Island Elegance

By staff October 1, 2002

Steve Seidensticker, the 47-year-old CEO and general manager of Boca Grande's famous Gasparilla Inn, may have the sweetest commute of any executive in America. He exits his 5,500-square-foot French Mediterranean home on fashionable Gilchrist Avenue, enjoys a Gulf-view stroll under sun and palms, and three minutes later is climbing the porch stairs of the old white inn. Seidensticker came to the island 25 years from Colorado and took a job as a bartender at the Inn, steadily and rapidly working his way up. He's been the Gasparilla's chief executive for 17 years.

Although work started on Seidensticker's two-story house on the island's oldest street just two years ago, the finished structure looks like it's been there forever. The white stucco facade, antique red barrel tile roof, French wrought iron black gate, fuchsia bougainvillea vine draping over pergolas and walls and the fossil stone entranceway all create an image of understated Old World comfort, the kind that is right at home in this city of unpretentious mega-wealth. Although they might arrive by private planes, trailing their Louis Vuitton luggage and nannies, the seasonal residents of Boca Grande prefer to scoot around town in shorts and golf carts.

When Seidensticker set out with architect Henry Brown and interior decorator Matt Overstreet to design his house, the divorced dad of three had specific criteria shaped by the size of his 150 x 150-foot lot. The design was also driven by his admiration for the New Orleans shotgun house, the Charleston single-wide and two Boca Grande dwellings. One is a house on the opposite side of Gilchrist, partially hidden from view by heavy vegetation, that Seidensticker's widowed mother had once lived in. Now it's owned by television celebrity renovator Bob Villa. The other is the old Crowninshield art studio (now a residence) that Seidensticker once tried to buy with the intention of renovating it for his family.

But three years ago this intrepid antiques collector purchased a pair of narrow, carved walnut doors that had once been the wine cellar doors in a castle in the Pyrenees. The doors (with their original hardware) became the inspiration for a Mediterranean home that Seidensticker knew he would have to build from scratch. Fortunately, nearly a decade ago he had bought the lot on Gilchrist Avenue.

"The house is predominantly French in attitude and in style," says Seidensticker, "and many of the antiques inside, as well as architectural features and the building materials, reference the south of France. But it also has elements of Italian and Spanish houses, and it owes a lot to other places here on the island. It's an eclectic and comfortable place, but definitely European-looking."

To build the house, Seidensticker selected Braxton Bowen, owner of Bowen Construction and a respected contractor with a quarter century of experience on the island. Tommy Catlette was the project supervisor. For the landscaping, Steve Hazeltine of Hazeltine Nurseries in Venice used palm trees, tropical vines and vivid flowers. He created an impressive entry with fossil stone tiles imbedded with brain coral. Finally, he planted creeping fig, which eventually will cover the white stucco exterior with a lacy green pattern of ivy.

Chief advisor from the outset was decorator Matt Overstreet, who also has the job of freshening up the Gasparilla Inn every year. Sarasota-based Overstreet has so many clients in Boca Grande that for some years he kept an office there. Now he says a cell phone in his van works fine, too. He is forever on the road between the two cities.

Overstreet suggested a number of architectural changes during the blueprint stage, including moving the living room fireplace from a corner to the center of the room. "We made it a double-sided hearth that became a natural divider between the small formal French and English dining room and the living room," says the decorator. "We got two focal points out of the fireplace that way and were able to group furniture around it in a welcoming way."

The 300-year-old stone floor tiles on the first floor and the stairway were salvaged from a stable in Paris. For the upstairs bedrooms and Seidensticker's office floors, Overstreet used Arkansas yellow pine topped by Oriental carpets he found in Europe.

The house is rich with references to Boca Grande's history. Portuguese accent tiles in the pool bath and children's dressing rooms came from the Jane and Charles Engelhard estate when part of that local landmark was demolished. The wood beams in the living room ceiling are from an old phosphate dock at the south end of the island. A light fixture in the stairwell was salvaged from the now-vanished Boca Grande Hotel. And two Louis XVI-style green cut velvet armchairs in the living room came from the New York apartment of a fashionable socialite who wintered in Boca Grande. The chairs were originally installed in her residence by the famed interior decorator Sister Parish, who often came to Boca Grande when working on clients' vacation homes. Matt Overstreet first met the doyenne of design (who died in 1994) one summer in the shallow end of the swimming pool at the Gasparilla Inn.

In his master bedroom Seidensticker points to two cane-back chairs that came from the Boca Grande residence of film actor Brian Aherne. An 18th-century grandfather clock also came from the Aherne home. In Seidensticker's bedroom, two small tea tables recall the social history of the island.

Matt Overstreet explains. "Those tiered side tables originally came to the island many years ago with Henry duPont, the uncle of the owner of the Gasparilla Inn. People around here just loved those tables because they are so versatile. A local carpenter, Velpeau Kuhl, began making reproductions. Some people paint them Chinese lacquer red or black. White is good, too, or wood-stained. They're a small symbol of how people live here on the island, casually but with elegance." Also in the master bedroom are several watercolors by Jack Barndollar, a deceased island artist.

Other pieces were acquired at Sarasota stores such as Steve Postan's Antiques, Blue Moon, Eagle's Lair and Curtis Bros. Friends also kept a watchful eye for things that would work in the house. One brought Seidensticker eight small framed 18th-century Venetian oils discovered on a trip to Italy. Another noticed a local artist had painted the house and used it on an invitation for a gallery show. The friend bought the original artwork and gave it to Steve to hang in his bedroom.

"Our next hunt is for more vintage copper for the pot rack in the kitchen," says Overstreet. An excellent cook who specializes in baking, Seidensticker designed the kitchen for maximum efficiency. He wanted compact, usable space and selected raised panel cream white rustic cabinetry with burnished bronze "potato" knobs. The arched mahogany door adds to the room's vintage European charm. Ever practical, he had four lights built into the corners of the iron pot rack over the center island.

All the solid wood doors and frames in the home were custom- made on site by All Phase Cabinetry in Englewood and were dressed with wax. "There are more than 100 pounds of wax on the wood so far," says the homeowner, "and we're not done yet." For the finishing vintage touch, faux-finish painter Aaron Crussemeyer of Sarasota gave the walls a soft parchment hue with the depth and subtle sheen of age.

Besides the main house, a 1,600-square-foot, two-story attached guest house forms part of the rear courtyard, along with the swimming pool and an intimate al fresco eating area under a pergola. Seidensticker has owned the chandelier above the outdoor table for 25 years and says he's finally found the right place for it. The two-bedroom cottage is mostly used by Seidensticker's two teenage sons when they're home from boarding school and college in New England. His 21-year-old daughter has a pool-facing bedroom upstairs in the main house for her visits, but she also uses the cottage for entertaining. Seidensticker and Overstreet are planning to expand the kitchen/gathering room of that space, since the cottage is more popular with young friends than Dad or kids originally imagined.

"This whole property was designed for the comfort of everyday easy living," says Seidensticker. "The rooms may seem a bit formal because of the antiques and art work, but most of the furniture is slipcovered or leather. Nothing is off-limits; it's a house for relaxing and enjoying, like all the houses on Boca Grande."

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