Spec houses are not, by their very nature, generally concerned with the creation of peerless architecture. Their basic ethos—build fast and frugally, often in multiples—is to turn a profit, not turn heads. The result is most often bland structures characterized by pallid finishes and unadventurous materials and fixtures. In other words, expect the expected.
￼￼If that approach had ever been enough for the couple who bought this home in North Palm Beach, its allure had seriously paled by 2008 when, desperately craving a space with more character, they called Palm Beach-based interior designer Jennifer Garrigues, who had revamped houses for them in Greenwich, Connecticut, and Quogue, New York. “It was very traditional and a little 1980s,” says Garrigues rather diplomatically. “My client rang up one day and said, ‘I can’t bear it anymore.’ She wanted the place updated to look fresher, more modern, as well as a little more exotic and fun.” Not too modern, however, since the husband was a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist.
Garrigues found her answer in the colonial aesthetic of the British Empire, which was inherently traditional, though casual enough for the South Florida locale. It had just enough sub-continental mystique to enliven the diluted Mediterranean style that is as ubiquitous as palm trees in this part of the world. “It was sort of a shoe-in because I spend so much free time in North Africa and India,” Garrigues explains. “And they had just gone on a tent tour of India themselves, so they were completely ready for it.”
To dress up the interior envelope, Garrigues engaged her longtime collaborator Jesse Fors of Webb Builders in Juno Beach. She disguised the unimaginativeness of the basic squared-frame openings between rooms with mahogany grills of her own design that recalled Indian jali screens, which Fors stained and installed as transoms in the doorways. Then Garrigues gave him a photo showing an architectural detail she had loved in one of the former palaces she’d visited in Rajasthan.
“Using a computer-run knife-cutting system,” says Fors, “we were able to duplicate it exactly.” Now a capstone cornice runs just below the regulation stepped crown moldings around the public rooms, adding a hint of Rajput flair. Fors also contributed new millwork, doors and trim, replaced existing windows with mahogany impact-rated units and re-honed the marble floors.
The revamping extended outdoors as well. “It was a lot of house on a small lot,” says Palm Beach based-landscape architect Mario Nievera, who was hired for the job, “and there wasn’t a lot of connection to the outside.” Nievera began by erecting a tall hedge that closed off the open end of the U-shaped structure, isolating it from the road. He cut arches in the hedge for access, simultaneously creating an enclosed inner courtyard reminiscent of a Moroccan riad. He also ramped up the green by ripping out paving surrounding the house and pool and replacing it with grass-ringed terraces off rooms.
Garrigues combed through the owner’s furnishings, “took the pickings of what we thought would be wonderful for the look we were trying to achieve, and reupholstered them,” she says. Relying mostly on solids, with subtle prints and ikats sprinkled throughout, she created a back- drop for mostly Indian accessories that would visually transport the home from its Atlantic shores to the banks of the Ganges. However, Moroccan and English pieces, as well as two massive mahogany pillars from Africa that separate the living room from the sun room ensure the Indian aesthetic does not look contrived.
The newly worldly home is continents away from the American spec home we all know and don’t really love. Visitors can now, thankfully, expect the unexpected.
—Jorge S. Arango