At one time, mention of South Florida conjured up a markedly different set of images than it does today. Before developers refashioned the state into America’s own sliver of tropical paradise, the phrase “Florida style” signified low-slung homes and low-key natural beauty: secluded estates surrounded by cypresses and oaks.
That’s the version of Florida that one couple was after when they decided to relocate from New York–a residence on a lush and verdant site with architecture and landscaping tailored far more toward private relaxation than public display. They found what they’d been looking for on an unusual property in Coral Gables: five picturesque acres on a tributary-fed pond, set amongst scores of mature pin oaks. Roughly half a century earlier, the aluminum magnate and philanthropist Arthur Vining Davis had spotted the site and come to much the same conclusion, eventually building his own grand home there. Now, generations later, the couple sought to build a new, and decidedly modern, dwelling on this most Old Florida of physical settings, turning to a design team that consisted of architect Marc Turkel, interior designer Sophie Harvey, general contractor Steve Paskoski and landscape designer Robert Parsley.
Turkel, who had worked with the homeowners on a prior project, aimed to “create a private family compound that celebrates this exquisite and unusual site,” says the architect. “We were interested in devising a house that feels timeless and is knit sympathetically into its surroundings.” Toward this latter goal, Turkel veered away from erecting a seemingly typical Miami manse that would be defined by its separateness from the environment. Instead, he envisioned a contemporary pavilion that would “weave among important existing trees, creating a series of private courtyards, each unique in nature and scale, which frame the views and blur the delineation between inside and out.”
Paskoski had also recognized the uniqueness of the property immediately upon seeing it. To him, it resembled what the area “must have looked like 200 years ago. It was one of the most beautiful settings for a home that I had seen in South Florida,” he says. Paskoski, who worked with builder Kevin Brooks and project superintendent Jim Watson, was happy the site didn’t require pilings despite being essentially coastal–unusually, it rested atop a large limestone outcropping. But that didn’t mean the project didn’t come with its own special challenges. “The excavation was enormous,” Paskoski says. “To get the foundation in, we had huge machines running for weeks, cutting and carving out the footprint of the house.” He credits the smoothness of the construction–and the aesthetic cohesiveness of the finished project–to Turkel’s obsession with detail. “It’s great,” Paskoski says. “It makes for an incredibly complex house.”
To create this intricate structure, Turkel, working with Paskoski, made sure that ideas expressed and materials used in the exterior forecourt–stacked limestone walls and planters, stone-slab platforms, even water elements– were repeated inside the house. An outdoor koi pond, for instance, initially appears to terminate at the wall of windows defining the entry facade; inside the house, however, it re-emerges beneath the floating glass-and-steel staircase, as if to suggest that the house itself is similarly afloat. For the landscaping, Parsley lined the koi pond and adjacent reflecting pools leading up to the entrance with flowering hedges that subtly evoke the aquatic plants found in a tropical water garden.
With the structural details in place, Harvey, who had worked with the clients on a home in Colorado and an apartment abroad, designed living spaces that would harmonize with the home’s soaring, light-filled volumes–but also, importantly, that would provide the occasional retreat from them. “It’s a large house, and my clients made it clear they didn’t want the interiors to feel cold or austere, butÂ rather friendly and comfortable,” says the interior designer. The wife, in particular, wanted to make sure she and her husband had spots throughout the house where the scale, materials, furnishings and tones would combine to foster a sense of casualness, even coziness. So, Harvey imagined spaces that felt intimate, yet usable, such as the theater and billiards room. “They wanted space where they could kick back, open a bottle of wine, and hang out with their friends and their kids,” she says.
For a sophisticated modern residence, the home doesn’t want for such casual comforts. From the poolside veranda at the rear of the house, the view of all those oaks with their winding, picturesquely gnarled trunks–and the placid, tributary-fed pond just beyond–makes it hard to believe that this part of Florida is famed for its sandy beaches filled with swaying palms, jet-setting visitors, and pink-and-turquoise Art Deco hotels. None of those things is far from here, of course. But they might as well be a thousand miles, or a hundred years, away.