Timeless in Miami

The architect calls it a “plantation,” while the owner’s representative thinks “New Orleans.” And the designer sees hints of a New England Colonial. But whatever an onlooker sees, the serenity of place, the lattice of oaks and the magnificence of 18,000 square feet of columned grandeur can’t fail to turn heads.

That’s exactly what happened to the new owner of this home formerly owned by Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees. Drawn to the charm of its unique site on Miami’s Biscayne Bay and the traditional look of a brick home, the already smitten, hopeful buyer literally knocked on the door and made an offer.

It wasn’t immediate, but he did get his wish. “Not so easily,” says Todd Michael Glaser, Miami developer extraordinaire, and the new owner’s representative. “The home was really in disrepair and rather than a renovation, we decided on a redesign and rebuild.” But, says Glaser, who also developed Carl Fisher’s storied 1920s mansion on the same street, “I’d always loved these two particular houses.”

Asked to join the team by Glaser, architect Ralph Choeff recalls, “It’s hard to believe now, but we literally cut off the back two-thirds of the house and gutted the rest. For a time, it was like a Hollywood set — with just the front facade looking like a dwelling.” Using I-beams and adhering to strict building codes, the home eventually expanded over 10,000 square feet and spread side wings that gracefully embrace the property.

“Yes, and we were designing as we built,” laughs designer Charlotte Dunagan, trained in Nice and the U.S., with a family lineage that includes designers and antiques experts. “It was wonderful working with the owner,” she says. “He was open to so much. His only specifications were traditional comfort — and a two-story library where men could gather to play pool, watch a movie or have a cigar.”

Retaining the original shape of the foyer and its gently twisting stairway, Dunagan covered the steps in dark walnut and coiled a delicate wrought-iron railing by Rigo’s Ornamental Ironwork along the stairs and bridged landing above. Adding balance to the checkered marble floor, a new, coffered dome was installed over the rotunda.

From the central foyer, the home opens to a spacious living room, which itself is flanked by the dining room, kitchen and family room to one side, and a music room and the library with an adjacent wine room on the other.

“Because the owner has a vibrantly colored art collection, the interior walls and furnishings are purposefully subdued,” Dunagan says. Slate-topped, black-painted cocktail tables by Lars Bolander are dramatic between Belgian linen-covered sofas. Here, 19th-century Chinese porcelain lamps sit on a sofa table facing the water, and a contemporary note of fabric-whimsy in the antique ottoman sets the stage for the owner’s art. Lime-plastered walls and detailed millwork lend a sense of tranquility against bold top rails and black wrought iron chandeliers by Dessin Fournir.

Looking contemporary in the dining room, antique English leather chairs surround custom walnut tables designed with elegant marquetry center sunbursts. Fernando Botero’s well-fed figures burst with color beside a Napoleonic ebonized bibliothèque from 1865.

Containing nearly 250 bottles of vintage wine in double coolers and dry stores, the wine room opens to a sunny space perfect for playing whist or savoring a languorous tasting. And the same Old World feeling, so right for assessing a good Burgundy or Bordeaux, reappears in the paneling and leather of the soaring library.

Cloaking the structural necessities tying old house to new, Dunagan created a coffered ceiling in the new family room and pillared supports at the pass-through. In acknowledgment of guests’ propensity for kitchen partying, she scattered variations of seating from the table banquette to the counter’s high stools, all with fabric from Monica James. And the custom-designed milk glass and pewter stove hood gives the kitchen’s geometry an abstract bent.

The master bedroom’s spectacular view of Miami’s cityscape can be reveled in from the bed custom designed with a tufted wool-flannel headboard. Charcoal gray armchairs, an armless settee, and a sparkling table in silver and mirror provide incentive for that last glass of wine in a room wrapped in subdued taupe grasscloth by Phillip Jeffries. “It was like an orchestra — all of us working together, sensing each other’s thoughts. It was delightful … if hectic,” says Dunagan, looking back over the feverish eight months it took to tear down and recreate the client’s dream house.

And the homeowner? “He was ecstatic,” the designer says. “To be in Miami and yet with the sense of another time — a kind of timelessness.”