Beach Bliss

By Carol Tisch Photography by Jennifer Soos December 1, 2010

The beach house of every family’s dream lies behind a white picket fence on a sliver of land at the north end of Casey Key. The Gulf of Mexico is the front yard; out back is Sarasota Bay. This is no mini-castle, but a practical, lived-in home. Four kids and three dogs have the run of a place where magical childhood memories will be made. But it’s also bewitchingly romantic: white-on-white fabrics, shabby chic furniture, ethereal touches of ocean blue. Welcome to the fantasy that is reality for Jeff and Nikki LaBelle.

But the perfect beach cottage didn’t come that way. It was a boring 1980s house before Nikki and Jeff, president of Gulf Coast Wealth Advisors, got to work on it. The minute the couple saw the grounds and view, they knew it was the one. “I wanted the beach, but Jeff loves boating and fishing,” Nikki explains. “We looked for quite a while on Casey Key, hoping to find a place where we could have both.”

Actually, the house does have something special for each person in the family. “Our kids don’t have a play yard, but our beach is endless—that’s where they play,” says Nikki. “My husband loves to go out on a kayak and set crab cribs or fish for tarpon—he actually warned me not to have a baby during tarpon season.” For Nikki, the lure was a home she could mold into her own personal decorating style: “beach shabby chic with a French twist.”

She enlisted the help of friends Mark and Susie Holt, who own Posh on Palm, a shabby chic furnishings and apparel shop in Sarasota (formerly the Cat’s Meow in Venice) for just the right vintage pieces, many found in Europe and repurposed back home by Mark. One of Nikki’s favorites is a TV cabinet fitted with two old French hotel room doors. “They have the original painted room numbers and chipped wood finish. I love things with history behind them that can be put to practical use—something no one else has but me,” Nikki says. That’s the case with the dining room table custom made by Mark Holt, and an antique white rocker—a gift from Mark and Susie when Nikki’s youngest son was born.

Nikki points to other prized possessions from local sources and crafters. There’s a blue milk glass chandelier above the breakfast table from Savantiques in Osprey. Surfboards are hung as works of art in several rooms, antiques as well as hand-shaped boards by renowned local shaper Juan Rodriguez. Nikki loves her shell mirror made by Marianne E in Sarasota, and a wine cabinet fashioned from a piece she discovered amid the treasures at Sarasota Architectural Salvage.

But most of all, she loves the hand-crafted picture frames and hand-painted beach signs hanging indoors and out—each a labor of love by her sister, local artisan Kim McLeod (who, in six degrees of separation fashion, also works on staff at Posh on Palm).

Nikki credits her builder, Bill Deramo of Homes by Deramo, with bringing her vision of the house to life. “I told Bill we wanted a beach home, not a Mediterranean mansion—he got it and worked with me to create the finishes that would make a new house look old,” she says.

Popcorn ceilings were replaced with white painted tongue-and-groove paneling (which wraps around most walls—some are half height bead board). “There was not one piece of wood in the entire house,” Nikki laments. Deramo fixed that problem with doors and kitchen cabinets crafted to look old. Nikki created instant vintage wood floors by mixing and matching 12- to 20-inch dark-stained planks and using her kids as “finishers.”

Nikki invited her amazed daughter, Regan (11), and sons, Noah (9), Xander (4) and Bode (3) to ride their bikes, scooters and skateboards on the newly laid floors. “The kids distressed the floors,” Nikki jokes. Indeed, everything in the house is designed for practical livability. The white upholstered pieces have easy-to-remove washable slipcovers. Nicks add even more character to the chippy white furniture, and the pretty glass-door refrigerator lets kids ogle as long as they want before they open the door.

“It would drive me crazy to go around telling them to be careful about the floors and furniture,” Nikki says. “For us, home is a relaxed, comfortable place where you take your shoes off and let the sand in. The dream is bringing that joy of the beach inside with you.”

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