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A midcentury modern house in Lutz has its original owner back, 50 years later

It is made almost completely of curved walls, covered in carpet and wood shingles.
John Palmer's roughly 1,500-square foot, two-bedroom, two-bathroom home has no drywall anywhere in its construction. The curves seem to lead visitors through the home, with a centerpiece round living room, pitched ceiling and large skylights. The swimming pool is a replacement; the original was a “floating pool” that was John Palmer's own invention.
John Palmer's roughly 1,500-square foot, two-bedroom, two-bathroom home has no drywall anywhere in its construction. The curves seem to lead visitors through the home, with a centerpiece round living room, pitched ceiling and large skylights. The swimming pool is a replacement; the original was a “floating pool” that was John Palmer's own invention. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Nov. 10
Updated Nov. 11

LUTZ — A few days after Alberto Comas moved into his new house in 2018 — a one-of-a-kind, midcentury modern home composed of almost exclusively curved walls — there was a knock on his door.

When he opened it, Comas recalled, there was an older man standing there. “I just want to see who moved into my house,” he said.

John Palmer Jr. had lost the house years prior in a foreclosure. He had planned to build an entire neighborhood of similar circular homes, until he said local officials prohibited him from developing the wetlands, causing his money to dry up.

But his question would also be a prediction. Fifty years after he built it, Palmer, 87, is now living in the “Waterfall House” once more.

John Palmer Jr., 87, built his midcentury modern home in 1971 with the intention of creating an entire neighborhood of homes being built just like it. But the project fell through, leaving his home unique.
John Palmer Jr., 87, built his midcentury modern home in 1971 with the intention of creating an entire neighborhood of homes being built just like it. But the project fell through, leaving his home unique. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The roughly 1,500-square foot, two-bedroom, two-bathroom home has no drywall anywhere in its construction. Its arching walls are made completely of stucco and plaster, which are covered in either tan carpet or cedar shingles, and painted a gray-white. The curves seem to lead visitors through the home, with a centerpiece round living room, pitched ceiling and large skylights.

“If you follow one of these walls, you never come to the end really because it keeps going around, and keeps going and going,” Palmer said. “This wall goes all the way around to the waterfall.”

The back of the home hovers over a jungle-like lagoon, where leaves fall from slender trees into the water and drift slowly toward a waterfall at the edge of the property. Built into the lagoon is a turquoise swimming pool with two points shaped almost like cat ears, adorned by planters of Key lime trees.

Since the day of that door knock, Palmer and Comas have remained close friends.

“I couldn’t have sold the house to anybody else,” Comas said.

The origin story

The house was completed in 1971 and was designed by Dan Duckham, a Florida architect long based in Fort Lauderdale, now well-known by admirers of midcentury modern work.

Palmer’s children used to sit near the construction site and watch cars slam on their brakes to get glimpses of the unusual home — resulting in frequent fender benders, he said.

A Tampa Tribune-Times story from Nov. 12, 1972, praised the home as “modernistic, elegant, utilitarian, comfortable — and it gives an illusion of expansiveness which isn’t there.” The story quotes Palmer discussing the additional houses he wanted to build, saying they would start at around $40,000 for interested buyers.

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Palmer now estimates he spent about $1.25 million building his house — a far cry from its selling price as it changed hands over the years, which has never gone above $410,000, records show.

“All those curves cost a fortune to build,” he said. Still, he has no regrets. “Where else in Florida are you going to get a house next to a waterfall?”

Related: Mod love: Father and son bond over mid-century modern architecture

In addition to the home’s unique walls, nearly all its furniture is built-in, including its beds, dressers, bathroom sinks and a long bench in the living room.

John Palmer Jr., 87, stands on the backyard deck of his midcentury modern home last week in Lutz. The home is bordered by a freshwater canal supplied with water from nearby Hanna Lake.
John Palmer Jr., 87, stands on the backyard deck of his midcentury modern home last week in Lutz. The home is bordered by a freshwater canal supplied with water from nearby Hanna Lake. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Todd Foley, the real estate agent on the sale of the home and who specializes in midcentury-modern properties, estimates there are about 500 midcentury modern homes in the Tampa Bay area. To be classified as midcentury modern, a home must be built between the late 1940s and the early 1970s and have some of the common features of that design movement — a “dead giveaway,” Foley said, is usually the shape of the roof, such as flat or butterfly style.

Palmer’s home fits into a smaller class of only about 50 local midcentury modern homes designed by well-known architects, Foley said.

“If you’d give those plans to a contractor (today) … they’d probably just laugh at you,” he said.

It’s also in great condition compared to others with renovations that ate away at the original, distinctive style.

“To see one like this virtually unchanged … it’s really neat,” Foley said. “You hate to see ones where they ‘80s-ed it (with) mauve and dropped ceilings.”

Palmer, however, still laments the changes that have taken place by its handful of different owners. Originally, the carpet covering the floors and walls was black shag, and his furniture was red and chrome.

Related: Restoring an architect's legacy: Frank Lloyd Wright

Even the shimmering, built-in pool is less favorable to Palmer than what was there before: a “floating pool” that was his own invention. In a faded photograph, a pink bikini-clad woman lounges beside the suspended pool surrounded by Florida wilderness.

“The other pool was a lot more fun,” Palmer said.

Walking around the home, he rattles off the additions he wants to make: black and purple carpet, underground parking, a drawbridge, a chicken coop. His office table is covered with stacks of drawings and designs, some of which he’s planning to add to his existing 10 patents.

“There’s a lot of work to do.”

New beginnings

By the time Comas bought the house in 2018, it had deteriorated, he said. The roof was leaking and the shingles were rotting off the walls.

Comas, an architect, also discovered other decisions by previous owners that made him cringe — like the person who had painted the shingles blue and the cabinets pink.

So he decided to bring it “back to life.”

The kitchen space inside John Palmer’s midcentury modern home in Lutz. Alberto Comas added the orange to the kitchen.
The kitchen space inside John Palmer’s midcentury modern home in Lutz. Alberto Comas added the orange to the kitchen. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

But one day, he was unable to reach Palmer, who still lived nearby. He wasn’t answering his phone, which was very unlike the man Comas knew to always pick up.

So Comas went over to Palmer’s house, he said, and found him in poor health.

“If no one had gone there, we wouldn’t be talking as we are,” Comas said.

He called Palmer’s son, John Palmer III, who took the first plane from his home in Dallas to watch over his dad as he healed in the hospital, he said.

But before the son headed back to Dallas, he stopped by the “Waterfall House,” with another knock on the door.

He asked Comas if he would sell him the home where he grew up, so his father could live there again.

“Just to show you we’re serious, I brought a check,” he told Comas. The sale closed around a month later, in August of this year.

Fuchsia blooms on a bougainvillea bush adorn the side yard of John Palmer’s midcentury modern home.
Fuchsia blooms on a bougainvillea bush adorn the side yard of John Palmer’s midcentury modern home. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Now, Palmer wakes in one of the built-in beds and admires the bougainvillea plant in the small courtyard, which catches the sunlight like magenta stained glass. He remembers stories from each of the rooms, like girlfriends of old friends who’d sit and bask in the bubble-like window.

He plans to host his kids for Thanksgiving. It’ll be his daughter’s first time back in about 45 years.

Times staff writer Gabrielle Calise contributed to this report.