By BARBARA BOWERS Special to The Citizen
Keith Bland figures the house he bought with Michael Thomas at 1328 Grinnell St. is loaded with "spirit and soul; it has good karma," Bland said. "The place just breathes and is alive with stories."
He relates one story about how, after the couple bought the property in 1994, "we upgraded the kitchen, and purchased new appliances from what was then Reid Appliances. Turns out Mr. Reid was born in this house."
Not all spirits and souls reveal themselves conversationally, of course, but if the many generations absorbed into the Dade County pine walls, saw-tooth add-ons and contemporary updates of these antique houses are instilled through the actions of homeowners, 1328 Grinnell mushrooms with memories. And new stories are bound to unfold next weekend, when Bland's at-home art studio is featured among the events of the first-ever Art! Key West festival on Sunday, Dec 2.
The public is invited to tour the two-story garage makeover, where Bland works his artistic magic, and where "variances were already in place when we bought the house," he said. "We knew we could build my art studio above what was a flat roof garage, with a concrete slab ceiling -- basically a bunker -- and the private garden and entry on South Street was also perfect for the garage conversion into our first-floor guest suite."
This detached guest suite is open to the public on Sunday, too -- be sure to check out the color-flecked bathroom-tile floor and cleverly adapted confetti-like Corian sink, then climb up the stairs to Bland's studio. Here, art lovers will be rewarded with more than a retrospective of his portraiture-to-abstract paintings: The aerie charm includes a private rooftop deck for naturally star-lit dining and, well, the Hobbit Hole.
"When architect Rob Delaune redesigned our kitchen, he closed off the loft that was overlooking it, and turned the space into another bedroom accessed only from the roof deck. We call this the Hobbit Hole, a sleep space designed especially for our short friends," laughed Bland, who splits his working time between fine arts and commercial real estate sales for Doug Mayberry and Associates.
Bland says the dormer was already built into the front-gable roof of the original single-story house by previous owners. But the Hobbit-sized door that now opens onto the roof deck was custom made for Bland and Thomas to replace the dormer's window.
The privacy factor of the property's rear section is upstaged by the New Orleans-style courtyard that notches the front corner of the house facing Grinnell Street. Surrounded by a 7-foot concrete wall, this brick patio with cistern-turned-pool is reachable only from the L-shape of the ground-level master suite, and the northerly set of French doors from the living room.
"We knew the 45-by-80-foot corner lot held promise, and we've used every square inch of the garden and interior space," said Bland.
"Initially, this was a three-room shotgun house, but there had to have been an add-on almost every decade since it was built in the early 1900s," he said. "In just the 18 years Michael and I have owned it, we renovated three times."
The first thing Bland, who holds a graduate degree from Columbia's School of Architecture, and his partner Thomas, a retired surgeon, did to the house was break through the Dade County pine walls of the front rooms. This not only unleashed a myriad of hidden spirits, it meshed a three-way-door flow of living-and-dining room with the long shotgun hall.
Two more breakthroughs in the living room, via double doors into gardens on each side, achieved the couple's goal of living with nature.
Such structural changes brought exterior light into the house's four-room interior of pickled-wood walls and neutral colors. Leather furniture, grass-woven chairs and a fabulous marble dining-room table, which Bland bought fresh from the docks in New York City while he was still in school, are accented with colorful pillows and his paintings.
The house's decorative ambiance holds the comfortable feel of London's Royal Geographic Society, created with a blend of Old Town's rich wooden walls and the high ceilings of a vintage Parisian art gallery.
"The house is like an art gallery in constant change because my paintings are always changing," said Bland.
But some things never change; Bland's Uncle L.C., a Texas rancher, hangs steadfastly above the dining room table, a testament to Bland's early career as a portrait artist. However, a new portrait of sorts has found its way into the kitchen, overseeing activity at the bar, which is next to a long farm table found in Memphis.
"That's one of the paintings in my upcoming show, 'Riffs on Immortality,'" said Bland. "Each is a portrait of angels or Chinese gods or Mayan gods. I figure they were commissioned by the immortals themselves."
New spirits alive with stories, making memories for future generations at 1328 Grinnell St. You bet.
And while Bland and Thomas' primary residence won't be open to the public on Dec. 2, some of these immortal portraits will be on display with Bland's other work at the art studio open house from noon to 5 p.m.
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.