THE HOUSE BUILT ON COMPROMISE

By Margit Bisztray

for “Key West Magazine”

November 2006


PAINTER AND ART COLLECTOR Blair Martin appreciates Haitian artists for their ability to paint how they want things to be, not how they are. They paint animals that exist only in their imagination. They paint intact homes, verdant fields and bustling marketplaces where in real life there are only crumbling buildings. Haitian art, as she puts it, has “soul in it.”


The Reynolds Street house of Blair and her husband Bill appealed to them less for what it was - a one-story masonry ranch with a low-pitched hip roof - than for what it could become: a warm-weather dream home with privacy and space enough for two people to work. In this sense, it can be compared to the folk art covering nearly every square inch inside it. The house is an imaginative vision come to life, a multicolored, open-yet-secluded, utterly original statement—rich in story, and bursting with soul.


“Blair is the wild-eyed artist with little interest in such trivial matters as budget or convention,” says Bill. “And I am the conservative tightwad.” But as the owner of an advertising agency (in Richmond, Virginia), Bill appreciates professional design and knows that “good clients get the good work, because they allow it.” In opting for an architect, Bill expected to make allowances. Enter David Knoll, architect and fellow visionary.


Both Blair and Bill wanted to change the house in ways that were either intolerable to the other or for some other reason impossible. Blair wanted high ceilings and skylights in the “great room” (as they call the central living area). Bill wanted an all-white exterior and a fixed budget. Both Wanted accordion walls along the rear of the house, a formal foyer, a studio for Blair, an office for Bill, an indoor-outdoor dining room and a large, private master suite. Charm was important, too. The house had to “go against the grain of the typical Key West conch house,” says Blair. Essentially, they wanted a house with the spirit of a Haitian painting—a dauntingly abstract goal that Knoll, amazingly, was able to fulfill.


“David is an architect, but also an artist,” says Blair. “Which is why we like him.“His very first drawings were amazing,” says Bill. “He had incorporated every important item on our crazy list into a plan that made sense.”Intrinsic elements of the structure drove Knoll’s design. Lush landscaping hid the front of the house from the street, making that part of the building private already. The entire back of the house, including the original master bedroom, was less private, but overlooked the pool and garden. (“The back of the house is what sold us,” says Blair.) And the home’s solid structure and upgraded fixtures formed sound foundation for Knoll and the Martins to build on. And build they did. A second story for the master bedroom and Blair’s studio covers half the house. Two staircases (one inside, one outside), a foyer and a dining room were added to the first floor, where one of the three original bedrooms was transformed into Bill’s office. The original master bedroom became a guest suite. In all, 1,412 square feet grew on the original 1,554, bringing the square footage of the final structure to 2,966.


As the second-floor addition would sit directly atop the hip roof, the existing HVAC pipes, wiring and plaster ceilings on the first floor could be saved. Unable to raise the downstairs ceiling (Blair’s request) while keeping the budget within control (Bill’s request), Knoll compensated by designing loft ceilings in the master bedroom and Blair’s studio, where he also accommodated her wish to have a wet bar. Decks on either side of the master suite are sun-filled and private. The addition, like the rest of the house, is stucco. To further unify the design and define the new building as more than just another upgraded ranch house, Knoll added a parapet, eliminating any view at all of the roofline from the front. As a result, Bill says, a building that might have looked boxy now appears “angular, almost Bauhaus.”The dining room now extends from the existing kitchen (on the opposite “wing” of the great room from the bedrooms) to the rear of the house, abutting French doors on two sides—occupying a space that feels more outdoor than indoor. A former kitchen window was converted to a pass-through between the two rooms, which are further harmonized by hues of pale vegetable green. A collection of 1950s Russel Wright American dinnerware Blair inherited from her grandmother inspired the room’s palette, which, in a lovely coincidence, echoes the shades of turquoise, emerald and aqua shimmering around Key West. Though Blair lost her fight to install skylights (too expensive), Knoll’s decision to raise the height of the dining room from eight feet to ten, combined with ample glass, achieves much the same. Cove lighting and a custom-designed chandelier offer alternative illumination. Further compromise took place around the floating staircase connecting the main room to the master suite. All three parties agreed it should be open, not obstructive. Knoll proposed a Japanese-inspired lattice railing. Blair proposed something so open that Knoll knew there was no way it would ever pass code. Bill proposed something affordable. By default, the husband won and the result is a powder coated, welded aluminum railing with smaller, code-approved parallel members.


Cost efficiency won out in regard to the windows as well. Both the accordion design the Martins suggested for the dining room and the casement windows planned for the second floor had to be scrapped due to budgetary concerns. Instead, they settled on conventional French doors and double hung Windows, as lower priced alternatives without sacrificing aesthetic appeal. Bill Martin did lose one battle: he had wanted the house and walls white. Blair, meanwhile, asserts, “If the house had been painted white, it wouldn’t have stayed white.” Addressing the planes like Cubist angles, Blair and David proposed blue, orange, yellow and green in addition to dark stained wood for the soffits and the exterior walls above the foyer. Bill countered that it looked like “Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey.” He acquiesced only because he was convinced HARC would refuse the colors. His confidence was misplaced. Located just outside Old Town and invisible the street, the house earned a HARC classification as a “non -contributing structure,” which means Bill’s white went to the circus. Luckily, he loves the result.


The rest of the house is filled with colors that aren’t tropical so much as organic to an island. A collection of candy-colored paperweights faces a wall of burnished orange starfish. Small touches of coral and black punctuate calming stretches of blue, celery, chartreuse and sand. Arranged with the Haitian art (some from the Haitian Art Company on Frances and Southard Street) are paintings Blair collected during the Martins’ travels to the islands and Europe, including two works from the St. Remy asylum, the famed institution Vincent van Gogh checked into in 1889, and which to this day runs art therapy programs. In one corner of the master suite hangs Biair’s favorite painting, a Haitian work entitled Mixed Marriage. In it, a female jaguar kneels before an upright bull. Perhaps she’s asking his forgiveness. Perhaps it’s her final plea for skylights. At any rate, the door to the house stands open, ready to welcome home a couple with the willingness to compromise