In recent years, architects and media alike have denounced big houses. These behemoths, they say, are ugly, vacuous and without soul; in short, “there’s no there there.”
While such criticisms certainly characterize some big houses out there, they do not describe every big house built today. Many are well designed, with soul oozing from every corner.
This truism came to mind as I toured six large furnished models at the Founder’s Club, a new subdivision in Sarasota, Fla. The houses had 4,700 to 7,500 square feet of “conditioned space,” plus another 1,000 square feet of shaded outdoor living space around a swimming pool and 800 to 1,500 square feet of patio around the pool itself. The shaded area, called a lanai, is a common feature in Florida houses. In most households, it is a center of activity for all but the hottest months of the year. Large lanais like the ones in these houses have outdoor kitchens, fireplaces, sitting areas with inviting spots to enjoy an afternoon siesta, and space to entertain 25 to 50 people.
As is often case in new-home communities with several builders competing for the same market, there are many similarities in the models. Each one has a U-shaped footprint that wraps around the lanai and pool area. The formal entry is centered in the “bottom” of the U, where it opens onto formal living and dining areas. Turn towards one side of the house, and you’re heading for the master suite; turn towards the other and you’ll be in the eat-in kitchen and family room area.
The guest suites, a necessity when you live in a climate that beckons relatives and friends from November to April, are discreetly placed at some distance from the master suite, usually on a second floor. Each house also has a bonus game room for those few summer months when the weather during the day is insufferable, and the three largest houses have home theaters.
The price of the furnished models, including lot cost, optional upgrades and furnishings, ranged from $2.65 million to $5.9 million. As one might expect, luxury abounds, along with a few over-the-top details. My favorite was the Powder Pakistani Green onyx bathroom, which had a spacious, eight-sided shower with four windows opening onto a private courtyard. There is also informal elegance, as exemplified by the classiest “memory point” merchandising I have ever seen — a kitchen island with a mahogany butcher-block counter. The same house also features high-tech bells and whistles: The three exterior window walls of the family room completely retract, turning the space into an extension of the lanai.
Each house overlooks great views, both near and far. The pool, lanai and artfully selected drought-resistant landscaping are up close and personal; a bit farther out, each lot adjoins a 150-acre, 18-hole golf course dotted with ponds, small lakes and huge, 150- to 200-year-old live oak trees.
For many buyers, the critical differentiating factor between these houses will be the price. For this architectural writer, however, the standout “lives small.” That is, it can accommodate a huge gathering of 100 to 200 people for that Super Bowl extravaganza, but when the party’s over, the two or three people who live there will not feel like they are living in a museum with huge empty rooms, an oft-heard complaint from people who live in large houses.
The house, called The Elanora, was designed by the builder himself, John Cannon, a self-described “architect wannabe” who has been building houses in the Sarasota area for more than 25 years.
Stylistically, Cannon’s 6,160-square-foot, $3.6 million house, with its stuccoed exterior, columned portico and tiled roof can be loosely characterized as “neoclassical Mediterranean.” A look that’s favored in Florida and the southwestern United States, it lends itself particularly well to big houses.
A tour starts with the expected luxurious foyer, replete with columns and an inlaid marble floor. As in the other houses, the formal interior spaces that overlook the pool area and the golf course greenery in the distance are straight ahead. But start to look around and things get interesting. To one side, you can see through the shared living areas to the sunlit windows of the bonus room at the far end, and you know the house is big. And, as you head towards those distant windows (they are actually 93 feet away), clever design details emerge.
The “museum feel” was avoided by giving each room a hexagon shape (when a room has more than four corners, or is round or elliptical, most people cannot accurately determine its overall size). This illusion of smallness is heightened by trim details and ceiling heights. In each major area, the ceiling is higher in the center of the space than at the edges, and the trimwork is oversized but appropriately scaled — the wall bases are 1 foot high and a two-piece crown molding extends down 1 foot from the ceiling.
Every ceiling treatment is different, and all but two of the hexagon-shaped rooms have irregular configurations. The two rooms with eight equally sized walls are so different in character, most visitors will only realize the similarity when looking at the floorplan in the sales brochure. The bonus room at the far end of the shared living area is 26 feet wide, and the exposed, tongue-in-groove cypress ceiling reaches a peak of 16 feet. The intimate sitting room off the master bedroom is only 14 feet wide and has a 13-foot, stepped ceiling.
As befits a large house that starts with a view and slowly reveals its secrets, this one incorporates a measured pace. Narrow passageways with lower, vaulted ceilings separate each major living area, providing a quiet moment as a visitor passes from one grand space to another.
Queries or questions? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.
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