Keys Homes
Sunday, November 18, 2012
Eyes wide open

By BARBARA BOWERS Special to The Citizen

After two years of house hunting in Key West, Jim Koch suspected Realtor Rudy Molinet was "tired of me and the exercise, so Rudy probably showed me 1016 James St. because he thought it would keep me from ever calling him again," laughed Koch.

But the dilapidated eyebrow house built around 1895 didn't discourage Koch. In fact, it was just the opposite. The house was what the retired architectural engineer had been searching for all along -- "a property with character; one with a return value for the community as well as for me and my wife."

The Kochs bought the house in 2011 then launched into the restoration project with their eyes wide open.

"Maria and I have lived in 15 houses in various places of the country. We renovated all of them in some capacity, and built two from scratch," Koch said. "I consider this the third."

Because Koch had professional and practical experience, he said he "could make it happen."

But this experience also taught him that the complexity of returning such a time-and weather-worn hag into a beauty within the largest historical district of wood-frame houses in the country required a team effort.

On their many visits from their home state of Wisconsin, the couple "interviewed several architects and hired Michael Miller," said Koch. "We couldn't have done this without him."

"This was not a simple little house being converted to something palatial with granite counter tops," said Miller. "It was an exterior restoration and an interior renovation of a house built on a landfill -- the ground was like a sponge and the house was actually sitting below street level.

"The sills and foundations had totally failed and had to be replaced, which required lifting the house. By Christmas 2011, the 22-ton structure had been lifted 8 feet onto a framework of cribbing," Miller said. "But that started sinking and additional cribbing was needed in the center of the house.

"It was a little dicey for awhile," he said.

Collaborating with general contractor Mark Mayer and excavation contractor Tommy Haskins, Miller says an ingenious caisson-like system was devised in order to construct new foundations beneath the lifted house.

When the Kochs purchased the property it consisted of an original "eyebrow" house, with two 1930s additions: a saw-tooth, and a shed addition on that, all in extremely poor condition.

The redesign called for saving the eyebrow portion, raising it 2 feet to restore its dignity, restoring the exterior and upgrading the interior with three bedrooms and two baths.

The saw-tooth's historic roof line was retained, and the space below it was then converted to a deep porch running the rear width of the house. Space gained by demolishing the shed addition made room for a garden, pool and deck.

Saving the eyebrow house was important. The style is a late 1800s architectural feature considered unique to Key West defined by second-story windows tucked beneath a side-gable roof that protects them from inclement weather.

The overhanging roof's effect is that of a heavy brow protecting eyes that are wide open -- hence the name eyebrow -- and because these windows have no balcony access, they can stay wide open day or night affording protection from intruders, too.

"I suspect the eyebrow design developed in Key West, but I have no smoking-gun proof," said historian Tom Hambright, who researches, documents and oversees everything related to Key West's history stored at the Monroe County Library. "You can find houses in the Abaco Islands with what I call pre-eyebrow style -- a side-gable roof with scuttles in the overhanging porch, but no windows at the second-floor level.

"It makes sense that the second-floor windows were an innovation that developed here because Key West gets a lot more rain than the Bahamas," he said.

Contractor Mark Mayer said the restoration and renovation remained "true to the house." For instance, windows are the original size, much of the Dade County pine was salvaged, the central stairs stayed in place, dividing the 1,200-square- foot house into two rooms up (bedrooms with one bath) and two rooms down (one bed and bath; one kitchen-living room).

Down here, contemporary amenities like three sets of double-glass doors open to the big outdoor room. The old cistern is now a new pool. Closets are built under the roof's eaves.

"Dormers would have given us more space, but we didn't want to change the roof line," said Koch. "Can you feel the history?"

Barbara Bowers is a Key West writer and host of a radio talk show about owning and maintaining property in the Florida Keys. To suggest a home to be featured in the Keys Homes section, send an email to Homes listed for sale may not be considered.

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