Courtyards and Conversation

By staff November 1, 2002

As anyone who knows them will tell you, Caren and Dick Lobo are a can-do couple. And since their marriage in 1984, they've discovered that houses are something they can do especially well. In New York, Chicago, Miami, and now Sarasota, among other places, they've completed eight personal residences, seven offices, and five investment properties, including a favorite community gathering spot, Sarasota News & Books. But their biggest challenge and crowning residential achievement (so far) has been the transformation of a 1913 Georgian-style, 1,800-square foot vacation home into a rambling, rustic Mediterranean villa on the bay that's about twice the size of the original structure. The project involved extensive upgrading and renovation as well as an addition and much new landscaping.

The couple, who are only the third owners of the bayfront home, bought the property in 1995 (the year they moved to Sarasota from Miami). They immediately focused on the kitchen, giving it a Tuscan farmhouse character with tumbled marble counters and backsplash and built-in cabinetry (custom done by Noel Matta) to match their vintage English breakfront. The window seat cushions are covered in fabric Caren found in Florence. Everyday plateware is from Granada, Spain, and Deruta, Italy.

Their eight-foot-long pine English harvest kitchen table is a treasure that Dick swapped a pool table for when the couple lived in Chicago. He admits they have a tendency to pick up buys when and where they find them (often on vacations) and haul their favorite objects from place to place. "We've had our antique fireplace andirons since we got married," he says. "They travel from hearth to hearth with us."

During the first phase of renovation, the Lobos modernized the baths and turned a full attic into a treetop office for Caren. Finally, they added the swimming pool. Despite five big oaks on the property and the attending leaf debris, the Lobos decided not to cage the pool or any of the terraces because they always intended their outdoor living spaces to integrate into the surrounding natural environment.

"The whole time we were renovating the old house, we were making plans for major changes to come later, adding a wing and turning the Georgian into a Mediterranean," says Caren. "We knew it would take years, but we had a clear vision, and we were patient and methodical." Because of their waterfront location, the homeowners had to comply with FEMA regulations for all phases of the renovation. And they were determined to make their new home nestle into the gracious older neighborhood near the Ringling Museum. "We never considered a mega-house," stresses Dick. "We envisioned a simple, rustic structure more horizontal than vertical, in keeping with the traditional homes in this neighborhood."

Today the house centers around a spacious courtyard bordered by a loggia deep enough to accommodate tables and chairs for al fresco dining. The home's redesign was influenced by a Spanish-Cuban residence the couple restored and cherished in Coconut Grove. Impressions (and artifacts) supplied by vacations to Mexico, Spain, Southern France and Italy further advanced the look and feel of the terra cotta stucco, stone and wood Sarasota structure.

As game as they were for doing the whole project themselves (Caren is a self-taught designer), the duo realized they needed the professional guidance of an architect to figure out the proper structural connections and to make sure the original house and the addition were unified visually and practically. They contacted Alan Anderson, who assessed their wish list and came up with a scheme for joining the addition to the main house. He designed a new approach to the house, a new foyer and an 18 x 34 square-foot living room that serve as the luxurious bridge between the original house and the new addition. One long wall of the living room is nothing but windows and French doors that open to the loggia. The other long wall accommodates an antique glass-front bookcase that measures 15 feet long and nine feet high.

"As booksellers, we just had to buy it," explains Dick. "But it did mean that Alan had to go back to the blueprint and relocate the fireplace to a short wall. It was fortunate that we had most of our furniture before we constructed these new rooms because we knew just what we had to make room for." The bookcase holds rare editions, Dick's collection of pre-Columbian art and a grouping of impressive public service awards that Dick and Caren have accumulated over the years.

The living room is bookended by two giant Paul Sierra paintings acquired in Chicago from the Cuban-American artist. The entire Lobo home is filled with Latin paintings, sculpture and ceramics. Dick, the son of Cuban immigrants, grew up in Ybor City and is fiercely proud of his heritage. (Fluent in Spanish, he's a charter member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and has twice won the Chicago Latino Committee on Media's Leadership Award). Other artists represented in the couple's ever-growing collection include Ramon Carulla, Nereida Garcia-Ferez and J.C. Breceda.

The new dining room is the former living room. The long wall opposite the French doors to the bay was originally the front door. Now it's a place for an antique buffet. The 18-foot-long walnut dining room table with its rich leather top is another bookseller's tale.

"We were in Boulder, Colorado, for the birth of Dick's fifth grandchild," begins Caren, "when we passed a downtown bookstore that was being renovated. We saw this amazing library table and wanted it. But the owners declined our offer, saying they were moving it to the second floor. A year later, Dick's son walked by the store and saw a for-sale sign on the table. They couldn't get it up the stairs. He ran in and bought the table for us and had it shipped to Sarasota." Caren paired simple Crate & Barrel rattan chairs with her literary find, and although she can serve dinner to more than a dozen at this table, it's often in the courtyard that the couple entertains.

The traditional Mediterranean courtyard is a squared-off U-shape design formed by deep loggias on three sides, with the exterior walls of the house providing the boundaries. The homeowners rejected enclosing the fourth side for obvious reasons. "That's because the fourth wall is the water," says Caren, "and consists of our black-bottom swimming pool and Sarasota Bay beyond that. We're lucky enough to have a natural seawall, so we can actually wander down to a small beach. We've reinforced it with sea grape, and we've lit the pathways. It's pretty wonderful both during the day and at night, too, with panoramic views. We see dolphin, manatees and even flamingoes, who visit from Jungle Gardens."

Around their pool and in the loggia, Caren and Dick have held parties for more than 120 when famous authors are in town every November for the Sarasota Reading Festival. Literary luminaries such as Lesley Stahl, Marvin Kalb, Fannie Flagg, Frank Rich, Rick Bragg, Edmund Morris and Jules Feiffer have basked in candleglow, sipped wine and enjoyed stimulating conversations under the stars.

Caren turned the New College Library Association Book Fair into the nationally recognized Sarasota Reading Festival, now in its fourth year. On the board of directors of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Caren is also a lightning rod for many civic and cultural events, and in 2001 received a Women In Power Award from the American Council of Jewish Women.

Dick is immediate past president of the Downtown Association and a member of the Arts Council board of directors, the Committee for Economic Development Advisory Board and the Van Wezel Advisory Board. In 1997, the two bought a downtown landmark, Charlie's News, and turned it into Sarasota News and Books, which soon became a popular spot for literary browsing, coffee, meetings, and comfortable book signings with noted authors.

After a 40-year career in network broadcasting that included both Emmy and Peabody awards, Dick Lobo recently came out of TV retirement and signed on as the new head of WEDU, the area's public broadcast station headquartered in Tampa. The Lobos have already bought a house in south Tampa.

"We considered a condo, but we knew our two dogs and three cats would appreciate a yard," says Caren, who insists the couple has no intention of permanently leaving their Sarasota villa. "No, indeed," she stresses, " this is home and we're not even finished with it. There are the guest rooms upstairs to decorate, my office is a mess, we need grill work for the windows in the carport area that Alan designed..." Her voice trails off as she looks around. And, in truth the Confederate jasmine is just beginning its twisting climb up the Tuscan columns on the loggia. Even for a can-do couple, a house, like the lives of those in it, is always a work in progress. 

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