The city of Key West's Historic Architectural Review Commission made quick work Tuesday night denying a local artist's request to keep two mirrors framing her front door and silver paint on two patches of walkway outside her house.
Deeming them "alterations" that clash with the island's historic district regulations, the commission unanimously voted against the finishing exterior touches that Debra Yates placed on her newly purchased home at the corner of White and Newton streets.
The two mirrors, which Yates found outside the near-blighted property that she bought for $275,000 in July, have to go. So does the silver paint she chose for two welcome-mat sized squares of what was brick-looking tile.
Yates applied for after-the-fact approval of the silver paint and mirrors, and after Tuesday's meeting smiled and said she would comply with HARC's decision.
"I get some, I lose some," said Yates, a veteran HARC applicant given her record of renovating Key West homes in neighborhoods deemed historic.
"They approved my bike rack sculpture," Yates said of a Nov. 13 meeting, at which HARC also denied a 6-foot fence because of the non-traditional materials she had planned to use.
Yates calls her renovation of the White Street house, which included tearing out a broken concrete wall out front and hauling away garbage and a weird collection of plants and items in the yard, a temporary installation.
Though good-humored about the Tuesday HARC denial, Yates noted that no one on the commission has ever thanked her for cleaning up the Meadows neighborhood corner.
It's commonplace at HARC meetings, and occurred twice Tuesday night, for Chairman Rudy Molinet to praise a contractor or property owner for redoing a falling-down house on the island.
After the meeting, Molinet, a local real estate agent appointed to HARC by City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley, said he admires Yates' talents and works, but the mirrors aren't allowed by the guidelines.
"We try to be consistent," said Molinet. "We treat everyone the same as everyone else. The guidelines are really clear."
Legally, Yates' mirror and paint application isn't merely art once it's affixed to the property.
Assistant City Attorney Larry Erskine on Tuesday told HARC the mirrors and silver paint fell under the legal definition of "alterations," meaning they have to comply with the city's historic district code that can nix paint colors and anything else, such as mirrors, that may veer away from "the character, integrity and appearance of the historic preservation districts."
But Yates' case has shown that HARC, along with the rest of Key West, is at a loss when it comes to having a definition for art installations.
"It's obvious we do lack something in our guidelines to address these issues," said Donna Bosold, the HARC appointee of City Commissioner Teri Johnston. "Other communities have addressed them with mixed results. I did some research after the last meeting. It really depends on your community how you want to look at these opportunities as we continue to redevelop and remodel properties."
Key West has code enforcement officers who follow up on neighborhood complaints. But not a single resident of the neighborhood in question, the Meadows, turned up at the meeting or wrote a letter to HARC that was read into the record.
"It is a residential structure next to residences," said architect Dan Metzler, appointed by City Commissioner Billy Wardlow. "I think it's trying to become commercial. Whether we couch it as an art installation or alteration, that's still what it is."
Several commission members, however, voiced support for the city to develop definitions tailored to the island's standards for art installations.
"She's treating the entire project as an artistic expression of installation, including the house," said architect Michael Miller, Mayor Craig Cates' HARC appointee. "I think we should have some way to address this approach to modifying housing."
Yates, a Conch with an international art world portfolio, runs an interior design firm called Debra Yates Great Space that has recreated several Key West homes. With her son, Miami-based artist Benjamin Burle, Yates recently turned the White Street house into her own work of art.
Yates only had to stand briefly before the commission at Old City Hall on Tuesday, in contrast to her Nov. 13 appearance that lasted nearly one hour before the panel members decided to call a stalemate and revisit the matter this week.
A temporary home
Yates plans to tear it down and build a two-story number with a pool separating the small wings.
"I need a buyer first," she said, explaining that the customer would be buying 717 White St. as she plans to design it.
But having taken a shine to the space, Yates moved into the house on Monday, along with her two dogs, Summer, 7, and Mini, 17.
A few hours before the HARC meeting, she showed a visitor around the modest property, pointing out the five potted palm trees that line the top in plastic buckets painted silver, and the curtains that she put up to partially hide the supposedly offensive mirrors.
Yates also had the broken metal shutters hauled away.
"All I did was take things away," said Yates of the property that neighbors recall as a dilapidated fixture that housed a number of roommates. "I filled an entire Dumpster with junk."
Yates said she got the proper permits for the work, but didn't expect the twin rectangular mirrors -- the type typically found on a bedroom wall -- or the silver paint to become a problem. She found the next-door neighbors welcomed the changes.
"Everyone in the neighborhood was so excited," Yates said.