Weekend Castaways

By Hannah Wallace Photography by J. B. McCourtney October 1, 2011

Mother and Daughter share a hammock.Long before Steve Ellis dreamt of building a grand, green vacation home with open-air stairwells and disappearing sliding-glass doors, he sat under the mangroves on the shore of his then-undeveloped lot on Jewfish Key, alongside his wife, Catherine, and their daughter, Saylor, and marveled at the cool breeze rolling off the bay.

The Ellises purchased the lot—one of only 13 on the tiny, 39-acre island—in 2004. For years they invited friends to the private shoreline, accessible only by boat, for beach parties and “camp-overs,” when the shady property housed nothing more than a single dock and a grove of Australian pines. “When we finally felt like building a vacation getaway,” explains Steve, co-founder of environmentally conscious design-build firm MyGreenBuildings, “we wanted it to feel like we were still spending the bulk of our time outside.”

The Ellis FamilyCompleted in July 2010, the vacation home feels like a distant island retreat, yet it’s only 15 miles from their primary residence on Siesta Key—close enough to stay an extra night and still get Saylor to school by 8:30 the next morning. And best of all, it’s close enough to share their sun-kissed weekend getaways with other families, too. As Steve puts it, “We get an opportunity to live with our best friends.”

A lifelong sailor, Steve chose simple, boat-like efficiency over high-tech solutions (no solar panels here). The four bedrooms make the most of modest space. Bench seats lift to reveal storage areas, and low-ceilinged hideaways under the eaves serve as children’s sleeping quarters. Upstairs, the independently air-conditioned bedrooms are accessible by an open-air stairwell and hallway; nearly half of the home’s living space is cooled by nature alone.

THE ELLIS HOME AS SEEN FROM NEARBY LONGBOAT KEY; FRIENDS AND FAMILY KICK BACK AFTER A MORNING ON THE WATER; CATHERINE AND SAYLOR ELLIS IN THE OPEN LIVING ROOM; CHILDREN SWIM NEAR THE DOCK.The heart of the home is an open area that serves as both living room and kitchen, where everyone gathers over meal prep, morning coffee or just to watch the sunset. Though it can be air-conditioned, the great room’s two longest sides—24 feet of sliding-glass doors facing Sarasota Bay on one side and pine forest on the other—retreat entirely into the adjacent walls to reveal two screened porches, front and back, that blend seamlessly into the space. The continuous breeze and unbroken blue ceiling blur the line between living space, sea and sky.

THE CHILDREN FIND AMPLE FUN, INSIDE OR OUT.Like the Ellises and their guests, who gather on the porches and swap tales and memories, the home’s furnishings have stories, too: beds constructed of wood that belonged to John Ringling, light fixtures from Sarasota Architectural Salvage, curtains from an old sail that propelled a boat many times around the globe. Filled with people and history and the sounds of tide and wild creatures, the house has a heartbeat.

STEVE ELLIS ENJOYS A BOOK WITH BREAKFAST; LONGBOAT PASS SERVES AS A BACKDROP FOR THE DAY’S ACTIVITIES; A BED MADE FROM WOOD SALVAGED FROM THE JOHN RINGLING TOWERS; REFRESHMENTS CHILL IN AN ANTIQUE TUB.These mini-vacation gatherings are “very food-centric,” says Steve, and the home’s low-tech efficiency applies to meals, too. Jenna Norwood, a raw foods advocate and close friend of the Ellises, helps create delectable raw food feasts. This summer, the family celebrated Steve’s 47th birthday with a mass planting in the back yard: banana, mulberry, lemon, lime, tangerine, grapefruit, avocado, mango, blueberry, jackfruit, fig, peach, papaya and lychee trees and bushes were patted into the ground. When the first fruits ripen this spring, Saylor and her friends will select their afternoon snacks from the lowest branches while gathering ingredients for dinner.

Salads and stories are shared over weathered sets of teak outdoor furniture—“just in case people are salty or wet,” Catherine explains, “which happens a lot.”

After the sun goes down, while the kids gaze at the stars and drift off to sleep upstairs, the adults stay up late together. Steve lights a cigar—“my only vice,” he jokes—and the breeze comes from the darkness across the water to carry the smoke and conversation out to the whistling pines behind the house. The walls and ceiling fade into the night air. “It’s almost like sitting under the mangroves,” Steve muses, “when we didn’t have a house.”


A RAW FOODS FEAST.Beachside Buffet

Fresh and healthy family favorites.

Pink Lemonade

(inspired by Jackie Graff)

Naturally sweet and naturally bright-pink.

Serves 4-6


1/2 organic watermelon, chunked & semi-frozen

2 organic lemons, juiced


Add watermelon chunks and fresh-squeezed lemon juice to blender.

Blend on high speed just until watermelon is liquified.  Serve in a pitcher and enjoy.

Fresh Fruit Kabobs

Fun for kids of all ages.

Serves 4-8 


1 cup organic grapes

1 cup organic pineapple, cut into chunks

1 cup organic strawberries, halved


Alternate fruit on skewers.

Or cut all fruit very small and make toothpick skewers.

Easy Pineapple Parfait

Just two ingredients create the island vibe of a  fresh piña colada. Serves 4-6


½ organic pineapple, chopped

¼ cup organic, shredded coconut


Toss pineapple and coconut in a large bowl. Serve in tall glasses for an elegant breakfast or dessert.


Wild Purslane and Corn Salad

Make good use of this free, wild and nutritious salty weed that grows all over Sarasota.

Serves 4-6


4 cups raw organic corn

1 cup organic cherry tomatoes, halved

1/8 cup wild purslane (for more information, see below)

1 organic avocado, chopped

1/4 cup organic leeks, thinly sliced

3 Tbsp. fresh cilantro, chopped

Juice of one organic lime

1/4 cup organic, first-cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 tsp. Celtic sea salt


Add all ingredients to serving bowl.

Toss and serve.

Serves 4-6

Purslane is an annual succulent in the family Portulacaceae, which can reach 40 cm in height. About 40 varieties are currently cultivated. It has an extensive old-world distribution extending from North Africa through the Middle East  and the Indian Subcontinent to Malesia and Australasia. The species status in the New World is uncertain: In general, it is considered an exotic weed; however, there is evidence that the species was in Crawford Lake deposits (Ontario) in 1430-89 AD, suggesting that it reached North America in the pre-Columbian era.[2] It is naturalised elsewhere and in some regions is considered an invasive weed. It has smooth, reddish, mostly prostrate stems and alternate leaves clustered at stem joints and ends. The yellow flowers have five regular parts and are up to 6 mm wide.

Although purslane is considered a weed in the United States, it can be eaten as a leaf vegetable. It has a slightly sour and salty taste and is eaten throughout much of Europe, the middle east, Asia, and Mexico. The stems, leaves and flower buds are all edible. Purslane can be used fresh as a salad, stir-fried, or cooked like spinach, and because of its mucilaginous quality it is also suitable for soups and stews. Australian Aborigines use the seeds to make seedcakes.

Purslane contains more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable plant. Simopoulos states that Purslane has 0.01 mg/g of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). This is an extraordinary amount of EPA for land-based vegetable sources. It also contains vitamins (mainly vitamin A, vitamin C, and some vitamin B and carotenoids), as well as dietary minerals, such as magnesium, calcium, potassium, and iron. Also present are two types of betalain alkaloid pigments, the reddish betacyanins (visible in the coloration of the stems) and the yellow betaxanthins (noticeable in the flowers and in the slight yellowish cast of the leaves). Both of these pigment types are potent antioxidants and have been found to have antimutagenic properties in laboratory studies. Source: Wikipedia

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Styling by Jackie Rogers | Accessories by Black Bird Home Gallery
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