By BARBARA BOWERS Special to The Citizen
Lou and Kingsley Zerbel are ahead of their time. Back in the 1970s, they started vacationing in the Florida Keys, well ahead of most Yankees, who didn't yet get that the chain of islands was attached to the United States.
When they bought the triple, bay-side lot on Cudjoe Key in 1985, the couple's vision of indoor/outdoor living was filled with water views and walls of glass; angular roof lines and multilevel balconies.
A friend in their hometown of St. Joe, Mich., designed the 1.5 story house, and in 1989 it was one of the first contemporary structures on Picard Lane.
The possibility of early retirement crept into the picture, but in those heady days of a family with seven kids -- and now a dozen grandchildren -- "retirement wasn't even in Zerb's vocabulary," said Lou, of her entrepreneurial husband, Zerb, who opts for a short version of his regale name.
But nature and the overpowering call of the blue-on-blue color of water and sky surrounding the 1,700-square-foot house at the corner of a canal and Cudjoe Bay tapped Zerb's passion for photography. When a darkroom became part of the floor plan, retirement popped into clear focus.
"Zerb's photography has kept up with technology--it's gone digital," said Zerb. "Now, the darkroom space just off the foyer is all mine for laundry and storage."
Of course, storage isn't an issue in this 2-bed/2-bath house built high above the waterline: Ground level has plenty of storage for all the water toys and automobile parking beneath the house, next to the palapa hut and the boat and the dock with davits.
The entry-level floor has plenty of storage, too, in the long galley kitchen, where Tambour and Formica boasts a silver, geometric trim above the white cabinets, and on the big-wall cutout that creates a pass through and island for casual dining in the great room.
The metallic look holds its own among today's high-tech styling, and in the 1980s, it was a visionary touch to the walls of sliding glass doors that wrap-around the great room. Also well ahead of its time are the white no-polish tile floors, the white half-vault ceiling and 20-foot-high walls, with built-in entertainment center in the living area; built-in serving counters, cabinets and mirrors in the formal dining area.
Curved-glass end tables next to the soft leather sofas are the stacking accompaniments to the Modernage coffee table in the getaway room and the tall-foyer table--all bought in Miami 23 years ago, all non-fussy lines made from single pieces of clear glass and all signed "Cristaline."
Except for the occasional splash of tropical colors in the living room's hook rug that Lou made, or the pink cushions in the heavy, grass woven-and-chrome chairs at the white dining-room table, the interior's all-white theme precedes the current focus on white interior design.
But then, good taste always holds its own, and transcends whatever the latest fashion.
In 2009, the Zerbels enclosed an open-air deck on the north-easterly side of the great room. It's the "getaway" sitting room with sliders that open to the great room and sliders that open to the balcony, which overlooks the bay and extends across the width of the house.
"The only drawback to remake is that the guest bedroom used to have sliding doors to the former deck, but is now closed to outdoor access," said Zerb.
The guestroom, which doubles as Zerb's office, is accessed from the foyer hallway, across from the big bathroom and, yes, across from the darkroom-turned-laundry-and-storage room. This is the only section of the house with standard 8-foot ceilings, but light bounces vigorously around this space: mirrors in the hall, outdoor light flows from the canal-side balcony through the kitchen's interior floor-to-ceiling doorway. Even a rectangular cutout in the interior wall sheds light from the stairway leading to the owner's bedroom suite.
There's plenty of storage in closets up here, too--a dressing room with shutter doors and built-in vanity separates the sleep space from the bathroom. But the real thrill to an outsider is the many facets of the geometrically designed structure: Visible through another rectangular cut (this one inside the ¬½ story's upper wall) is the great room's half-cathedral ceiling angling down to a plethora of squares and rectangles.
The bedroom's covered deck atop the getaway room offers a spectacular view of bay and beach, as well as the house's split-roof line and its multilevel balconies. For instance, directly below is the great room's balcony then below that a wider balcony juts out to cover a 17,000 gallon cistern. All balcony floors are laid with the same off-white tiles, and besides being on the leading edge of sustainable Keys living, the cistern top provides an immense patio for outdoor entertaining.
"We want to be outdoors as much as possible," Zerb said.
He did all the plantings in what is now a mature, native garden surrounding the house. The couple's big side lot, which separates them from neighbors, is still a landscape akin to much of the Keys, where fresh water is in short supply.
Known as xeriscaping, this kind of smart gardening is gaining ground, but when Zerb started digging holes for native-Keys trees like lignum vitae and buttonwood, it was a joke at the Denver Water Department to designate its x-rating system--x to xxx--which specified just how little water a garden needed. In 1982, the Colorado water department was officially credited with coining the term.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Homes listed for sale may not be considered.