Florida: You can just feel it

Published April 28, 2006

I recently spent an April evening visiting a modest home in Pasco County built in the early 1960s. The concrete block house once looked much like thousands of others that once grew like kudzu around the state: boxy, plain-faced and without that defining character that we so often think of in a Florida home.

But the owners had spent years trying to make it look older, dreamier, more Florida-ish. With a lot of imagination, a modest budget and an eye for garage sale chic, they had managed to make it look - for lack of a better word - Cracker.

A spacious, pine-planked back porch gave the little house its signature stamp, complemented by a wooden outdoor shower: PVC pipes painted to look like old copper. Mismatched, sea-blue rocking chairs lined the porch, and kerosene lanterns (necessities during hurricanes) dangled from the ceilings. The owners confessed that they often liked to sit out there and listen to the sound of rain on the tin roof.

I decided that they had achieved the look that many of us strive for down here, but don't always achieve:

An authentic Florida look.

By this, I don't mean a decorative, faux Florida patina that you get from palm tree wineglasses and framed prints of colorful Adirondack chairs.

By authentic, I mean something, earthier, more profound, more real.

About two years ago, I visited the granddaughter of early Tampa pioneers who still lived on the 19th century Brandon family homestead, an open-air Florida cottage with wood floors and generous outdoor living spaces that looked out over a wild view of indigenous plants and trees. The colors were earthy and natural, the furniture old and distinguished. The owner was so protective of her little Florida sanctuary she said she wanted no publicity and for no one to know of its location.

But it was a true Florida house. What made it so was its proximity to and comfort with the outdoors, the breezes, the heat. The neutral, slightly dark look to the interior visually cooled the space against the glare of the sun.

An art photographer I visited last year had achieved the same effect in a subdivision house, cooling the floors with oriental rugs, decorating with baskets, African art and his large black-and-white Florida photos.

About a year ago, an article ran in Florida Classic Home about a couple who transformed their Seaside cottage into a porch-wrapped retreat that the architect described as "Cracker vernacular." Inside, furnishings were made from twig and wicker, and rush mats covered the yellow, tongue-and-groove pine floors. The house was painted in colors derived from the surrounding sand and Florida's native pine. Rather than plaster, interior walls were made of plywood and batten accents. Before building, the article noted, the owners had toured old Florida lodges, including the Island Hotel in Cedar Key.

On a recent trip through Dixie County on U.S. 19, for what was probably the 20th time in the past eight years, I drove past a charming Old Florida building called the Putnam Lodge. This time, I saw the owner standing on the front porch with her dogs and decided to pull in. She told me that the place had been built as a hotel by a Suwannee River lumber company that had once operated a thriving company town on the site. Dignitaries had traveled from as far away as South America to stay in the lodge, built from the finest native Florida woods. The woman had made the old hotel - still completely preserved all the way down to the front desk - her own private residence. She had managed to enhance the Florida feeling by the way she decorated: simply, using lots of wicker and wood furnishings and maintaining the original natural color scheme that picked up on the beauty of the surrounding landscape.

She told me that her friends couldn't understand why she gave up a big house and lots of land in Hernando County to move into an old hotel near the Suwannee River when many women her age were playing golf and living in 55-plus communities. She loved living in the rambling, converted lodge, she said, because she had latched onto a home that really felt like Florida in a time when so much of what is real about the state is rapidly vanishing.

I grew up in an authentic Florida home, designed by a renowned Miami architect known for his soulful spaces and use of natural materials.

Yes, it was a new house (and a modern one at that) compared with an old one built by our state's notoriously hearty pioneers.

But it was still a home defined by that signature Florida feeling, something I can't define but always know by heart when I see it.

"It's what Florida is all about," said that Pasco County homeowner who had successfully coaxed his 1960s block house into a Cracker-style retreat. "We want to live in houses that somehow feel old and have big porches."

The kind of porches, he said, you can really walk around on and feel cooled by the breezes.

Even during a long, hot Florida summer.