Keys Homes
Sunday, September 8, 2013
The Boardroom

By BARBARA BOWERS Special to The Citizen

Today's real estate market boasts a roughly 60 percent entirely cash payment for the purchase of properties in the Florida Keys. That was an anomaly, though, when Joe Viana and Ray Baker bought their home back in 1986.

"We'd been visiting the Keys since 1972; in fact, the cold weather in Pennsylvania, where we owned a house, had made Christmas in Key West a tradition," said Baker. "During the months before we arrived in '86, we'd driven cross country, house hunting on both coasts because we knew we weren't going to retire up North."

"With just three days left in our visit to Key West, 1523 Washington came on the market," said Viana. "We rode our bikes by it on Monday; on Tuesday we walked through, placed a cash contract on it Wednesday, and closed the deal on Friday."

In addition to being way ahead of the cash-buying curve, these two former business executives knew a good deal and pounced on it with corporate decisiveness.

"The house was built in 1969 on a double lot owned by the Coca Cola Company, which it used for housing managers of its bottling works on Simonton Street," said Viana. "We bought directly from Coke, and got the property at more reasonable Miami prices, rather than Key West's typically higher rates.

Initially, the three-bed/one-bath house was U-shaped, featuring a central courtyard that faced the empty adjoining lot.

"Year-by-year we made changes," said Baker, both structurally and cosmetically. For instance, in 1988 a new pool and the men's hands-on landscaping skills transformed the empty lot into their outdoor entertainment area.

The detached one-bed/one-bath guest house completed the 100-by-100 foot double-lot design in 1989, when their focus turned to the primary residence.

"We lived with the kitchen for three years," said Viana. "Imagine plywood cabinets like those in granny's farmhouse."

That early 1990s kitchen renovation eventually gave way to the hardwood cabinets and granite counters there now, which followed another remake after Hurricane Wilma's flood in 2005. But the first kitchen rehab inspired an overall house redesign: A second bathroom was added en suite to the master bedroom, where windows were converted into a wall of glass-sliding doors that open to the covered patio.

The gentlemen turned the courtyard into an enclosed dining room by connecting the roof above the existing cement walls of the U. Then by removing the glass sliding doors that formerly separated courtyard from the living room, by raising the courtyard floor to match existing interior floors and covering all the floors indoors and on the outside patio with tan-colored porcelain tiles, the dining room became the house hub.

Entry to the dining room from the living room and kitchen created a gracious interior space that flowed seamlessly through the new set of glass-sliding doors, which opened for indoor/outdoor entertaining on covered patio, pool deck and garden.

About this time, the long-oval table was centrally positioned for feeding first the three couples, then more than 30 who attended the Flamingo Ball hosted annually in Baker and Viana's home for 15 years.

A miniature flamingo collection of host gifts lines one of the dining-room display cases, recalling the magic of those days for many of the not-for-profit board members, who collected back then, and now, around the dining-room table.

"Seems the dining room table is also a conference table," laughed Baker. "Joe's the front man for various boards, and I," said the former Madison Avenue advertising exec, "supply the adjectives" for memos and other board-writing necessities.

At the moment, Impromptu Classical Concerts and the Fringe organize here, but past years have ushered in and out the Pops and the Founders of Tennessee Williams Theater, Anne McKee's Art Auction and the Community Foundation.

This year the Red Cross recognized the couple's longtime community contributions with its Lifetime Achievement Award -- these guys just never stop doing -- in fact, last year, Viana and Baker jumped back into their home improvement mode, when they converted their attached garage, which had become but "a storage shed," into a media room.

The "pretty big TV" occupies almost the entire green accent wall, located directly across from the doorway to the kitchen. This is probably no accident that the media room is around the corner from the dining-room boardroom, just awaiting its video conferencing days in the sun.

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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