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A beach cottage gets a Lift

Published Sep. 29, 2005

A one-story frame house with no water view has been transformed into a two-story beauty with postcard views of the gulf and a design that's in keeping with its surroundings.

It's the ultimate facelift, with the emphasis on lift.

Picture a 1920s beach house in Pass-a-Grille: an undistinguished, one-story, gray frame cottage. Somewhere along the line the front porch was enclosed with awning windows. Although it is just 98 paces from the beach walkover across Gulf Boulevard, the cottage has no view of the water.

"The wood-frame shotgun style was typical of old Pass-a-Grille," said remodeling contractor Don Strobel of St. Petersburg. "I convinced the owner that lifting it up was the best way to approach it. But a lot of people don't like the look of a stilt house."

So how to lift the house, to comply with federal requirements for building in flood zones . . . yet avoid that storklike look . . . and remain compatible with the neighborhood, which borders a national historic district?

Take a look at it now.

Technology, aesthetics and landscaping combine to meet all those demands. The original 1920s cottage is now elevated atop a lattice-covered ground-floor storage and garage area. It is topped by a new second floor that houses a master suite. Both levels are ringed by porches with postcard views of the gulf and are topped by standing-seam metal roofs resting on exposed rafter tails, reminiscent of Key West. Trees, native plants and twining vines anchor the house to the ground and integrate it into the neighborhood.

"It really is a very nice design, very conducive to the beach atmosphere," said Christopher Brimo, director of planning and development for St. Pete Beach.

Pass-a-Grille is struggling to retain its character and charm in the face of development, and this house is cited in the city's Design Guideline Manual as a good example of Key West-style architecture.

The beach cottage look

When Strobel first proposed elevating the house, "I don't think we were originally for it, because we just didn't want that elevated stilt look," said owner Wendy Vlk, a former buyer and product developer for Kmart. "But I'm very pleased with the way it turned out."

She and her husband, Jim, who is in consumer sales to mass markets, live in a Detroit suburb and spend part of the year here.

"My husband and I wanted to maintain that simple beach cottage look as much as possible," said Mrs. Vlk. "We wanted to revert back to the feeling of porches. Coming from Michigan, that's what we enjoy doing when we come down": being outside, sitting outside, "though not in summer, mind you!"

A house mover lifted the house off its original moorings while a new block wall was built atop the existing foundation wall.

Most land in Pass-a-Grille is about 5{ feet above sea level, and the original house was about 3 feet above that. Strobel raised the house another 3{ feet, to 12 feet 1 inch above sea level. Codes now require that houses be a minimum of 11 feet above sea level. When revised codes go into effect, increasing that minimum to 12 feet, the house will be just 1 inch above what is required.

Had Strobel not raised the house, he would have been limited by federal regulations to a cap of $45,000 for remodeling. As it stands, he said, the project cost about $225,000.

The storage area under the house is just more than 6 feet in height, allowing space for cars or boats to be parked out of view and for garden equipment and other storage. The house is ringed with brick paths and a washed-shell driveway to reinforce its sense of place as a beach house, and there's an outdoor shower for washing off after swims in the gulf.

New, but with a vintage look

The front door is the original. So are the double-hung wooden windows on the first floor, the window seat, the floors in most of the downstairs and the red-brick fireplace.

"If you looked at the original house, it was surprising to me that there was very little interior damage, and most everything that had to be done was roof work anyway," Mrs. Vlk said.

The original kitchen and bath were "vintage, with additions along the way," and they required most of the remedial work.

To expand and modernize, materials were chosen to match what was there.

"We wanted to blend the old with the new," Strobel said, "by choosing sensible products: things that are newly manufactured, and while they may not be historically correct, if you make the choice that you don't want to do a lot of maintenance," they're reasonable choices.

Among them: Abitco fiber-cement clapboard siding, brought down over the new foundation wall to give a visual sense that the house is lower to the ground. These sidings are impervious to rot and insects.

The latticework that covers the under-the-house storage area is vinyl, yes, but it's the old-fashioned horizontal lattice, not the more common diagonal.

The beadboard ceiling on the porches is vinyl. An interior door in the new master suite is made of medium-density fiberboard, but it looks like a 1920s wood panel door. The new kitchen cabinets are modern Thermofoil, but with their Shaker-style frame and flat panel, they look like those of yesteryear. The new bathroom floors are covered in new-but-looks-old tiny white octagonal tiles; the walls are clad in a new version of rectangular subway tile. Even the new pedestal sink by Kohler in a downstairs bath looks as if it might have been an original.

The house recently won a design/build award for Best Whole House Renovation, $100,000-$250,000, in the annual Chrysalis Award competition sponsored by Lowe's Cos., the home centers, and Professional Remodeler magazine.

Strobel Building was recently named to Remodeling magazine's "Big 50," an annual list of companies whose business acumen and service make them "stand as models for the whole industry." It was the only Florida company on the list.

Strobel was honored in the "Niches" category for carving out a business that specializes in coastal building. The company, with two office employees and seven in the field, had sales volume last year of $850,000.

A comfortable place to be

The Vlks got the master suite they wanted, complete with cozy gables, a window seat and French doors that offer "a great breeze when you open the door," Mrs. Vlk said. "It's not huge, but it's a nice, comfortable place to be."

A walk-in closet leads to a master bath. Here, to accommodate the sloping ceiling, Strobel created a step-down shower. "The one deference to modernization," he said, "was the operable skylight in the master bath."

On the first floor, "the biggest question was where to put the stairs to fit within the context of the house," he said. He carved out space to the right of the fireplace, in what had once been a small bedroom, for the stairs, a mechanical closet and the new downstairs bath. The wooden newel post is detailed to look like '20s millwork.

On the opposite side of the house, windows were replaced with French doors to offer access to the new deck, where an inviting hammock hangs. The original tiny kitchen, closets and a utility room were combined into a big kitchen. New red oak flooring was stained to match that in the rest of the downstairs.

A hardy landscape

Landscaping was another tool used to weave the house into the streetscape. The adonidia palms "integrate the building into the surroundings. They help to bring down the scale and integrate the house into the scene and set the Key West ambience," said Jane Buck of B&R Botanical in St. Petersburg.

One concern: the "abrasive" weather on Pass-a-Grille, which ranges from "a deluge to practically a drought." Plants must be salt-tolerant. Even though reclaimed water is available for watering, "we try not to let people overwater," so plants were chosen with xeriscaping in mind.

Buck used a ground cover called coontie, a member of the cycad family; Indian hawthorne, "which is pretty bulletproof; it's a leathery dark-green with a high salt tolerance"; and dwarf fakahatchee. Twining along the latticework and up to the wood porch railings is pandora vine, which "breaks up all that hardscape" yet doesn't attract bees and wasps to areas where people are likely to be sitting. There are irises and silver buttonwood, purple-and-yellow thunbergia and hula-girl hibiscus.

A matter of character

In a beach area where the land can be worth far more than the small, original structure on it, there's a lot of pressure to tear down old homes and build something grand and postmodern. But that changes the sand-in-your-shoes character of beach communities like Pass-a-Grille, which is what attracted people there in the first place. Some people say that this house, though saved from the bulldozers, doesn't look much like its original self.

"Pass-a-Grille right now is going through the throes, if you will, of trying to control the look of the community," said Brimo, the city planner. Major concerns are height limits and architectural review.

The goal, he said, "is to show that you can create a structure within a reasonable height limit, within reasonable design parameters, and create something that's pleasing, and this is one of those types of structures."

"The house hasn't changed a heck of a lot from what we bought originally," Mrs. Vlk said. "It's a beach house, and we think it's appropriate to the area."

The original 1920s first floor of this Pass-a-Grille house, now elevated over a lattice-covered storage area, is topped by a new second-story master suite. Both levels are wrapped in porches that offer views out of the Gulf of Mexico.

Cozy gables, a window seat and a beadboard ceiling give the new master suite the feel of the original cottage. The balcony overlooks the Gulf of Mexico.

The fireplace is original to the house; so are the flooring and window seat. But the stairs are new, and one of the biggest challenges for the remodeling contractor was finding a place for the staircase that "fit within the context of the house." He solved the problem by sacrificing a tiny bedroom to create space for the stairs, a mechanical closet and a new downstairs bath.

The house was lifted by house mover A.B. Thomas while a new, higher foundation was built under it. The goal: to elevate the house but avoid a stilt-house look, which the owners dislike.

This was the original house, a 1920s shotgun cottage in Pass-a-Grille with an enclosed porch. Inside: choppy rooms, vintage kitchen and bath.

An adonidia, or Christmas palm (Veitchia specie), rises above the red fountain grass and thunbergia in front of the house. The plants wave gently in the slightest breeze, creating a "dynamic and interesting" view, said landscape designer Jane Buck of B&R Botanical.