Keys Homes
Sunday, August 18, 2013
Display house

By BARBARA BOWERS Special to The Citizen

The home located at 12 Emerald Drive on Big Coppitt Key is an honest-to-goodness display house; a private residence built by homeowners Mary Blackman and Island Alex--really, they did 98 percent of the work themselves--specifically to exhibit more than 40 years of scuba-diving treasures...for their own viewing pleasure.

"We're both collectors, and that's real bad," laughed Mary, a watercolor artist by profession, and the day-to-day homemaker who figures it's her job to, well, dust the collection.

Mary and her musician husband, Island Alex (formerly a 27-year veteran of fire and rescue) have always been hands-on kind of folk, never more blatantly so than during the eight-year building period of their home.

"We'd been coming to the Keys since the early '70s and bought the dead-end lot on Big Coppitt in 1982, while we were still living in Pompano," said Alex. "Almost weekly, we made 200-mile drives to the Keys to work on our house--I can show you photos of Mary tying steel beams."

By the time the couple retired here in 1998, the house was paid for and together, they had designed and finished the fossilized coral faÃßade, stacked and cemented countless cinder blocks, poured concrete, laid even more bricks, built bedroom furniture they recycled from scaffolding and still found some time to scuba dive.

"It started with two semester courses in how to read blueprints, just to know where to put the steel bars," said Alex. "Bill Muir did our official blueprints, but the plan was ours, fitted to the L-shape lot, with a canal on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other."

"We love the view, the view, the view," said Mary of the multi-island panorama, which includes Shark Key and Snipes Point in the distance. Seen through three sets of 8-by-12-foot sliding-glass walls topped with oversized transoms, visibility is clear and deep and spans the entire back of the house.

But there's more to love than meets the eye; the labor of love that went into building the two-story stilt house is as intense as the love of water. In fact, underwater treasures fill all levels of this house, and the nautical theme includes huge anchors outside as well as one initially hung by crane from the 25-foot-high rafters in the great room. Up here, too, dangles a life-sized Mako shark and a near life-sized sailboat built by Bill Wright, the uncle of one of Alex's fireman buddies.

Dozens of antique demijohns are silhouetted in transoms above the sliding-glass walls. Japanese glass floats dot corners and shelves of the interior space, and rows of late-1800s, soft blue round-bottom bottles, aka torpedoes, hang like wine glasses from wooden racks.

"A lot of this stuff is from the diving we did in the 1970s, tho' mostly these days, we buy, sell and trade bottles," said Alex.

Old-bottle shapes and colors are ever present, displayed in shadow boxes built into the floors, walls and ceilings. Bottles are even inserted into the exterior coral faÃßade, or cut in half and inserted into the kitchen's stained-glass cabinet doors.

Like most everything else in this house, the kitchen is custom made: For instance, the big island and all countertops are Alex-and-Mary made with a blend of white concrete and a seashell aggregate. The look is fossilized in keeping with the coral faÃßade, and intentionally made to look old via storage and stove encasings of natural wood and red brick.

A series of sinks culminate at one end of the kitchen wall, where the wine rack Alex built from drainage tiles contributes to the rustic environment.

A long hallway juts off the L-shaped great room, built wider than normal to accommodate more than light from windows; it affords museum-like maneuverability to enjoy at least five shadow boxes of bottles built into the walls and access the library, a full bathroom and the guest bedroom--all tastefully decorated with blue textured fabrics, wood furniture built by Alex and bottles, of course.

More bottles appear on the central-staircase landing overlooking the great room, but one display is particularly unique: It makes up the end of the balcony floor, plus the ceiling above the dining room below. Light enters freely above and below the clear glass encasement showing off brightly colored bottles and beach glass.

Also on the landing, a wall-inset display features an exquisite collection of spiny oyster shells at the entry to the owner's bedroom suite. The suite fully occupies the upper quarter of the house's overall 3,200 square feet: The primary sleep room with, you guessed it, bottle displays and textured stucco walls and built-in dresser; a walk-in cedar closet.

The spacious turquoise-colored bathroom sports a rack of torpedo bottles, but an octopus etched-glass shower stall by Susan Pelish reinforces that some decorative statements are not delivered in bottles. Take the freestanding display cases in what might be a private sitting room in some suites, but is here Mary's art studio, loaded with slate tiles and art supplies and salvaged wood that Alex converts into frames for Mary's paintings.

Other conversions sit at ground level, three stories below the bedroom suite's private exterior balcony. Not so visible in the sea-grape forest is an outdoor sitting room, where exhibited in the form of three very hard sofas are slate-curb stones that Island Alex and Mary Blackman collected from the Simonton Street boat ramp years ago, when the city of Key West discarded them; moved by the couple to the water's edge specifically to watch the light display at sunset.

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 barbara@bbowers.com. Homes listed for sale may not be considered.

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