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HOMEOWNERS - Allen and Diane McAlevey

HOME SITE - Coral Gables, Florida

STYLE - Low-country plantation

COMPLETED - 1999

BEDROOMS - Six in main house, one in coach house

BATHS - Seven in main house, one in cabana, one in coach house

HER FAVORITE ROOM - Classic plantation-house dining room

HIS FAVORITE ROOM - 6,000-bottle wine cellar

EXTERIOR HIGHLIGHT - 16-foot-wide verandahs furnished for outdoor living

HOUSEBUILDING TIP - Be at the construction site every day, even if it's only to have a cup of coffee with the contractor first thing in the morning.

Grand Dining Room

A Quiet Retreat

Coral Gables, Florida — Allen and Diane McAlevey have worked from the ground up to make home "a gorgeous place to live" for themselves and their family.

Their story begins thirty-five years ago when Allen's parents first made an offer on the property. They eventually opted to buy elsewhere, but Allen never forgot the home's serene waterfront setting on a canal flowing into Biscayne Bay.

Three decades later, he and Diane were in the vicinity delivering a Christmas basket when they noticed a "For Sale" sign in front of the house. Though they weren't really in the market for a new home, it was too good an opportunity to pass by. And with three daughters, they could always use more space and more land.


At the front and back of the house, sixteen-foot-wide verandahs furnished with Persian rugs, rockers, and antique wicker bring living room comfort outdoors. Shop Outdoor Living.

The problem, explains Diane, was the house. "We called it a Robinson Crusoe," she says. "It looked like a tree fort, with two stories on one end, but not the other." The owners had added a series of baths and bedrooms to accommodate their growing family, and, among other drawbacks, the master bedroom shared a bath. "There was no working with the house. It wasn't livable for our needs, and renovation would have been too big a project. Since we couldn't do anything with the house as it was, we decided to knock it down and start over."

A FLORIDA HOUSE WITH MISSISSIPPI FLAVOR

Now that they owned the property of their dreams, Allen and Diane set out to create a house to match, a classic design with lots of character. "We originally thought Key West," says Diane. "A Victorian with metal roof and big verandahs. But we thought we'd get tired of the fretwork and gingerbread in no time at all."

Extensive research at libraries, bookstores, and historic societies led them to a book on Natchez and the low-country plantation house that eventually served as the pattern for their own home. "The architecture was more in keeping in with the true vernacular," Diane says. "And we got to keep our metal roof and big verandahs. You have to decide what's important to you. We really wanted to be outside, but not out in the sun, so we needed porches large enough to live out there."

As for the metal roof, which was to become a first for Coral Gables, "we like the way it sounds when it rains."


The kitchen boasts enough space to cook delicious meals and clean up quickly. Shop Kitchen & Entertaining.

Preserving other elements of classic plantation-house architecture was equally important to Allen and Diane. There was to be "a view corridor" running from the main foyer to the back of the house, and an intersecting corridor running from the guest bath to the master bedroom. Wainscoting, beader board, crown mouldings, wooden floors, and baseboards were to be replicated in exacting detail. Such was their success that " says Diane. "The house looks as though it came out of the late 1800s or early 1900s."

Allen and Diane turned to architect David Johnson to put their ideas on paper. They'd worked with him once before when renovating their Key Largo home and had appreciated his good-natured, collaborative style. "He was so easy to work with," says Diane. "He really understood our ideas. We'd look at this living room or that front porch from a layman's point of view, and he'd create it. He has great ideas of his own, but he doesn't try to force anything down your throat."

From the six or seven bids they obtained, Allen and Diane chose contractor Louis Gaines to build the house. It turned out to be one of the best decisions they ever made. "Louis was a stand-up guy," says Diane, "a third generation subcontractor whose work was impeccable, very detail oriented. He even built a cyclone fence around the property so the kids wouldn't fall in the canal. He was here every single day. He turned everything out on time."

"Since we couldn't do anything with the house as it was, we decided to knock it down and start over."

Singing the praises of both Johnson and Gaines, she says, "These guys worked it so we wound up with a beautiful home." Homebuilding, however, is not for those lacking time or patience.

"We were very fortunate to be able to build our dream house," says Diane, "but it was a huge project. The permit process alone was five months. It took another twenty-two months to get in the house, then eight more weeks to finish the millwork." During the final month of construction, they commuted to Coral Gables from their place in Key Largo. "At the end, we spent three hours in the car every day."

Despite the demands on their time, Allen or Diane still made a point of visiting the site each and every day. "It's like you're married to the construction site," says Diane. "You're less passionate if you only go once a week. You have to go every day, even if it's just to stop first thing in the morning and have a cup of coffee with the contractor."

THE INSIDE STORY

The room that required the most forethought was the kitchen. "We designed and redesigned it," says Diane. "We really had to focus on what we wanted." Topping the list were four refrigerators and two freezers. "I cook fresh," explains Diane, "and I needed a lot of refrigerator space. The freezers are for venison — Allen is a hunter."

A vegetable sink, built-in wok and deep fryer covered by a custom cutting board, a 60" gas range, spice drawers, a wine cooler, and two warming drawers assist with food preparation and entertaining. An antique English breakfront holds Diane's collections of cookbooks and oyster plates. To facilitate clean-up, Allen and Diane installed two dishwashers plus a garbage chute leading directly to the trash cans downstairs.

Most indispensable of all is the chalk board: "It keeps our day going!" Even more important to Allen was the six-thousand bottle wine cellar. His interest in wine was serious enough to warrant a trip to France to purchase wine racks. He ensures his collection is well rounded by consulting with a wine proprietor as well a friend who owns a vineyard in Oregon.

Sharing the lower level with the wine cellar are a gym, media room, play room, tool room, and four-car garage. "When we started to excavate, no one could understand why. Basements are unusual in Florida, but the space is great."


Built with wine racks purchased in France, the wine cellar is large enough to store 6,000 bottles, ensuring that Allen's wine collection is well-rounded. Shop Furnishings & Décor.

In decorating the house, Allen and Diane relied on guidance from decorator Fernando Sanchez. "We found him after admiring a garden he'd designed down by the water. We drove to his house and told him, 'We want you to come and look at our garden.' He invited us in, and when we saw his eclectic collection of antiques and tapestries, we asked him to take a look at our house, too." His first assignment was the living room, where he did such "a great job" that they asked for his help with the rest of the house.

Involving Allen and Diane in the process was part of the secret of his success. "We did most of the purchasing ourselves, so it doesn't feel like we're in somebody else's house," says Diane. "Fernando would say, 'You know what I'd like to see here?' and then tell us where to shop for it. We'd come back and show him what we got, and we were like three kids. Allen and I know what we like, and we have a flair for working together, but Fernando knew where to place everything. He's intensely creative. I sing his praises everywhere I go."

She gives Allen a lot of credit, too. "Having your husband involved makes all the difference in the world. But he has to like it. So you share a bottle of wine and look at a pile of fabrics."

"People flip out when they come in," says Diane. "The house looks as though it came out of the late 1800s or early 1900s." To achieve the look, wainscoting, beader board, crown mouldings, wooden floors, and baseboards were replicated in exacting detail.

FURNISHING WITH ANTIQUES

At the same time they were planning and building their home, Allen and Diane traveled far and wide in search of furnishings. "Allen can look at a set of plans and see the house done," says Diane. "He could visualize where everything would go."

New York, Connecticut, Virginia, Atlanta, San Francisco, Europe — they went to all the likely places looking for antiques. And if they happened to be someplace else, they looked there, too. In whatever city they found themselves, they'd ask the hotel concierge to point them in the direction of the antique district.

"We love to go antiquing, poking our way around," says Diane. "We buy pieces that we like. Some are fine. Others are old and not so fine, but we like them and they work very well." Part of their partiality toward antiques is immediately availability. "If you find something you like and can afford it, you can have it in your house tomorrow. Not so with reproductions, which can take up to sixteen weeks to order, and are sometimes more costly."

Allen and Diane's style of home furnishing is "to find pieces that get you in the door. You live with something for six months, all the while looking at that one area and thinking it's not working right. It might take three weeks or three years to find the right piece, and then you change things out."

Diane acknowledges that constantly upgrading and improving their home can be overwhelming, but she enjoys the process. When taking on a new project, she commits to working on it for several weeks. "Then you stop, rest, and circle around. That's why it takes forever. I don't think you're ever done."

GRACIOUS OUTDOOR LIVING

At the front and back of the house, sixteen-foot-wide verandahs furnished with Persian rugs, rockers, and antique wicker bring living room comfort outdoors. An intriguing assortment of antique appointments — two huge old barrels, a counter from an old general store in Pennsylvania, a lazy Susan from Virginia, birdcages, a child's high chair, liquor jugs converted into lamps, a pair of ladder-back chairs with rush seats — lend an extra measure of charm to the already relaxed atmosphere.

"People flip out when they come in. The house looks as though it came out of the late 1800s or early 1900s."

"We entertain there all the time," says Diane. "Cocktails, an annual Christmas dinner, fish fries, luaus, whatever we feel like doing while the weather holds and the sand flies aren't nasty." And, of course, there's the Verandah Girls' Club which meets the first Friday of every month. Allen and Diane also routinely open their home to fundraisers for local charities.

To recreate the surroundings of a low-country plantation house, Allen and Diane originally landscaped with zoysia grass and magnolia trees. "It was a very clean look that went with the house, but the grass was prone to fungus and never really thrived here," says Diane. "And magnolias don't love Florida." Lush new plantings added in the last few months prompted Allen and Diane to streamline the verandahs by replacing clumps of plants with a collection of rare palms.

"Once you redo one thing, you have to redo something else. Even though things don't always go off the way you wish they would, making a gorgeous place to live for you and your family is so enjoyable and rewarding."

"If I've inspired even one person to create a beautiful home," Diane concludes, "I'll be happy."

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