Keys Homes
Sunday, December 9, 2012
Under a mansard roof

By BARBARA BOWERS Special to The Citizen

Few art studios are as thoroughly integrated with an artist's home as Fulton Gadbois' at 915 Eaton St.

By most standards, "the place is furniture shy," he admitted, and while the sofa, dining table and chairs, the bed and dresser in the one-bedroom apartment are sparse, they are comfortable. Mostly street finds, they accent the really important stuff: easel and drawing table; a light table that occupies the entire entryway at the foot of the stairs.

"The light table is my design, and where I trace my drawings onto my canvases," said Gadbois, a seven-year resident of Key West, who from time to time has supplemented his fine art work with architectural drawings and taxi-cab driving.

"There can be 100,000 drawings before I complete one painting," said Gadbois, a self-taught artist, although he grew up in a house "with paintings by relatives from both parents.

"My mother's mother gave me my only painting lesson," he said. "My father's father painted billboards for money, landscapes for soul."

Gadbois, a former "resident artist for the City-County Arts Council in Paducah, Kentucky," nourishes his soul with a unique style of drawings and paintings that are highly imaginative, while at the same time, very realistic and detailed: "I'm a whiz with perspective, anatomy, color and composition.

"Right now, one of the picture stories I tell -- through history and traditions developed over the last 3,000 years -- is on display in the Gato Building. It's part of the Monroe County Arts Council Veterans' Show, which ends in mid-January," he said.

The Gato Building's wall space is a luxury for Gadbois, indeed all artists, who work large as in this Veteran's Show 3-by-4-foot section of an even larger painting that Gadbois has been working on for years.

Although really big wall space is a precious commodity everywhere on the island, Gadbois notes that his home and art studio creates an extra challenge because "it's hard to hang anything on the sloping walls of a mansard roof."

Gadbois' second-floor home studio happens to be in one of the few buildings in Key West that boasts this four-sided, gambrel-style hip roof first popularized by French architect Francois Mansart. According to Wikipedia, the mansard roof is "characterized by two slopes on each of its sides with the lower slope (punctured by dormer windows) at a steeper angle than the upper.... The roof creates an additional floor of habitable space," such as Gadbois' garret, or small living area at the top of the house.

"This was architect Bill Horn's office space, which he relocated to the first floor," Gadbois said. "Before I took up painting full time, I worked as an architect intern for him, and when Bill moved downstairs, I moved up."

Horn is the third owner of the property.

"The two-story building that houses my office and Fulton's apartment was a single family residence that belonged to the Sawyer family," Horn said. "The Southernmost Sign Service that's located now in the attached one-story building at 913 Eaton St. was originally their bakery.

"Both were built in 1874, and share a common wall," he said.

The structures' unusual side-by-side configuration of two architectural styles creates, well, something akin to a Conch house in Paris. The incongruence is not only apparent at roof level, where the mansard towers over next door's front gable roof, but at ground level, too. The architecturally dissimilar entrances feature the sign shop's three-bay, standard-island front porch to the left of the recessed porch leading to Gadbois' garret under the mansard roof and Bill Horn's business.

Down here, an arched doorway with split-and-curved wooden doors invokes the style of a French castle's portal. No moat, of course, but one does have to cross a Cuban-tile floor to reach the artistic kingdom upstairs.

Windows from the roof's eight dormers throw light onto the pride of Key West -- Dade County pine ceilings and floors that boast the termite patina of old wood repaired over time. Laid into the living-room floor are wider planks inserted where walls used to be.

"It's evident how the walls moved around to become the one bedroom-one bathroom and almost-one-kitchen apartment," said Gadbois, with his characteristically dry sense of humor. "Visitors immediately fall in love with the kitchen's funk and charm."

The bowed sides of the kitchen's doorway spring from the curved nature of the mansard roof; the dated add-ons of cabinets, appliances and the small island-counter-wall, which separates kitchen from living area, reach back in time and surely romance an artist's imagination.

There is something creative about any garret; particularly about this mix of architecture and the pictorial history of Gadbois' paintings, just as there is something incongruent. Consider the painting currently sitting on the living room's easel, which Gadbois is finishing for his upcoming "Beautiful Island" exhibit at Joy Gallery: In it, the Conch Tour Train is circulating, with other recognizable bits and pieces of Key West, in space.

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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