Over the course of two decades—and multiple porch additions—architect Julia Starr Sanford rehabs an old Florida captain's house without sacrificing its original salty character.
By Stephanie Hunt
1 of 9Photo: Brie Williams; Styling: Liz Strong
Pictured: The 19th-century home, which now has two floors of shady porches, is just two blocks from the water on Amelia Island.
"I call it my beach farm," says architect and interior designer Julia Starr Sanford of her 1860s ship captain's home tucked into the wooded, northeastern coast of Florida. "That's how I think of it, a farmhouse: so simple, so solid." Sanford raised her son, Noah (now 20), here, where he roamed barefoot and Huck-Finn-happy—with Henrietta the hen and four raucous roosters—amid palm trees, fishing creeks, and an organic garden. "Over the years, we've planted seedlings and watched them grow into mature sources of shade and fruit," Sanford says. "We've motored our dinghy across the river toward Cumberland Island and hand-picked oyster shells for the fireplaces, laid them in the drive to bleach in the summer sun. Everything around us has helped shape this house, and the house and the land have shaped us."
2 of 9Photo: Brie Williams; Styling: Liz Strong
Pictured: The ground-floor porch has character in spades: The sofa is vintage rattan, the chairs are crafted of whitewashed distressed barkwood, and the ceramic lamps are designed to resemble palm trunks.
It all started in the mid-1990s. Sanford and Noah's father (now deceased) were sailing along the coast "looking for deep water, and we sailed into Tiger Point Marina across the street," she says. "I walked up the hill and saw it. It's hard to describe, but this area, this house, it felt so familiar to me. It immediately felt like home."
3 of 9Photo: Brie Williams; Styling: Liz Strong
Pictured: The seven-foot-long marlin on the upstairs porch was a gift, and the rug is by Dash & Albert.
It was boarded up, and had been for years. But she was determined to rescue the modest home, one of only a few surviving captains' quarters near this once bustling harbor. The framing was solid, crafted of cypress and heart-pine logs floated down the river and milled on site, and it had original, hand-blown windows throughout. (And the one-room-wide footprint allowed for excellent cross ventilation.) The heart-pine floors were in good shape, too, so smoothed by the centuries that in bare feet, Sanford says, "it's like walking on fine furniture." Beneath the drywall and layers of paint were heart-pine beadboard and honeyed cypress trim.
4 of 9Photo: Brie Williams; Styling: Liz Strong
Pictured: A breezy corner sleeping porch is outfitted with custom cedar beds, which are secured to the siding and suspended with rope to "float" above the floor.
In the coming years, Sanford added porches "whenever time could afford," resulting in a two-story veranda along the front and side of the house, including a sleeping porch for cool nights with cricket lullabies. Another (on the north side) catches the cross breezes, and a third (on the west) adds a bit more shade. Doors stay open year-round. "With ceiling fans, we barely ever use the AC," adds Sanford.
5 of 9Photo: Brie Williams; Styling: Liz Strong
Pictured: A vintage Velzy surfboard hangs in the former kitchen house, which Sanford jokingly refers to as her "natural history museum."
Out of a detached kitchen house, she created what she lightly dubs her "natural history museum," a little office where the bookshelves are piled with intriguing curios of old Florida—bleached tortoise shells, osprey feathers, vintage maps.
6 of 9Photo: Brie Williams; Styling: Liz Strong
Kitchen with Heart
Pictured: A pecky cypress island and coquina fireplace add to the kitchen's aged patina.
The real kitchen now lives in what she guesses had been the dining room, where she installed a custom pecky cypress island, pale pink Alabama marble countertops, and recycled cabinets found at an estate in Atlanta. "We pulled off drywall to find sandy pink brick," says Sanford, who used the shells she and Noah collected for the tabby fireplace surrounds. Now the only dining area is on the porch, which suits them fine.
7 of 9Photo: Brie Williams; Styling: Liz Strong
Mod-Meets-Rustic Living Room
Pictured: The sofa in the modern-leaning living room is custom from Sanford's own line, Sublime Original, and the baskets on the wall are lime-washed.
White walls throughout contrast well-worn cypress trim and showcase Sanford's art collection, including oils by Ryan Ivey and a Jim Draper abstract above the living room mantel. "Most of the art reflects some natural aspect of Florida—the water or trees or flora," she notes. The exceptions are the family portraits: An abstract sketch of Sanford's mother, for instance, keeps watch in the kitchen, and a gallery of old photos graces the second-floor landing, opposite a curved stairwell that Sanford commissioned from a local shipbuilder to gain access to a third-floor master bedroom tucked under attic dormers.
8 of 9Photo: Brie Williams; Styling: Liz Strong
Pictured: Sanford had a local shipbuilder build a new mahogany stairwell to access the third floor. And yet even old houses like this one can adapt well to hints of modernism.
Contemporary Scandinavian-influenced furniture from Sanford's Sublime Original collection dot the rooms: geometric, low-slung armchairs on a porch, a modern writing desk in the "museum." "This house doesn't need to be a time capsule," says the designer, who's well known for her residential work in New Urbanism communities such as Alys Beach along the Gulf of Mexico, as well as sustainable resort communities like Mahogany Bay Village (a Coastal Living community) in Belize. "I like the curves of modern forms, the sculptural qualities of abstract art and midcentury furniture."
As for the newer architecture she designs, "I love how we can shape a space to a life," she says. "But in an old house, you work with what you have, and there's a real richness to that. You can feel the layers of time here, and that's a big part of what I fell in love with."