Keeping History Intact

Written by Barbara Bowers

Historic preservation in Key West

By Barbara Bowers

Pavilion and sculpture next to the 75-foot lap pool.

The curtained pavilion that stretches across the back property line at 727 Poorhouse Lane is Hal Bromm’s and Don Meris’ favorite “at home” spot. Overstuffed sofas, white tablecloths and cushy pillows, a creative hodge-podge of chairs and stools form an instant comfort zone in a mature garden of mostly indigenous plants. But in a gentle breeze, not-so-indigenous papaya and banana leaves flutter, accenting the Zen quality of calm and natural light.

The sound of water trickles into the house, but the lap pool is more than a decorative accent.
The sound of water trickles into the house, but the lap pool is more than a decorative accent.

Water from a fountain at the front property line flows through the 75-foot lap pool, which ends at the three-bay pavilion and separates two houses facing the lane; one, an old Conch house built in the 1890s, the other a contemporary, two-story structure built in 1996.

But initially, the old and the new did not flow together as smoothly as they appear today. When Bromm and Meris bought the property in 1991, “it had been under contract for five years,” said Bromm. “Originally there were two buildings here, both historic gems. After the title finally cleared and we had just refinished the floors of the big house, it burned down. Everything went; all the Dade County pine, paneled doors, porcelain door knobs, all the old glass.”

Although Bromm’s business is interior design and contemporary art, he says his passion is historic preservation. With a focus on adaptive reuse, his projects have included the likes of a cheese warehouse that he converted into artists’ lofts in New York’s now-trendy Tribeca neighborhood.

As president and long-term board member of New York City’s Historic Council, he worked to advance the preservation agenda throughout the city, giving voice to fledgling community groups seeking historic protection. He is currently on its advisory committee.

“It was hard for us to lose what was to be our historic home,” said Bromm.

The old house was replaced with a modern two-bedroom, two-bath structure “built both to live within and outside of,” he said. “We approached our friend Architect Tom Pope, who engineered the drawings for a house that we knew exactly how we wanted the spaces to serve our program inside. The exterior evolved from an inside-out approach.”

Bromm says their lifestyle frequently focuses as much on entertaining themselves and guests indoors as does the pavilion and its nearby uncovered, outdoor dining room.

High ceilings, 8-foot glass doors and white walls contrast with carefully selected antiques like this grain bin in the living room.
High ceilings, 8-foot glass doors and white walls contrast with carefully selected antiques.

For instance, the entire first floor is a 15-foot by 40-foot uncluttered living space, featuring a series of 8-foot-high glass doors. Some are double and open to the fountain and lap pool, strategically positioned for the sound of trickling water…or for a hugely convenient splash down: The pool is more than a decorative accent. Its narrow, 75 feet are regulation length, and its black surface interacts with the garden surroundings to sometimes appear grey and well-worn then deepen into patches akin to dark, fertile soil.

“This is not a Hollywood pool,” said Bromm. “At night, it looks more like a pond.”

While the “pond” and pavilion are central to the exterior architectural design, the kitchen at 727 Poorhouse Lane is the link to the indoor/outdoor living Bromm and Meris enjoy. It serves the dining room indoors near the entrance to the house and also opens to the large dining-deck area out back, where a glass-top table formally seats twelve.

The kitchen island designed from industrial metal shelving features Meris’ collection of 1940s American pottery.
The kitchen island from industrial metal shelving features Meris’ collection of 1940s American pottery.

“We love to cook,” said Meris, a psychotherapist who conducts bereavement seminars all over the world, and most recently, for Hospice of the Florida Keys. “Hal selected the metal industrial shelving for the kitchen island because it offers easy access to kitchen utensils and it stands 42-inches high—you know how guests love to stand around in the kitchen.”

Although the island is higher than those found in standard kitchens, it is shorter than the industrial book shelves in the living room. High or low, though, the airy erecter-set look suits the tropical climate, the crisp edge of white, slip-covered furniture and the 10-foot ceilings with unpainted, exposed joists. Looking from one end of the house to the other, the joists appear beam-like, intentionally designed to capture the spirit and character of the former house’s Dade County pine.


 


 

Another interesting design idea that Bromm incorporated into the new house is his interpretation of the Eyebrow House—a uniquely Key West architectural style that boasts front windows on the second floor, where the lower of two sashes peaks from beneath a side-gable roof. However, on this particular second floor, the entire length of a front-gable roof boasts eaves that jut out two-or-so feet to protect the windows on both sides. Like an Eyebrow House without a porch (and situated perpendicular to the street), the windows appear to peak from beneath the overhanging roofline. But this is an illusion: The windows that line the two bedroom suites are really single-light/single sashes placed four-feet high from the floor.

Second-floor windows located high on the walls afford bedrooms privacy and light.

By raising the window sills and reducing the size of the windows, Bromm and Meris accomplish two architectural feats in one clever move: The second-floor bedroom suites are cloaked in privacy, yet they flood light throughout the upstairs; and from the street, the windows immediately announce that this is a new house designed to complement the old ones in the Historic District.

This is not a Disneyfied new house made to look old; it is clearly a new house that borrows time-tested architectural features, such as a covered front porch, to gently blend with its antique, Conch house counterpart on the property.

“A National Trust study on sustainability found that, ‘the greenest building is the one already built’,” said Bromm. “The labor and energy already invested in existing historic houses can be maximized by retrofitting with contemporary systems and upgrading.

“For the surviving small house, we added comfort and convenience, but kept as much of the history intact as possible,” he said. “Unfortunately, we had to start all over with the main house, but my historic preservationists’ credo of ‘Do no harm’ was always in mind.”

Photos: Michael A. Philip, Stylist: Jim Dugan

Barbara Bowers is a photographer and author; an award-winning travel writer and a former chairman of the Key West Historic Architectural Review Commission.
 
Hal Bromm Gallery
90 West Broadway
New York City. 10007
212-732-6196
email hbartanddesign[at]gmail.com