Perfecting the past:

Every inch now completed, this renovation on the Victoria Isles underscores its mid-century origins.

text John T. O’Connor     photos Myro Rosky

Born and raised in New York CITY, Robert Jahelka began practicing architecture in South Florida after receiving his degree in architecture from Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture in 1932. He moved from New York to Fort Lauderdale and received commissions to build the Spanish Revival style First Presbyterian Church in 1941. In 1953, Jahelka designed The Church By The Sea, an only-in-South- Florida ecclesiastical-modern structure that, according to its history, includes a sanctuary roof created from the upside-down hull of a ship.

Walls surfaced in dry-stacked Italian limestone add dramatic shadowing under raking light, drawing attention to the walkway-wrapped courtyard and the massive, live oak at its center.

For Oscar Brunsted’s waterfront home, built in 1951 in Victoria Isles, Jahelka turned a corner, opting for an indoor/outdoor sanctuary that paid close attention to its dreamy site, North Gordon Road, a tiny, block-long island in between the Nurmi Isles and Victoria Park. The roughly H-shaped structure paid close attention to the tenets of the emerging, Modernist style. It presented itself as unassuming from the street and absolutely minimalist in detailing, but nevertheless was full of life, from its courtyard to the canal lapping at its west side. Florida, Jahelka seemed to say, was no place for a sprayed white, Corbusian “machine for living” but rather a place that urged you to live with nature, not conquer it.

Classics like Eileen Gray’s Adjustable Table E 1027 and Eero Saarinen’s Executive Arm-
chairs fit well with this home’s open plan living and dining spaces. A dramatic, angled ceiling leads the eye to the pool, dock and waterfront beyond.

Marla and Curtis Woodhouse understand this like no one else. They first encountered the house in 2002, and were taken by what made it special… what made it Florida. The couple, an architect and architectural illustrator, used this as their jumping off point in a series of renovations that have created a masterpiece. From its street frontage, covered walkways lined with stainless steel columns –– ‘bean poles’, to use the Mid-Century Modern vernacular –– wrap a lush courtyard. The Woodhouses incorporated a Modernist version of a traditional pergola for this house, creating a weather protected walkway and terrace surrounding a magnificent Live Oak, one that was no doubt just a sapling when the home was completed, 70 years ago. When they first came upon the house, it was this tree, and the home’s apparent connection to nature, that drew them to the house. The addition of these low- slung covered walkways, past the courtyard garden and into the front door that underscore that connection, but it’s the transition from exterior to interior, combining skillfully the ideas of the home’s original architect and its current custodians that seals the deal. Here, the home’s progression of spaces takes a cue from the work of Frank Lloyd Wright… starting low at the entry, then exploding into a brilliant, volumetric spaciousness that brings your eye to the glimmering pool and canal just beyond. The effect is nothing less than mesmerizing.

Recently, the couple embarked upon further renovations and, as they had years of experience with the house, they knew what to accentuate, and what to toss. The final result makes it evident that this couple has keen eye for both finishes and furnishings. While every inch of this 3,575 square foot, four-bedroom home has been meticulously renovated, the Woodhouses never made the mistake of ‘gilding the lily’ so to speak. The finish work is decidedly high-end, but never upstages the idea of the home or its incredible setting. Floors were ‘floated’ throughout to be exactly level, then finished in giant, 48” polished terrazzo tile. As the home transitions to its exterior terraces both front and back, this same material and size was used for continuity, yet here it was utilized in its rough, unpolished form.

In terms of accentuation, The Woodhouses removed a set of lower sliders from the pool and canal-facing façade, having stacking sliders fabricated in a ten-foot height. Slide these back and floor-to-ceiling, ripple-fold linen curtains waft in the breeze. Giant, Alocasia or “Elephant Ear” palms glow in the sunlight, while a line of coconut palms line the boat dock and canal just beyond a restored, kidney-shaped pool. To the right is a covered, outdoor kitchen and to the left is a ter- race off the master suite, lined with lush greenery adding a modicum of privacy.

Wired for sound and protected from direct sun and the occasional downpour, the home’s spacious, canal-facing, outdoor rooms allow its occupants to live outdoors much of the year.

While the original house was innovative in many ways, its approach to food preparation areas was not one of them. Jahelka’s original design called for a small, eight-foot by eight-foot space abutted by a cramped pantry/utility room. If the last few decades have seen the kitchen’s function morph from servant scullery to center of family life in general, the new kitchen here surely represents the pinnacle of that transformation. Satin-finished, quarter-sawn, white oak cabinetry lines the walls of this kitchen, which is open on one end to the den and living room, and open to the terrace at its opposite end, via corner stacking sliders. All of the appliances, from the integrated refrigerator/freezer to the quad installation of ovens, microwave and espresso station are top-of-the-line Miele. A long, work island and breakfast bar is crafted – – waterfall style –– from a new, solid surface material named Krion, and is drenched in natural light during the day via skylight.

Miele appliances and Krion surfaces finish the kitchen.
The spacious master bath connects directly to a dressing room lined with wardrobe closets.

The Woodhouses have loved living in the house and all it now offers; swimming, boating, kayaking, and outdoor dining. Marla telling us at one point, “If it were up to me, I’d have no air conditioning, none at all. That’s the way I grew up in Fort Lauderdale.” The home’s finishes and furnishings are a tribute to their way of life. Make no mistake, they show a design-savvy to be sure, but they highlight what I have come to call “the Lauderdale Lifestyle”… one of relaxed elegance. One where you take your shoes and socks off in the house, not for fear of messing something up, but because the cool of the terrazzo feels great against bare skin. This is a house of no fuss and no bother. A home of open spaces where “less” truly is “more”.

Their renovation efforts have allowed this home to now take full advantage of its indoor/outdoor nature. According to Tim Singer, of Tim Singer & Associates, who has now listed the property for sale, this Victoria Isles property has suddenly become an all-encompassing template, ticking off almost all the boxes of what today’s buyer is looking for. “If the situation of the last 10 months has taught the Fort Lauderdale real estate community anything,” Singer told us, “It’s that our clients want their homes to meet their needs more than ever. They look for quality finishes, good indoor and outdoor living and work-at- home spaces as well as accessibility to retail services and social interaction.”

As for the couple who “discovered” this little gem and whipped it into frothy perfection, fear not. They plan to move on to a new, roll-up- your-sleeves adventure in domestic architecture. Given the exacting nature of this renovation and the couple’s innate understanding of what the home wanted to be, I for one, can’t wait to see what they create next.