oil and elbow grease. "These beams are crafted of pecky cypress, and after decades of neglect, they were all dried out and flaking," she explains. "By rubbing off the dried surface, we gave the beams new life and new luster. We could see that the beams were still so pretty; they just needed the oil to reveal how beautiful they could be." Plaster corbels, faux finished to look like wood, were placed on beams to enhance and finish them.
Now it was time to remove the existing window treatments, boring mini-blinds with unflattering side panels of open-weave material. Joyce substituted off-white silhouette shades that match the casement windows and can be closed for total privacy, partially opened for a soft sheer effect or raised completely to disappear and welcome in the sun.
Her mother’s furnishings were all removed, and once the living room was empty the Harts had no problem coming up with a color scheme. "The fireplace surround of Portuguese tile was the focal point and helped us determine paint tones," explains Hart. "We picked up the tile colors by first coating the walls with a dark, burnished gold. Then we ragged a second paint coat of deep forest-green into the gold paint to create a tone-on-tone coloration that replicates the old Tuscan rubbed finishes. The look worked so well we carried it through on the ceiling, in the panels between the cypress beams."
Hart dressed her living room in formal finery, selecting sumptuous fabrics and furniture with a decidedly French accent. Gold taffeta draperies are held back by 1926-era carved wooden tie-back holders. The overstuffed sofa in gold damask and Louis XV chairs encircle a heavy wrought-iron cocktail table. A carved wooden three-drawer French chest nestles against the wall, while a Louis XV carved wooden loveseat, covered in gold striped velvet, sidles up next to the fireplace. The lavish skirted table and plump upholstered ottoman complete the room’s seating arrangement, where Joyce often entertains her guests for dinner.
"I can easily place six or seven people around the cocktail table in front of the fireplace, and the effect is a plush, rich-looking room that’s also very warm, very comfortable," she says. "We wind up enjoying a meal with friends in front of the fireplace when we entertain. Our living room is a good place to spend time."
As a final touch, the Harts decided a piano would be perfect to balance the rectangular space. But not just any piano would do. "I was convinced that we needed a baby grand," says Joyce, "and the older the better." The Harts visited the piano showroom of Joyce’s cousin, David Pritchard, and described the piano they wanted. Just months later, Pritchard called and told them to come take a look at the piano he had just received as a trade-in. "It was a 1911 model that had been around," says Joyce. "The finish was dull, there were shadowed areas, more than a few dents, and the piano was in desperate need of polish. The sticker said Steinway, but David was not convinced. It was absolutely perfect." The Harts floated their new acquisition at the end of the room, and its aged veneer works wonderfully with the era of their home.
"The best compliment came from Mother, who now lives in our guest house," says Hart. "She enjoys the room often and loves what we have done with the décor. She believes the place never looked better."
All interior design and decorating by Joyce Hart, ASID, and Jeff Hart, ASID; furnishings and accessories by Robb & Stucky; vintage piano from Pritchard’s Pianos; window treatments by Lillian Alderman Draperies; gold hand-knotted rug from Heirloom Rugs.