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Dull duplex goes to charm school

With $50,000, lots of sweat equity and clever touches, a couple turn a Davis Islands ho-hummer into an enchanting home and rental.

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 17, 2003

DAVIS ISLANDS -- When warm weather calls, Jeannelee and Richard Butt like to kick back in comfy wicker chairs on their front porch. Three dogs curl at their feet. Neighbors wave hello.

Some stop and stare.

Few can miss the big yellow hybrid of a house at 134 E Davis Blvd. Graceful, bilevel porches, a picket fence, leafy green trim and abundant gingerbread detailing beckon even the most hurried passer-by to slow down and sit a spell.

"I've always loved the idea of front porches," says Jeannelee Butt, who has lived on Davis Islands for nearly 40 years. "They give us that sense of community that we lost after air-conditioning came along."

The couple added not one but two porches 11 feet deep by 30 feet wide -- upstairs and downstairs -- in an overhaul of a 1948 duplex. The porches dramatically changed the exterior, as did the couple's keen eye for design.

"We just sort of made it up as we went along," Richard Butt says. "A lot of people say it looks like Key West. Others say New Orleans. We just decided we'd call it 'Southern.' "

As many as a dozen strangers a week knock on their door, asking to look around. The home has been much talked about on the island, where plain-faced rental buildings line the main drag into downtown.

The redesign was a clever exercise in functional trompe l'oeil. And many people hope the couple's efforts will inspire other property owners. "We used to hear cars screeching to a halt out in front," Jeannelee Butt says of the renovation completed just under a year ago.

In 18 months, the structure went from frowzy to fantastic. The couple spent about $50,000 to tailor the look of their investment property -- which they've owned since their marriage -- into something they always dreamed about. They did much of the work themselves.

"Except for the porch, we did a lot of this," Butt says. "It was hard, but I'd still do it again."

When finished, they had created a gorgeous living space for themselves on one side of the duplex and an attractive rental on the other. Seamless design ties the two units together in the front, creating the look of an old house.

Inside the living room, the "upscale pub/English drawing room" look came from Butt, originally from England. He's former CEO at Barclays Bank. The couple, both 61, married seven years ago. They share a love for fixing things up.

"We're both Type A's," Mrs. Butt says, laughing. "If it weren't for our senses of humor it would be disastrous."

Butt arrives home from a Sunday afternoon of playing golf and immediately begins puttering in the yard. His wife confesses to being a "home wrecker." Over the years, she has called five houses and a houseboat home.

"I've remodeled every one of them," she says. That includes the houseboat, where she managed to install a fireplace in the upper-deck salon.

Though they traded a 3,100-square-foot house on Aegean Avenue for their current 1,200 square feet of living space, Mrs. Butt managed to make the rooms feel big.

Walls are Calvin Klein red. Crown molding wraps around the windows and doorways in a crisp, laundry white. She deliberately chose a dark wall color because "when something is small, you don't try to make it seem larger. You just go with it," she explains.

The small fireplace, with its ornate mantle and marble base, fits snugly against the stairwell wall. It isn't real. The fire crackling behind glass doors is a hologram, flicked on by electric switch. The marble base came from a broken dresser she bought at Rooms to Go for $80.

Furnishings include high-back chairs and a bar smartly tucked beneath the stairs. A framed, three-panel mirror on the wall is actually a medicine chest converted to a cleverly disguised pass-through from the kitchen.

Jeannelee Butt, an international flight attendant with Delta, compares her tiny kitchen to the serving galleys on airplanes.

A good cook known for dinner parties, she swears she would never go back to a big kitchen. She finds her cooking space, 10 by 6 feet, downright cozy and a cinch to clean up. Everything is within arm's reach and in plain view.

Jars of her home-canned chutneys, pates and garden vegetables (fruits of a mountain home in Sky Valley, Ga.) glisten like jewels in cabinets without doors. The dishwasher is half the size of the standard variety. Small acrylic tool shelves hang from every inch of wall space and hold spices, teas and rice.

"I just close the door and make the most awesome meals in here," she says.

In the adjoining sun room, the Butts kept a weathered deck as flooring, lending the room a country cottage look.

Sisal rugs add warmth. So does a length of Laura Ashley floral fabric hanging from the sides of a faux butcher-block table. Concealed underneath is a washer and dryer that can be accessed through a hatch cleverly cut out of the top of the table.

A back patio contains a tiny, portable hot tub and natural wicker chairs clustered around a dining table. Two semipermanent white tents shield guests from the sun and rain.

The couple spent so much time in home improvement stores that they started to figure out how to "just take stuff off the shelves and create this," he says.

"This a living monument to Home Depot."

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