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A classic art deco house is restored to its 1938 glory but with 2008 modernity

ST. PETERSBURG — On April 24, 1938, the St. Petersburg Times told its readers about a home on the city's west side that embodied some of the "newest trends in modernistic architecture and interior decorations." • Glass blocks for the windows! Tinted Venetian blinds! Air conditioning! • The house's exterior bore "all the earmarks of the modernistic home" — rounded corners, a flat roof, horizontal grooves. Inside, "the streamlined decorative appointments give the impression of considerably more space, light and ventilation than in many homes of other architectural styles."

Seventy years later, not much has changed.

The house, on Park Street overlooking Boca Ciega Bay, looks very much as it did when it was first constructed for Mr. and Mrs. J.F. McKeage, winter residents from New Rochelle, N.Y.

Inside, the present owners have filled the house with a treasure trove of furnishings from the art deco period, around the time when the house was built: a polished-nickel dining room chandelier whose lines recall the Chrysler Building. Furniture with the horizontal lines or rounded profiles of the period, reupholstered in period fabrics. Rosewood pottery. Cigarette holders and matching ash trays (everybody smoked back then). Cocktail shakers, ice buckets with Bakelite handles, glassware and candlesticks that recall the top-hat days of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, transatlantic voyages and Benny Goodman.

"It's all the real deal," says the owner, Paxton Mendelssohn, 61, who bought the house four years ago with his wife, Kathy, 66. They'd had their fill of shoveling snow in Ohio, where they own a Victorian home furnished and decorated in that period, and in Connecticut, where their Pennsylvania Dutch-style home is filled with colonial furnishings. He has made a living decorating homes with period furnishings and restoring art lamps and lighting.

They love the art deco period because — well, here, let them explain:

Paxton: "Because it's beautiful, beautiful stuff."

Kathy: "It is art."

Paxton: "Because it's totally uncluttered."

Kathy: "Very minimal."

Paxton: "A drinking cup, a fork — it's art in your hand."

From the 1920s until World War II, industrial designers turned their attention to creating consumer products from workmanlike materials: stainless steel, nickel, aluminum, chrome, an early form of plastic known as Bakelite. The Depression had been tough, but what couldn't technology do? Skyscrapers! Coast-to-coast streamline trains! Cruise ships! Sleek roadsters! The horizontal lines and curves of their futuristic designs gave the impression of speed in that era of limitless progress and possibility.

"It looks like it's going fast standing still," Mendelssohn says.

A highlight of the house is the kitchen, which looks as though nothing has been touched since the 1930s. But look closely: The fire-engine-red range and refrigerator are contemporary appliances in yesteryear's cladding, made by Northstar. (A matching microwave hides inside a cabinet.) The floor, with its period sunburst design, is Marmoleum, a contemporary linoleum product.

"I knew exactly what I wanted it to look like," Mendelssohn said. "I wanted an eat-in area. I wanted a period stove. I wanted food storage." He took his ideas to Armstrong Kitchen & Bath on Central Avenue, which "showed me what could be done with my ideas" and executed the work.

He did make one compromise, on the countertop. Back in the day it would have been linoleum, "but you can't cut on it." Tile isn't flat, and granite's not appropriate. So he chose a laminate "that's more durable than linoleum but looks like it," and rimmed it with a polished aluminum edge.

Another highlight is the living room, a long room whose concrete fireplace bears the same vertical grooves that appear elsewhere in the house. Above it hangs a round mirror, the exact dimensions of the original, that replicates the porthole window in the front door and elsewhere in the house. Zigzag cutouts in the doorframe are echoed throughout the house.

When the Times wrote about the house in 1938, the living room had "peach tinted walls on three sides and on the fourth, the outside wall, a modernistically designed paper that blends from gray tints to the peach and deeper pink of the tinted Venetian shades." The walls are now painted porcelain, a Sherwin-Williams historic color that looks creamy or gray or putty depending on the time of day.

The carpet is a reproduction of a period rug, woven by a company in Winter Park from a design Mendelssohn showed them in a book, using colors he chose.

Mendelssohn amassed all the furniture and accessories for the house after the couple bought it but before they moved in, armed with floor plans and measurements. Some of their favorite sources are an online art deco retailer, Decodame.com, and the Modernism Gallery in Coral Gables (modernism.com). They also visit auction houses in this area, and shop up and down the coast from Sarasota to Naples.

A special treasure: an ebony and ivory upholstered stool, thought to be the only survivor of 12 that once graced the public lounges of two cruise ships of the French Line, the Champollion (named after the scholar who translated part of the Rosetta Stone) and the Mariette Pacha, named for an Egyptologist who profitably (and not terribly ethically) divided Egyptian antiquities between Paris and Cairo.

Buying antiques "is as green as you can be," says Mendelssohn, for whom every item he owns has a minimum of one story. "Reuse! Recycle!" The quality, he says, is better than a lot of contemporary furniture — where can you find sycamore, rosewood, ebony, tulipwood, East Indian walnut today? He worries that today's "paper and plastic furniture" won't last, and 50 years from now we'll be unable to re-create the 1980s and '90s. "You can't do better than recycle good furniture," he says. The prices are reasonable, the items are sized properly for small rooms, he says, and "good designs are timeless."

Mendelssohn says he likes nothing better than coming home to relax in a 1930s armchair with the puffy lines of the Michelin tire man, sip a glass of Crown Royal and listen to some Benny Goodman. "I live in the '30s," he says.

Judy Stark can be reached at jstark@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8446.

A classic art deco house is restored to its 1938 glory but with 2008 modernity 08/29/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 31, 2008 8:53am]

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