Sarasota Bay and the barrier islands dotting its horizon play the starring role in a new house an Atlanta couple built when they finally decided to lay down roots after decades of annual visits to nearby Casey Key, Florida. “They wanted something that would capture all the beauty of their surroundings,” says designer Ellen Hanson. And even though they aren’t natural-born modernists, the husband adds, “We wanted to maximize the water views, and to get that much glass you have to have a contemporary look—but we really wanted to warm it up and soften it.”
Hanson, who had worked with the clients previously, enlisted architect James Merrell to execute the home’s design, builder Ron Marcotte to construct it, and landscape architect Chris LaGuardia to handle the exteriors. Merrell, working with project architects Steve Soule and Janara Garcia Soule, drew inspiration from the Sarasota Modern school of architecture, a midcentury style that blends cantilevered forms with glass planes around a warm wooden vernacular. “The movement brought a modern logic to those early wood-framed beach houses,” he explains. And, he notes, while wind codes now require structures to be concrete, “Our use of wood as exterior siding might recall the simpler wood-sided houses of that period.”
Marcotte sourced the species of wood that would ultimately come to be the home’s defining feature. He took the owners to a mill in Destin that harvests sinker cypress, ancient logs felled in Florida’s swamps hundreds of years ago. “Now it’s like gold—it’s perfectly preserved,” Marcotte says, pointing out that its color variations are the result of differing levels of oxidation, from the almost-black exterior of each log to its golden center. It took two years for Marcotte’s carpenters to acquire enough of the prime cypress to fabricate the home’s siding, fences, walls, ceilings, doors, cabinetry and trim. “There’s not a single knot in the wood, either inside or out.”
As Hanson, working with senior designer Lisa Hargus, proceeded with the interior design, she chose finishes, furnishings and artwork that were as carefully crafted as the wood. Hanson turned to furniture maker Skylar Morgan, whose line she carries in her Sarasota interiors shop, Pansy Bayou, to create custom pieces throughout. The designer accompanied the owners to Art Basel in Miami to source much of the artwork, including a monumental steel-and-stone dining table that anchors the home’s expansive main level. The resulting interiors evoke a resort-like feel, and, in the spirit of destination hotels, the clients wanted to incorporate elements of fantasy. The wife wanted a wine room where bottles are displayed against backlit glass panels, for example, while the husband wanted his office to channel his family’s historic cattle ranch in Oklahoma. “I love it when a client has a really strong passion for something, and deciding how it can be pulled together so it looks equally well designed and thought-out as the rest of the house,” Hanson remarks.
Merrell, working with the support of local architect-of-record Greg Hall, designed the home so every room could capture the shimmering southwestern light coming off the bay. The main front-to-back volume is intersected with a U-shaped wing that frames a courtyard planted with palm trees. “It’s a light well,” Merrell says. Federal hurricane codes required the living areas to be at least 17 feet above ground, but instead of leaving the bottom level unfinished, Merrell created an “under story” of shaded outdoor rooms that are framed at one corner with an infinity pool.
LaGuardia and his project manager, Matthew Horvath, filled these outdoor spaces with plantings and hardscape that complement the home’s warm, modern look. “I took cues from the cypress wood and the geometry of the house and interpreted it in the landscape,” he says. He located a firepit far out into the yard so the owners and their guests could look back at the house when it’s illuminated at night. In front, he lined the driveway with live oaks, which will eventually form a shaded canopy overhead. “You don’t want to pull in the driveway and see the house right away,” LaGuardia says. “You’ve got to delay it.”
All told, the house was four years in the making. “It was painful at the time, but now we’re just smiling,” the husband says, noting it fulfills what they were after all along—that sweeping water view. “When you eat at the breakfast table,” the wife adds, “you just stare out at that bay and the ocean. It’s hypnotizing.”