By: Betsy Owens
I have a confession to make: Last week I promised a blog on the expert rehabilitation of a wonderful, Spanish-style James Gamble Rogers home on Palmer Avenue. This is a column on the expert rehabilitation of a wonderful, Spanish-style home on Palmer Avenue that is most likely not a James Gamble Rogers house. At least Bill and Beth Neidlinger, the owners, don’t think it is.
But in my own defense, the house just feels like a Gamble Rogers house. The way it nestles into the lot, its sense of human scale, the fact that it’s a 3,400 square foot house that reads like 2,400, the way that the house envelops you when you walk inside.
In fact, it was these hallmarks of good design that the Neidlingers were able to discern, back in early 2013, even though prior owners had made choices that masqueraded its beauty. “Let’s just say it needed a lot of work,” said Bill.
And how. While the original, 1949 house had been a simple ranch built of half block, red oak floors, and high-grade dimensional lumber, subsequent owners had added their own ill-conceived design touches with questionable tile, plaster, ceiling, window and fixture choices. Strange architectural features had been added, such as a half-window abutment covered by a pitched eave and a massive, 6-foot retaining wall that obscured the house from the road. Because the house had been in foreclosure, the bank had Scotch-taped in the bottom-of-the-line Home Depot cabinets and plumbing fixtures, in order to unload it. The backyard pool had become a breeding ground for tree frogs, whose population had reached plague-proportions. Think I’m exaggerating? See for yourself:
Someone with less vision (or, Beth would argue, more sanity) would’ve torn it down. Not so the Neidlingers. “We wouldn’t have considered demolition,” said Bill. “Oh, it was too good to knock down. The house had great bones. Plus, the historic homes, the arts and culture—this is why we moved to Winter Park.” They chose the city over Charleston, Savannah, Sarasota, and Fairhope (AL) when they retired here from Atlanta 7 years ago.
Their first step was to hire architect Steve Feller, contractor Rich Searl, and landscape architect Bob Heath to oversee a 10-month rehab that included every room and every corner of the yard. “These guys understood that in rehabbing a single-floor home on a large, lovely lot, we were doing the antithesis of what everyone else is doing these days.” Indeed, defying the trend to ‘build as large a house as you can possibly afford,’ the Neidlingers chose quality over quantity.
While they essentially stripped the house to the studs, they did nothing to change the envelope of the house, save enclosing one patio. These photos show just how extensive the renovation was:
Authenticity and craftsmanship were the watchwords of the renovation. The genuine barrel tile roof was applied the old-fashioned way, with mortar seeping out between the tiles. “We stole that from Casa Feliz,” chuckles Bill. The woodwork is magnificent in its beauty and simplicity. And who knew plaster could be this stunning? The stippled plaster walls are a work of art. Beth repurposed what she could—removing the front wrought-iron gate, refurbishing it, and hanging it as a trellis in the back yard. “I save everything old I can save,” says Beth. “I have a hard time spending money on new anything.”
As you can see, the finished product is a dream of a house, and the perfect backdrop to their antique furniture. And, amazingly, though the house is essentially brand new inside, it feels like you’re stepping back in time when you cross the threshold. During my visit, I didn’t spot a single big screen TV or Jacuzzi tub to remind me that I wasn’t in a home from the 1940s.
The Neidlingers credit the team of professionals with how the house turned out, but it is their nature to deflect credit. In truth, Feller, Searl and Heath brilliantly translated the Neidlingers’ vision. It’s hard to imagine more genuine, humble folks. Retired from their jobs in retail and education, they are thrilled to finally be in their new home, particularly because it boasts not one but two gorgeous guest rooms. About the closest Bill gets to bragging is to proclaim “we are rich in relationships!” He’s not kidding. They’ve been in the house 9 weeks and are about to host their 8th visitors.
What’s the moral of this story?
Like the Neidlingers, homebuyers should have some imagination before deciding to raze an old ranch house, which are plentiful in Winter Park. Environmental implications aside, chances are that whatever new house is built to replace the old one will be of lower quality, be too large for the lot, and won’t blend well with the neighborhood. In other words, consult with a good architect before calling the demolition company.
In this season of giving, Bill and Beth Neidlinger have presented a gift to Winter Park. If, as Thomas Jefferson said, architecture is the most public form of art, then the Neidlingers have restored a Rembrandt to the gallery of Palmer Avenue. Let’s hope others follow their example.