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The Key West House

This Old House headed to the southernmost city in the continental United States, Key West, Florida, for the renovation of a circa 1886 Conch Captain house.

"It looks awfully good to us—why do anything?" That's what we said to homeowner Michael Miller during our initial walkthrough of his and wife Helen Colley's circa 1866 Key West cottage. This was not the typical rotten-sill, termite-infested, crumbling-plaster, collapsing-porch project we usually take on. Instead, Michael and Helen were faced with a perfectly okay old house with a variety of relatively recent improvements that obscured, rather than accentuated, the beautiful antique it was.

Their aim, then, was less of a mechanical overhaul (though much was eventually done in that department—see Foam Insulation and In-Line Ventilation System) than an aesthetic makeover. Lighter on nuts and bolts and heavier on the concepts of light, space, color, and style, the Key West project challenged us to show the way Michael and Helen—an architect and an artist, respectively—brought to life the home they saw underneath the house they'd recently bought.

And so, as the crew ripped off the solid—but low—roof of the rear porch, we knew what Michael was after: The same classic, high-ceilinged, gloss-painted Key West porch that he'd shown us during a tour of some of his other projects. Instead of a flat ceiling for the living room, Michael called for a pyramid and explained the dramatic effect it would have as one entered from the front hall. When the skylight illuminating the staircase moved from the street-facing slope of the roof to the rear, we got the logic. Soaking tub out, 35' x 11' pool in? We understood that it was more than just a place to swim—the pool served as an architectural element with a strong impact on the house and the landscape. Old-fashioned, mouth-blown glass panes in the new window sash? Real wooden shutters? Agog at the effort, we nonetheless saw the effect Michael was after. A sleek Italian kitchen in a 19th-century home? The intent was clear—a strong, immediately visible distinction between the formal historic spaces and a hard-working, modern room.

Michael and Helen had hoped to spend about $150,000 on the renovation; in the end its scope expanded and the inevitable "while-we're-at-its" occurred, nearly doubling their outlay. The result, however, is astounding. Who knew the beauty that was lurking under that solid but uninspired cottage? The tired but happy owners, that's who.