Vision in White

Troy Campbell
A Florida couple created a sparkling Miami beach house out of a neglected 1950s white elephant.

Pierre Krys and Max Griffin share a rare gift. Together they can wander through an abandoned house surrounded by overgrown bushes or unkempt lawns and imagine all that it could be. "It's not really so complicated," Max says. "Sometimes you just have to take chances in your life and picture what you want." That's precisely what they did nine years ago, when they purchased a 1950s house on Belle Meade Island that owners had been trying to sell for a decade.

"People thought we were crazy when we bought this," Max says. "The asking price was high. It had been unoccupied for five years. And the neighborhood nearby seemed a bit risky. Still, we considered ourselves lucky."

Made of reinforced concrete, the plain white house looked unimpressive from the street and contained a warren of tiny rooms. Worse, a covered porch off the living room blocked any prospect of a view. And what a view! The house looked down to 40 feet of lawn and 170 feet of shoreline along Biscayne Bay, and boasted a great vista of the Miami skyline beyond. Confident they could create a home as beautiful as the site, they couldn't wait to start.

Gutting the house and rebuilding took more than a year. Contractors carted away 15 containers of debris; removed walls between the front hall, vestibule, dining room, living room, and game room; and opened up the kitchen. A structural engineer recommended adding two steel I-beams for support, but Max and Pierre made all other architectural decisions. When they were finished, the dark, cramped first floor had become a shining 2,000-square-foot living area surrounded by telescoping glass doors overlooking the bay. Upstairs, in place of three tiny bedrooms, they created a spacious master suite and a large bath. With the structure complete, Max and Pierre designed the interiors, focusing on simplicity and local materials. "A lot of houses we'd seen in Miami looked as though they belonged to a branch of royalty in Europe," Max says. "There was abundant gold leaf. And that's not the design direction we wanted." Instead they followed Pierre's self-described "pure approach to design." They painted all of the walls bright white and chose natural materials whenever possible. Putting down Brazilian-walnut floors and contrasting them with white paint gave the rooms a Key West feel. "Instead of an art-filled palace, we created our own beach house in Miami," Max says.

Outside, the couple celebrated Florida's beauty. Rather than planting ornate French-influenced gardens or exotic trees, they turned a portion of the lawn facing the bay into a beach. "We brought in sand and filled the area with native plants that live in the dunes," Pierre says. "Sea oats and sea grape, sea lettuce―whatever grows on the water." They also added a few crinum lilies for color.

In place of a concrete/AstroTurf deck, which former owners had built around the pool, a new patio sparkles with slabs made of native coral stone, carefully pieced together and pitched to shed water. Subtly textured and filled with natural imperfections, the stones establish a visual link between the house and the sea beyond.

"The best thing about this house is the sense of nature," Max says. "Many mornings you awaken to an egret or a shorebird walking through the grass, or iguanas sunning on the sea wall. To live so serenely with nature just 15 minutes from Miami's international airport is pretty incredible."

All it took was a little vision.

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