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Clean lines, modern designs emerge in traditional Tampa Bay neighborhoods

The pool lighting is magenta in this modern home designed by Lee Harvard on Snell Isle in St. Petersburg.
The pool lighting is magenta in this modern home designed by Lee Harvard on Snell Isle in St. Petersburg.
Published Jan. 3, 2015

Amid the bungalows, the low-slung ranches, the Mediterranean-style revivals that have characterized so much of Tampa Bay's housing for so long, a different look is taking hold.

The modern home.

With their clean lines, open spaces and expansive use of glass, they flow smoothly from indoors to out and bespeak an uncluttered, yet sophisticated lifestyle.

"Our motto is 'less but better,' " said Richard McGinniss, owner of Modern Tampa Bay Homes. "We strive for that elegant mix of simplicity with attention to detail, which looks simple but actually is very complicated to make it work."

As the bay area becomes more eclectic in its tastes, from food and drink to arts and entertainment, it is stretching the boundaries of design as well. McGinniss is one of a small number of builders and architects whose modern homes are appearing in some of Tampa's Bay's more traditional upscale neighborhoods like South Tampa and St. Petersburg's Snell Isle and Old Northeast.

Across the street from one cookie-cutter McMansion is perhaps the most talked-about house on Snell Isle — the "21st Century Modern Florida Home" designed by architect Lee Harvard and nearing completion.

Unlike most new flood-zone homes, which tower over their vintage neighbors, this house appears to sit almost at street level.

"I tried to slope it up,'' Harvard said of the minimally landscaped lawn, "so by the time you get to the house it doesn't feel so high.''

Four wide, shallow steps lead to an entry way with a slate-blue door and dark cypress accent wall. They give the front of the home, all straight lines and rectilinear shapes, an elegant yet understated look.

"It's on a busy street in Snell Isle, which is a conservative neighborhood," Harvard noted, "so I was interested in maintaining some tradition."

The cypress wall continues into the living area, where floor-to-ceiling glass sliders afford unbroken views of a large courtyard and glass-tiled pool. Skylights and clerestory windows allow natural lighting during the day; overhangs provide partial shade in the pool and courtyard.

Harvard, whose father designed St. Petersburg's iconic Pier, has to his credit many commercial properties and more traditional-looking homes. He built this one to suit his own aesthetic even though he worried about the reaction.

He didn't need to.

When a color rendering of the house went up on the Multiple Listing Service in May, with an $810,000 price, "we immediately had calls," said Frank Malowany, the Smith & Associates agent handling the sale. "Even after we had a contract pending, we still have interest in it. That's leading to other people considering having a modern home built."

The buyers are a couple who moved to the bay area from Palm Springs, California. That desert town is known for its wealth of mid-century modern homes, primarily built in the 1950s in a simple, harmonious-with-nature style that eschewed the heaviness and ornamentation of much pre-war construction.

The mid-century movement also took root in Florida, where members of the Sarasota School of Architecture designed many homes, churches and public buildings, several still standing. And while the style dropped out of favor between the 1970s and early 2000s, it is again inspiring architects and builders.

"It fits the style of urban living," said Mike Bartoletta, whose Taralon Homes is building in Tampa. "You get tired of using the same curved lines and arches, you want the square-edged design and the lines are just very clean and very modern."

Tougher construction standards, though, make the classic mid-century home no longer practical. Glass today must be strong enough to resist hurricane force winds and comply with energy codes, requiring more engineering and driving up costs.

Wall and roof assemblies must be thick enough to accommodate insulation, unlike the delicate post-and-beam construction of the original homes that allowed for thinner structural elements and more expansive use of glass.

"What we have to do is be inspired by that aesthetic but we have to interpret it in different terms because of the way we build in Florida in 2015," said McGinniss of Modern Tampa Bay Homes.

His company has 15 homes designed or under construction in St. Petersburg and South Tampa, striving for the combination of economy and design that made mid-century homes affordable to even middle-class Americans.

"I decided that the market needed some great contemporary architecture that was more accessible to more people instead of having to be a patron of the arts to afford one of my homes," he said.

Though they range into the seven figures, not including land, some of McGinniss' homes cost less than $400,000. He buys expensive materials like wood-look porcelain tile in bulk, passing on the savings to his clients. But no two houses are alike.

"Even though our homes are very modern, we consider the scale of the neighborhood where we build them. We make sure that when we design the house, the landscape is not an afterthought but very much an integral part of the design.''

In his own Old Northeast home in St. Petersburg, which he is about to sell, McGinniss scaled back the size and added a screened porch so it would blend better with older houses nearby. The outside walls are partly covered in tabby, a shell-flecked material that creates a softer look than the plain stucco used on many modern homes.

That house and two others he built in the Old Northeast initially had neighbors "up in arms," he recalled. "But when I'm done people just love them and think they add a different dimension to the neighborhood."

McGinniss is lavish in his praise of Harvard's Snell Isle house a few miles away , which he calls "incredibly beautiful."

"It's very subtle and very well executed," he said. "It's a house that doesn't have to shout. It's self-confident. It doesn't have to wear flashy clothes."

He's less enthusiastic about some other homes where modern has been interpreted simply as big and boxy. Some also have a copious amount of stone, parapets and other embellishments that detract from the clean look of the modern style.

"They do a lot of architectural gymnastics," McGinniss said, "and that's kind of missing the point."

Even the best designed modern homes, though, are not for everyone.

Collectors of tchotchkes may find their beloved snow globes and souvenir spoons out of place in such minimalist surroundings. Maintaining the uncluttered look is also a challenge for those prone to leaving beds unmade and clothes strewn about.

So who is the typical buyer of a modern home?

"We have empty nesters, we have young professionals, we have members of the gay community," McGinniss said. "One common trait they all share is that they are students of fine design, they read the magazines, they travel, they've been different places and they appreciate good quality design."

With many of those types of buyers wanting to live in an urban core, the growing price of land near downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa may be an impediment.

But McGinniss predicts that modern houses will start appearing in what are now considered unlikely places. He is building a million-dollar home for two doctors who wanted to be close to a certain hospital even though existing houses in the area are worth far less.

"Once that's up, other people are going to say, 'That's a great location.' I think there's almost an infinite supply of neighborhoods and areas that over time will be evolving.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727)-893-8642. Follow @susanskate.