From the moment Justine and Sebastian Velez crossed the threshold of a 1929 Mediterranean house, with its classic gable-tiled roof, arched openings, 10-foot ceilings and proximity to South Beach, they knew they were home. “We made an offer immediately,” says Justine, admitting, however, that the house and property were neglected and dilapidated. “Despite its age, though, there were no structural problems, and the high ceilings, great location and rich character sold us.” Her husband says their quick decision also had an element of fate. “The house had been on the market for a year, so it was as if it had been waiting for us,” he says.
Kismet moment aside, the Velezes were not just another millennial duo with romantic notions about restoring an aging domicile to its original glory; they had the chops to make it happen. After meeting while pursuing graduate degrees at Harvard—hers in landscape architecture and urban planning and his in architecture—they started a firm with two other partners based on honoring their combined skill sets. “We believe architecture is the interface between landscape and interiors, and each discipline heightens or plays off of the expression of the others,” says Justine. It was with that approach in mind that they got busy transforming their diamond in the rough.
The restoration of the classic structure began with repairing the façade and whitewashing the existing yellow rough-finish plaster walls. “We touched every surface and changed all the windows,” says Justine about eliminating the cheap sliders that were likely installed in the 1990s. “We researched the original plans and worked with the city to bring the windows back to the 1929 proportions and configurations but used a modern energy-efficient system with hurricane-impact assemblies.”
According to Sebastian, the interiors had a timeless quality that mandated a light touch. “The skeleton was beautiful, but we wanted to add our point of view and our own touches but with respect to the historical relevance of the house,” he says. “We see ourselves as custodians, and it was important to not only keep the soul of the house intact but to really bring it to life.”
Justine and Sebastian’s initial imprint involved redoing the ground floor with a custom Cuban tile authentic to the era but in an unexpected jet black. “We wanted to remain truthful to the architecture, but we’re young, and the black is edgier and speaks more to who we are,” says Justine. They are also self-proclaimed modernists—“We moved here from an ultra-sleek condo,” she says—and they sought to strike a balance that honored both the architecture and their personal taste.
When Justine and Sebastian opened the kitchen to the dining room, for example, a move more in keeping with their entertaining lifestyle, they tempered the look by creating an articulated 10-foot-wide archway that both follows the Mediterranean vocabulary and cleverly hides new air-conditioning ductwork. Builder Johan Gunnarsson said that maneuver proved particularly challenging. “We had to reinforce some of the beams, and getting the ductwork into such a tight space wasn’t easy,” he says. In the powder room, the original penny-round floor tiles were damaged, but the look was worth salvaging. “We found the same tile and kept the spirit of the space but made it more dramatic and current by tiling the walls and the ceiling,” says Sebastian.
The yin-yang continues with the furnishings and accessories, and items such as the industrial living room light fixture fabricated from old brass and bronze pieces serve as a perfect metaphor for their overall intent. “It’s a raw finish with a contemporary feel,” says Sebastian, who, along with his wife, handled the interior design. Following suit, the living room sofa upholstered in Belgian linen counteracts the rough-cast concrete side tables, and in the dining room, midcentury modern Verner Panton chairs, each crafted from a single piece of polypropylene, are counterpoints for the reclaimed rustic wood table. Throughout the house, the largely neutral palette of grays, whites and charcoals provides a cool visual refuge that contrasts with the couple’s collection of colorful Colombian artwork by such artists as Edgar Negret, Omar Rayo and Jose Ismael Rivera, as well as the vivid tropical surroundings.
When it came to tackling the landscaping, which consisted of dirt patches, a cluster of Solitaire palm trees and an expanding weed population, the collaborative effort shifted to a solo act, and Justine proceeded to transform the scenery. “In the rear garden, I kept one mango tree and removed everything else, adding three date palms and hedgerows of loquats and bay rum trees to provide privacy at the perimeter,” says Justine, who designed curvilinear planting beds to make the garden seem bigger and filled them with tropical plants. “Our front yard features two more European olives and a rose garden, which was a Valentine’s Day gift from Sebastian.”
To take advantage of Justine’s efforts, the size of the dining room window was tripled for better garden gazing, and a patio was added to enhance the connection to the outdoors. “When the landscape lights are turned on in the evening, it looks like fairies live in the garden,” Justine says. “It is so beautiful.” Adds Sebastian: “The house will continue to change over time and provide a canvas for our lives.”