By CAROLINE HORN Special to The Citizen
"Tucked away on a quiet little lane ...," begins the description of many of Key West's quaint cottages.
Secret Villa at the end of Free School Lane boasts this distinction, but what is special about this particular abode is that anyone can enjoy "Lane Living" in this two-story, single family vacation rental. Free School Lane is off Simonton Street between Southard and Fleming just a block from Duval.
"Many locals don't even know where it is until they're reminded of Nancy's Secret Garden," said owner James Heslin.
Lush landscaping hides the oasis of tranquility awaiting bedraggled travelers when they step through the gate. They are instantly greeted by a generous free-form pool, large deck, and covered dining area.
French doors lead from the outside dining area to the kitchen. With its gray and black granite countertops, white beadboard cabinets, and stainless steel appliances, the kitchen promises to be the heart of this home away from home. Three sets of double-hung windows overlook the pool, allowing an abundance of natural light while three antique stained glass panels coexist effortlessly with the modern amenities.
Reflections of nature abound in the furnishings, finishes and artwork. Hardwood flooring throughout is accented with rugs in simple patterns and natural hues calling to mind the shades of the beach at Key West's Fort Zachary Taylor. There's the ivory sand and coral, the tall pines, the craggy gray rocks, and of course, the turquoise water. Black and white shell prints, sepia colored sea fans, and botanical prints all evoke the nature found in the Florida Keys.
Stepping further into the home, one is awash with a feeling of serenity surrounded by soft gray walls and comfortable unfussy furnishings. The living room is flanked by sets of French doors opening to the outdoors. A pair of colorful bromeliad prints share the space with a vintage black and white photo of Hemingway aboard his boat Pilar. Flowing white curtains hang from rods of galvanized water pipes. The décor is a seamless blend of warmth and edginess.
Heslin bought the property in 2012 and immediately began to redesign the space.
"When I visit Key West, I want to relax," he explained. "I live in a busy, crowded city. Like everyone else, I want to experience a slower pace and an uncluttered lifestyle."
Heslin has successfully achieved this sense of calm in every detail from the soft gray and white palette to the gently distressed cottage-style furnishings and even to the bronze, three-blade ceiling fans and simple lighting fixtures throughout the home.
"The property has three bedrooms with en suite baths that greatly contribute to Secret Villa's success as a rental," said Brenda Donnelly of Historic Key West Vacation Rentals, which manages the property.
The home was built in 1984, so the rooms are of modern proportions. Each bedroom is unique while maintaining the consistency of the entire design. The first-floor bedroom has a set of French doors opening to a small deck, perfect for a morning cup of con leche.
The master and third bedrooms on the second floor share a large canopied sundeck. In the master suite, exposed cross beams beneath a soaring cathedral ceiling repeat the sense of scale that distinguishes every aspect of the design throughout the home. Heslin recently replaced the drywall behind the bed with natural wood. Over time it will develop a patina that will further add to the character of the room.
A row of shuttered windows in the third bedroom allows light to stream through, reminiscent of soft light filtering through Bahamian shutters. Modern rugs with a variegated design could almost be mistaken for very worn Persian carpets.
The bathrooms are all tiled in white octagonal mosaics and feature furniture-style vanities with white marble tops. The impression is clean without being sterile, a touch of retro design paired with contemporary comfort.
Since the house is not a historical structure, solar panels were allowed on the roof. The interior's nod to nature is not superficial. The collection of Key West's most abundant natural resource -- glorious sunshine -- becomes integrated into the systems of the home.
About the purchase of his home, Heslin remarked, "It's one of the best things I've ever done. I love Key West, especially the people, and I'm looking forward to being a part of this community for many years to come."
Visitors to Secret Villa are in turn grateful to Heslin for sharing his tranquil island home.