Keys Homes
Sunday, December 16, 2012

By BARBARA BOWERS Special to The Citizen

Stephen La Pierre claims that when Douglas Bedgood's antique truck -- big white-wall tires pop from its cobalt blue fenders and wood-paneled bed -- is parked in front of 713 Southard St., "anyone shooting black and white today could easily claim the photo was taken in 1935."

La Pierre's close-to-the-street brand of living at the corner of Southard and Love Lane is surrounded by more throwbacks in time than Bedgood's old truck. His living room, for instance, is really the front porch of the unpainted two-story house located there, and after ducking beneath the curve of the coconut tree that guards the uneven concrete steps, the short climb to the five-bay porch reveals a bevy of rockers and rattan chairs protected by the balcony.

"All street finds," La Pierre said; all still close enough to the curb to produce flashbacks of neighborhoods and neighborliness that once permeated Key West during a time before air conditioning enclosed most homes.

"Sometimes you can hear the neighbors clapping from their front porches when the band practices out here," said La Pierre, who plays upright base for The Real Malloys on Monday nights at Schooner Wharf.

"Mad Jack rebuilt the front porch a few years back," he said of the building's owner. "The two bays farthest away from Love Lane are entries to Mad Jack's place; the three bays closest go with my apartment."

La Pierre lives on the first floor, where there is no AC. In fact, electric wires are encased in metal pipes on the exterior siding, and stretch across the ceilings inside the one-bedroom/one-bathroom apartment.

From the living-room porch, the entry into La Pierre's apartment is into his art studio, which would be the living room in most homes. At the moment, it's jam packed with 50 oil paintings for his exhibit at the Custom House, which just opened Friday night.

Because La Pierre is "an architecture buff," who finds his subject matter on the streets of Key West and paints en plein air, I was invited to preview his artwork of some famous, and infamous, structures--everything from the Robert Frost Cottage to Sloppy Joe's.

The artist's work realistically captures the present-day charm of Old Town's buildings. What's more, his ingenuity leaps as far back in time as some of the actual architecture: Many of La Pierre's paintings of these historic, vernacular wood-frame buildings are, well, framed with the vernacular wood used to build, say, Tennessee Williams' house.

"Yeah, I retrieved a lot of Dade County pine from trash bins," confirmed La Pierre. "My buddy Dan Brock built and co-designed the recessed style of the frames with me.

"I wanted to have as much organic material as possible" in the paintings so La Pierre even went that extra mile to include some clapboard from Capt. Tony's, which he laid collage-like on the frame of that particular saloon's image.

The paintings are as much testament to architecture as they are to the individuals who inhabit them. It's easy to recognize Kermit.

"He posed out front, while I sketched and painted his Key Lime Shoppe," said La Pierre.

But Mad Jack, who first arrived on the Key West scene in the 1970s, is less visible about town, and far less likely to pose for much of anything. His singular figure captured on the front porch of 713 Southard is La Pierre's tribute to Jack and a time when he held salon with the likes of Shel Silverstein, Hunter Thompson and other writers.

"Jack told me that in the '70s he had an African art exhibit -- probably the first one in town -- in my apartment," La Pierre said, "so when I moved in this past May, he had a soiree for me that featured my then-developing architectural show.

"I think Jack's house was built in the late 1800s, but it's like a virgin," he laughed. "For sure it's untouched since the electric was installed in the 1930s."

But electric it has, and at one time, there were even working TV sets in the big garden, where a vine-covered wooden fence along Love Lane shields a series of outdoor rooms that still claim a share of the jungle.

Back here, bamboo tree trunks support tin-topped lean-tos and more street finds sit en plein air: a table here, a lamp there. But the pineapples carved into the back slats of a well-weathered Adirondack chair; now that's a flashback to some really hard-to-imagine place and time.

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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