After traveling the world in search of the perfect beach, John and Rita Davidson found their dream patch of sand and sea right here at home. The only drawback was that their secluded stretch of Turtle Beach came with an old house that sat dangerously close to the temperamental Gulf of Mexico.
Several floods later, the pair decided the simplest and safest solution was to build a new main residence farther from the shore and convert part of the original structure to guest quarters. They culled architectural ideas from their favorite beach locales, homing in on the Polynesian style for its dramatic pavilion ceilings and natural cross-ventilation.
The main house has 44 French doors opening to wraparound porches and treetop terraces, all designed to bring Turtle Beach into the Davidsons’ living space. John says he and Rita keep at least half the doors open every day they can between October and June. “We like to live casually and without air-conditioning,” Rita explains. “Otherwise, we could be closed up in a condo in Chicago.”
“I’ve never been in the house when the doors aren’t open with the sea breeze coming in,” says designer Judy Graham of Graham Interiors. “John and Rita are very specific about what they want and how they want to live. They’ve always been classic and natural; they like durable materials and not a lot of fluff.” After working with the Davidsons on small projects over the years, Graham was retained in 2006 to refurbish the home’s interiors.
Coincidentally, that’s when the Turtle Beach renourishment program began. The Davidsons’ 150-foot-long stretch of beach, 120 feet wide 20 years ago, had eroded to 50 feet. As the massive project broadening the beach to 300 feet began outdoors, Graham started to formulate ideas for subtle interior changes.
She didn’t need much prodding to run with the Davidsons’ suggestion to change the great room walls from beach-beige to a green pulled from a dramatic three-dimensional painting that crowns the room’s stone fireplace. The color brightens classic rattan, bamboo and wicker furniture and mirrors the home’s tropical landscaping. Perhaps most important, it draws all eyes to John’s collection of antique maps, which now pop rather than blend into the walls of the second-story open gallery.
“John is fascinated with Old Florida,” says Rita. “The maps go back as far as the 1600s; every one must show the state, whether it’s a hand drawing of the Louisiana Purchase, the Caribbean islands or Tampa Bay.”
John, who founded Davidson Drugs and the Pelican Press weekly newspaper, purchased many of the maps from Palmer Bank, where he served on the board of directors. “When Palmer was acquired by Southeast Bank, the new owners took the few they wanted and I bought the rest,” he says.
But antique maps are just one of John’s passions. He is an accomplished amateur wildlife photographer, and shots from African safaris, Canadian polar bear sightings, and Rocky Mountain treks add to the home’s J. Peterman-expedition allure. Inveterate beach lovers, John and Rita collect sand on sailing vacations, some of it stored in glass bottles in John’s library.
Rita reads off labels: “The Breakers in Palm Beach, Cabo San Lucas, Bora Bora, Dunk Island, Tahiti, New Zealand, the southern tip of Africa and the Indian Ocean. We even saved sand from Turtle Beach before the renourishment program began.”
“We must have bags of sand from 75 places,” John adds. “Our next project for Judy is to come up with a way to display it.”
The open, airy great room, with its 32-foot-tall cypress-clad pavilion ceiling, is equipped with a huge sectional sofa, recovered in a woven cross-hatch fabric from Brunswig & Fils. “It’s sturdy, yet in keeping with the living room’s natural rattan feeling,” Graham explains.
“As the roster of grandchildren has grown, the fabrics and furnishings get more and more durable,” Graham jokes. Easy-care, low-maintenance furnishings are a key factor in carefree beach living; Graham’s selections were driven by family-friendliness (the Davidsons have six children and nine grandchildren) as well as performance in the subtropical waterfront setting.
The simple addition of a Wolf Gordon woven linen wall covering dramatically updated the atrium entry hall. “It looks like grass cloth, natural, but stylish and maintenance-free,” Graham says. Sunlight filtering through the hall’s skylight changes the wall color from golden bronze to green throughout the day. “It’s a chameleon of a color,” the designer says.
From the entry hall you peer through to a dining room wall dominated by portraits of son John Jr. and daughter Suzanne Monroe. The mesmerizing works by late Siesta Key artist Thornton Utz explain why he was commissioned to paint portraits of Grace Kelly and the family of President Jimmy Carter.
Graham worked her magic on a buffet built into a half wall between the foyer and dining room. “We simply recovered the doors with a split bamboo ‘fabric’ from Jeffrey Michaels that’s made to be used on walls and ceilings,” she says. John and Rita say the bamboo facing and a new granite top completely transformed the tired-looking piece, which they were ready to replace.
Also less than extreme was Graham’s makeover of the Davidson kitchen. “We shopped for new cabinets, but couldn’t find any we liked as much as our own,” says Rita. Stripped, refinished and white-washed, the louvered cabinets look good as new. Graham elongated the kitchen island to include seating for three, eliminating the need for a table. Roughhewn granite countertops were added, as were easy-care green ribbed vinyl wall covering and dark-stained oak floors.
Wisely, Graham left the Davidsons’ beach-perfect master bedroom furniture intact. She created new coverings for their island-style four-poster bed from a mélange of fabrics: a bronze-red tropical print with coordinates from Kravet, luscious silk from Jab, upholstered fabric from Robert Allen. She chose a palomino-toned wall covering that changes color as light enters the room throughout the day.
Indeed, the master suite, with its separate fitness and dressing rooms, treetop terrace hot tub and beach views, needed little improvement. Interior windows were positioned above the bed to let morning light filter into the west-facing room, “because we like to wake early and naturally,” Rita says. The bathroom, exercise and dressing areas have their own air-conditioning zone, because the couple opts to sleep with salty sea breezes billowing through French doors.
The beachfront guest cottage is an equally dreamy escape. Graham redecorated the two bedrooms (one is outfitted as a living room) and two baths in a palette inspired by a watercolor centered over a teal sleep sofa.
“The house and suite are an incredible design for that stretch of beach,” Graham says. “The great room with its beautiful Polynesian architecture is spectacular, yet anyone who walks in feels warm, cozy and comfortable.”
Making it Beachy
Coastal collections: Collections of sand, shells and antique maps of Florida underscore the home’s Gulf Coast setting, invite conversation and provide a sense of place.
Salt sea breezes: Windows and French doors add to the home’s island style, circulating the salty air and allowing breezes to flow freely.
Tropical but subtle: High poster beds, woven wicker, tropical prints and bamboo and rattan furniture are subtle touches that enhance, not overpower, the interior scheme.
Maintenance-free: Any beach home worth its salt will be prone to fading fabrics, mildew and salt; chose easy-care furnishings and finishes that withstand the elements.
Shady places: Covered porches, treetop terraces and even the positioning of the home on its site give the Davidsons ample shade and extend their outdoor living space.
Simple pleasures: After 20 years, the Davidsons still walk the beach daily, fall asleep to the sound of the surf, sip wine watching pelicans at sunset and enjoy their morning coffee on the deck as dolphins swim by.