The custom-designed screen door of Keith Roberts' Palma Ceia home features a palm tree — a subtle hint at the interior design of the 1947 bungalow. Art and fabrics continue the palm motif throughout the 1,000-square-foot residence.
“I wanted to combine an 'Old Florida' look — pre-air-conditioning — with a midcentury modern feeling,” says Roberts, who furnished the house with original Heywood-Wakefield pieces, including cocktail tables in the living room and a corner cabinet in the dining area.
Five years ago he remodeled the kitchen, bathroom and backyard, but stayed true to its 1947 aesthetic.
“When I chose cabinets, hardware and surfaces, I wanted everything to look like it belonged in a 1947 house, but with a slightly contemporary feeling,” he explains.
Original kitchen cabinets and red Formica countertops were replaced with a pristine white version topped with Italian tile — a glass-aggregate resembling terrazzo. A new hardwood floor was installed to blend effortlessly with the restored oak floors in the living/dining room.
In the master bedroom, Roberts had a platform bed and nightstand custom-made to blend with his favorite furniture piece, a late-Deco dresser from a collection by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. Built on a smaller scale, the custom furniture also made it possible to conserve precious floor space in the room.
Roberts points to the bedspread, which was made of a classic palm fabric from the 1950s. “There is a scene in the movie 'L.A. Confidential' with curtains made from the same fabric,” he says with a grin.
The home's single bathroom was enlarged and a European shower added, using penny-rounds tile to evoke a vintage feeling. A stackable washer and dryer unobtrusively stand along one wall. (The original laundry facility was housed in a wooden shed in the backyard.)
That shed was demolished, and the newly designed exterior space incorporates a “room without walls,” suitable for Florida's indoor-outdoor life, with comfortably-scaled spaces and a water feature that provides a visual focal point.
“Since post-war residential construction turned mostly to concrete block on a slab, a house like this would have been among the last of the wood-frame/open-foundation type,” Roberts says. “It retains some of the features of early bungalows, including wood lap siding, large double-hung windows, oak floors, exposed rafter tails and fancy interior plaster work. Its traditional trim and detailing remain, but in a much simpler form.”
A screened porch replaced the open front porches of earlier styles, and Roberts suspects his two-bedroom house originally was built as a winter cottage.
“I rented for two years before I bought it,” says the former attorney. “Early in its life, the house was clad in asbestos shingles. Removing them was a crucial first step in the rehab process.”
Fortunately, the wood siding underneath was preserved by the shingles, and Roberts discovered it had been painted only once.
“There apparently was no driveway, originally — it was only a rut when I moved in,” he adds. “The yard was pretty much a blank slate.”
After considering the modest size of his 50-by-100-foot lot, Roberts decided to eliminate the lawn (and the tedious maintenance it requires).
“I love the idea of “defining” a front yard with a specimen tree,” he says with a smile. “Mine is a Bismarck Palm that over the years has grown into something quite magnificent. Showy secondary plants are important as well, so I've used a bougainvillea 'tree,' a cardboard palm, and low orange birds of paradise.”
Roberts, who served on Tampa's Architectural Review Commission for many years, has an abiding interest in both historic preservation and respectful rehab.
“What contributes most to “curb appeal,” I think, is respecting and building upon the essential character of a house and its site,” he says. “In the case of my 'winter cottage,' I've aimed for a sort of Key West look — an 'island' color palette, vibrant awnings and tropical landscaping.”