The 1920s stucco house was in desperate need of some TLC, from the fake wood paneling to the brown brick veneer across the fireplace. But Barbara Pope saw beyond the problems when she saw the vintage Cuban tiles on the porch.
James Fendelman and his wife, Wendy Joffe knew they would have to replace the plumbing, which ran around the outside of the house, and the old knob and tube electric wiring. No matter. They loved the tucked-in feeling of the 1910 cottage and the potential that could make it their own.
These are the people of Coconut Grove. They describe their homes as magical, tropical, historical, Old Florida.
Author Beth Dunlop and photographer Claudia Uribe documented their stories and 31 others in their new book, The Tropical Cottage: At Home in Coconut Grove (Rizzoli, $50). The homes range from tiny cottages to stone bungalows and Mediterranean casitas. Typical homeowners are artists, writers, designers, professors. Dunlop, who has written on architecture for The Miami Herald, is the editor of Modern magazine and the former editor of HOME Miami magazine. Uribe is an award-winning photographer with commercial clients as well as ELLE Decoration UK and Harper’s Bazaar.
When Dunlop took the book idea to Rizzoli, she pitched the Grove as a magical place that has always attracted dreamers — artists, sailors, writers, scientists, botanists and horticulturalists. She says not much has changed since the days of the pioneer Peacock and Munroe families in the 19th century. The neighborhood’s roots run deep — it is the oldest, continuously inhabited section of Miami.
“The Grove is a rare combination of the natural landscape, the terrain, the narrow little streets and the historic houses that, in turn, lure in very special kinds of people who care about living fully in the place they call home,” Dunlop says.
“The people who live in the Grove really live there. They nurture their gardens and they restore the houses. Some of the stories in the book are about those buying houses about to topple over. They hunted consignment and thrift shops to find the right bathtub or the right table. The connections between the homeowners and the houses are so strong and there is a connection between people in the community.”
That connection, as well as some good detective work, helped Dunlop and Uribe produce the book with 240 pages and 250 photographs. Uribe had already shot some of the photographs and Dunlop had some friends who lived there.
“One person led to another,” Dunlop says. “I drove around with my camera, did reverse lookups and property tax lookups. I got the names and went to Google and Facebook to see if we had any friends in common. I found several people through Facebook because of mutual friends. Claudia stuck notes in people’s mailboxes. We were lucky enough to meet up with people who love the Grove, were proud of their houses and proud of being part of this wonderful community.”
A TOUCH OF CUBA
Pope, a Realtor, is one of those who adores living in the Grove.
“When I first saw the house it had wonderful Cuban tiles on the front porch,” she says. “I love the front tiles and the old Spanish tiles in the bathroom. The house needed everything, but I could afford to buy it and spend time remodeling it.”
Pope bought the house in 1994 and moved in a year later, as soon as she could walk on the floors and had one bathroom working.
Saying it needed everything is an understatement. The house needed to be jacked up to make the floors level. When the fake wood paneling was removed, several coats of paint were exposed and the walls needed to be replastered. She replaced the old-fashioned awning windows with wood custom casement windows that look like an original she found in the bathroom. She took out the brick planters on either side of the fireplace, removed the brick veneer facade and created a surround in plaster to echo the arched doorway between the living and dining rooms. The carpets were removed to expose the original wood floors.
“I happen to have a friend who rented the house and he said they used to play hockey in the living room,” Pope says. “Luckily, the floors had carpeting.”
James Fendelman and Wendy Joffe liked the cottage their friends owned so much that they bought it 28 years ago. Cross ventilation. A veranda that wraps around three sides. Dade County pine floors. Nirvana.
“This house has had so many people in it and I felt friendly spirits,” Joffe, a psychologist who is also interested in the metaphysical, says. “It still has a lot of good energy.”
Dunlop says the cottage may have been occupied by a sea captain. (Slots for nautical charts were in the stairway.) But it was originally built for a manager or grove keeper of the Sunshine Fruits Co., a catalyst for the Grove’s early development.
Laura Newmark, an interior and garden designer and longtime friend, was hired to help with renovations. The changes, which involved removing walls and building an addition, were done in three phases over several years. The furnishings, which are mostly family antiques, were re-covered in lighter colors such as turquoise, blue and white.
A wall was removed on the front veranda. Another wall was taken down between the two front rooms. The sitting area is near the fireplace, which was cleaned to bring out the stone and topped with a heftier wood mantel than the original. A home theater with large flat screen TV and a state of the art sound system caters to Fendelman’s love affair with movies. No wonder. He used to own the Grove Art Cinema with his brother, Richard.
New cabinetry was added to the kitchen in 1996, which features original hand-painted tiles. That same year they built an addition with an office, bath and closets.
Upstairs some of the space was reconfigured, closets were built, bathrooms were remodeled and a laundry chute was added because the washer-dryer was moved downstairs. Four sleeping porches were converted into the master bedroom. An extended balcony makes it appear that they are living in the trees.
The outside shingles are now stained a rich dark brown, a far cry from the peeling paint and former owners’ attempts at different colors of paint. The wood windows are original. Hurricane Andrew blew away the barn at the corner of the garden, but no damage was done to the house despite the fact the windows are not storm-resistant and there are no hurricane shutters.
“We are surrounded by a canopy of plants and as long as you are inside the canopy like we are, it isn’t that bad,” Fendelman says.
A few of the larger trees and palms were there, but Newmark helped them redesign the garden. They filled in a swimming pool that was constantly leaking, added a cactus garden, a high hedge and other plants. The coup de grace is the waterfall and a white pergola with ceiling fan that allows them and their guests to relax and feel as if they are miles away from city life.
“People don’t want to leave,” Fendelman says. “After a while the sound of the waterfall makes you feel glued to the couch.”
It’s not only the house that drew them, it’s the Grove itself.
“I loved all the greenery and the people in the Grove,” Joffe says. “It’s a little conclave, a beautiful part of Miami that is more peaceful and filled the energy of old souls. People appreciate trees and honor them. It’s a community of people who believe in healthful eating and are open to new ideas.”
Fendelman says it is the only place he could live. “When you walk the streets, you see parrots and lush plants. You meet people enjoying life — walking dogs, running, riding bicycles. It’s paradise.”
Dunlop says she could have moved into every one of the homes in the book.
“These are very romantic little cottages,” Dunlop says. “We were seeking out storybook fantasies. We were looking for smaller houses. Another thing that separates this book from many design and decorating books is very few were by a decorator or had a decorator involved. It was about the lives of current owners and past owners who had stories to tell.”
Charlyne Varkonyi Schaub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.