Keys Homes
Sunday, October 7, 2012
The quilted house

By BARBARA BOWERS Special to The Citizen

The Cuban tile floor on the front porch is patterned in varying sizes and colors of cut tiles to make for an unusual quilted design, even for the likes of Key West's old shotgun-style houses.

"Neighbors tell me that sometime back Armstrong designed and sold a vinyl floor covering based on this porch floor," said Ellen Engelson, who has owned the two-bed/two-bath house at 1217 Pearl St. since 2010, but for years she has been a quilter -- using much softer materials than tile.

Back when Engelson was in house-hunting mode, the front porch design caught her well-trained quilting eye, as did the interior wall of the long hallway. It too, is a patchwork of sorts, sanded to show layer upon layer of paint used throughout the lifetime of the house. But the openness of the family room/kitchen area, combined with a wall of French doors that open to the outdoor living space and rear garden, sealed the deal.

The giant central island in the living area was also a come-on: Though it is no replacement for the long-arm quilting machine Engelson kept in the basement of her former home in Virginia, its service as cutout, layout and ironing board ramps up the kitchen value for her.

The kitchen's standard purpose is evident, of course, with stools around the island for indoor dining, windows above the kitchen sink and lots of white-distressed cabinets topped with china and porcelain.

Unlike the front-porch tiles, though, "I dislike the kitchen's," said Engelson. "Terracotta and gold-color tiles are not me." In fact, "I have an obsession with blue and white."

Blue and white sprinkle the interior the way light filters into the ocean: rag rugs, Chinese garden seats, ceramics of all sizes above the kitchen cabinets, inside cabinets, on shelves, hanging at the windows.

And when something blue and white breaks, Engelson recycles the pieces into mirror frames or tabletops.

"I like to decorate and play with my houses," said Engelson, who points out textiles she has created, or furniture she has salvaged. "I acquired the China hutch on a Key West street. It said 'please take me,' so I did."

With its new crackled paint job and new glass shelves behind the old metal grills of the hutch's upper doors, all the blue and white cats and roosters, saucers and cups are on display. An odd teapot-like ceramic features a central handle between two spouts. Engelson says she bought it at an antique store in North Carolina then found one of similar design at a Key West yard sale: "I'm intrigued with them, but I don't know what they are."

Blue and white porcelain houses line a high shelf in the bathroom, where a blue-and-white quilted shower curtain shows off Engelson's craftsmanship with fabric. However, most of the dozen or so quilts lying or hanging around the house are multi-color. For instance, the "Sniper" quilt on the queen-size bed converted from an antique rope bed boasts shades of mauve and grey.

"I was living in Virginia during a series of sniper attacks on a freeway there," said Engelson. "I was nervous about driving anywhere so I stayed home at night and made a quilt."

An attached label that Engelson also made dates this quilt 2002-2005, but she says if she applies herself, it doesn't take that long to make a quilt. Just because quilting is one of her creative outlets, she sometimes dabbles with them for years, like the quilt she's working on for her daughter.

Engelson is piecing it on a bed with wildly colored head-and-footboards in the guest bedroom. The hand-painted bed, which is a flashback to Engelson's former life as the owner of a faux-finish and wallpaper company, is normally covered with a subtle pink-and-white vintage quilt t she found in a junk shop. Unfinished at the time, it only cost $12. But the real prize came when she discovered she already had scraps enough to finish the quilt with a material that exactly matched pieces in the quilt.

She gets lucky like this because her garden shed is stacked with Ikea shelves filled with fabric samples, broken pieces of blue and white china and much, much more.

Clearly, good luck runs in the family: Engelson's daughter is the lucky owner of "many of my quilts, but a while back, I promised her another one in green," Engelson said of her current handiwork lying on the bed. "I'll probably have it done by Christmas, but I'd rather be playing in the garden."

Engelson is active in the Key West Garden Club, and works her own plot at the MARC Community Garden. Recently she redesigned and landscaped her home garden, which among other things, features a raised perma-culture bed, with exotics like pigeon-pea bushes and Costa Rican mint tea.

Right now, exotics like Lily LambChop, a rescued Bichon Frise mix, and Jackson, who is Engelson's blue-eyed, long-haired Rag Doll cat, are the lucky ducks adding a touch of white to the blue-wicker lounge atop an unusual Cuban-tile floor on the front porch. It seems everything at 1217 Pearl St. is carefully quilted together.

Barbara Bowers is a Key West writer. To suggest a home to be featured in the Keys Homes section, send an email to barbara@bbowers.com. Homes listed for sale may not be considered.

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