To most buyers scouting Boca Grande property, a Ruth Richmond ranch house built for the budget-conscious in the 1960s would not inspire lofty dreams. (Richmond was a fashion designer who built more than 1,000 Southwest Florida homes, which were modestly priced but prized for their style, from 1958 to 1978-see accompanying story.) This one didn't even have Gulf views, and its 1,200 square feet made it seem like a cabana compared to most of the homes being built on Boca Grande lately.
But to Joe and Dana Robinette of Bristol, Tenn., the corner property in the historic district, with its sheltering stucco wall, was just the thing: within walking distance of a condominium the family already owns to accommodate visiting friends, and convenient to another Robinette beachfront condo on the island.
The low ceilings and small rooms challenged the new owners and their decorator, Matt Overstreet. But the possibility of sculpting this compact dwelling into an exquisite European garden cottage was intriguing. "It was actually the pond in the garden that sold me on the house," says Dana Robinette, who has been vacationing on Boca Grande with her family for 35 years. "I thought how lovely it would be to sit at the dining room table and have that view."
Overstreet says, "The first thing we did was to expand the garden to completely encircle the house, and then we added French doors to every room so that when they're flung open, the garden becomes part of the living space. Suddenly, a little house gets bigger, and you can have luncheon parties for 25 with ease."
The garden replicates a French country design, with white gravel paths, conversation and eating areas, the pond, fountain, lush foliage and bright flowers. To create the backdrop against the tall white stucco wall that gives the dwelling complete privacy, 120 specimen palms were brought in.
Vivid hibiscus, ginger, ferns and bromeliads fan out beneath mango trees, sea grape bushes and climbing pink bougainvillea. Crisp white metal outdoor furniture came from Curtis Bros. second-hand furniture store in Sarasota and from island tag sales. Overstreet had it painted a uniform shade of white.
"Dana is an unstoppable shopper," says the designer. "She buys paintings and antiques in Sarasota. The front door knocker she found in Spain, and she spied a ceramic rooster in France, which she carried back with her on the plane to make sure it stayed in one piece. The black wrought-iron garden gate came from a junk shop in Bristol, Tenn. This whole property is a travelogue of places where Dana and Joe have shopped." The house is painted yellow and the shutters and custom front door add to the French cottage feel.
The detached guesthouse was originally the studio of an artist who owned the property prior to the Robinettes. "We lengthened it 15 feet to further enclose the back garden and increase storage space," says Overstreet. The one-bedroom structure has high ceilings, exposed beams painted white and accommodates a large 18th-century French armoire.
Inside the main house, faux finish painter Aaron Crussemeyer sheathed the walls in a subtle yellow and cream vertical stripe paint to trick the eye into seeing higher ceilings. Polished terra cotta floor tiles replaced the original terrazzo. All decked out in hues of coral, the living room flows into a sunny dining room that was once a screened porch. Joe Robinette's antique clock collection, which numbers about 200, is on display throughout the house.
Overstreet says the furniture and accessories scheme is a mix of high and low. "The 18th-century yellow chairs in the living room and the bookcases are French and costly," he says. "But the straw rug is from Lowe's home improvement store, and the sofa is one the family already owned. We just changed it from blue leather to luscious coral silk. We got the dining room table and chairs from Curtis Bros., and all I did was recover the chair seats. The easy and eclectic blend of expensive French antiques and locally acquired objects makes the home fashionable, unpretentious and interesting at the same time. And, of course, there's all that color."
Overstreet says the kitchen was a quick fix. "We repositioned and updated some of the appliances and added white tile to the counters. Everything in the kitchen is white to visually expand the space. We converted the laundry room into a full bath and put a stacked washer and dryer unit behind louvered doors in the back hall."
The new bath is just off Joe Robinette's new home office/library, originally an awkward one-car garage. Cars now park in a gravel motor court concealed at the side of the property. The motor court also houses the family's favorite vehicle, a Jolly, which is an Italian beach buggy Joe Robinette purchased in Sarasota. The grandchildren love it, and when the Robinettes' youngest daughter, Catherine, married Hayden Phillips a little over a year ago at Our Lady of Mercy church on Boca Grande, the Jolly was the couple's "limo" to the reception at the Beach Club.
"It's wonderful that the Jolly is coral," says Overstreet, "because it matches the interior of the house. We stayed with coral and yellow throughout the whole project, because that's about as Boca Grande as you can get."
Television trivia students know those fortunate enough to travel to ABC's Fantasy Island in the 1970s were picked up at "de plane, de plane" by Tattoo, who ushered them into a Jolly for a tour around the resort. The Beatles drove one in the movie Help!, and both Aristotle Onassis and Yul Brynner tooled around in a Jolly of their chosen color. Tina Turner recently bought a Jolly in the same vivid coral hue Joe Robinette selected for his.
Robinette had seen an ad in a car magazine for a Jolly several years ago, and though he made the phone call immediately, he missed the deal. He persevered until he was able to score a Jolly from Vintage Motors, Martin Godby's auto showroom that's part of the complex at his Sarasota Classic Car Museum.
The Jolly, a conversion beach buggy, was manufactured in the late 1950s and '60s in Italy. The chassis is Fiat's 500, 600, Multipla and Giardiniera with body conversion by Ghia Coachbuilding. They were produced with four- and six-cylinder engines. Jolly means "joker" in Italian.
Coveted by celebrities and owners of second homes in resort communities, a typical Jolly today sells for between $20,000 and $30,000-when you can find one. Godby says he's currently trying to find two for Florida clients. Typical features of the Jolly are wicker seats (for four), canvas surrey top (often fringed) and vivid summer colors.
Matt Overstreet's tips on expanding small spaces.
- Paint or paper the walls with a vertical stripe and paint ceilings soft white or ivory.
- Install French doors that open onto a pleasant spot.
- Keep crown molding and baseboards in scale. If molding is too wide, the room looks top-heavy.
- Keep one floor surface throughout for a clean, unbroken line.
- Use several big pieces of furniture instead of lots of small things.
- Built-ins provide storage and display space without intruding into living space.
- Keep small kitchens monochrome and add interest with different textures.
Ruth Richmond Homes
Ruth Richmond, a fashion designer, and her husband, Larry, a contractor, built some 1,300 affordable homes ($8,000 to $14,000) in Southwest Florida from 1958 until 1978. Richmond coined the word "lanai," which she thought sounded better than screened porch. She picked up the word on a trip to Hawaii. Hallmarks of her homes included sliding glass doors, covered carport, terrazzo floors, concrete block construction, screened lanai, and seven-and-a-half-foot ceilings. She kept the ceiling low because she believed a vaulted ceiling made occupants feel unimportant.