From the early 1900s to 1940, U.S. builders in temperate states copied the look of rustic houses from Mexico and the warm European countries of Spain, Italy, and Portugal. Although the construction and layout of these houses, known as Mediterranean or Spanish style, are most suited to the climates of southern California, Florida, Texas, and Arizona, the style has since gained popularity across the country.
The design includes stucco siding, clay roof tile, wrought iron accents, arched doorways, colorful tiles, and carved doors and columns. Some have courtyards, carved stone work, and decorative ceilings. Some take the form of small, intimate houses; others are large, multi-building complexes. "They range from haciendas to palazzos," says architect Jeff Smith of Smith Architectural Group, Palm Beach, Fla.
At 60 to 100 years old now, the houses often need quite a bit of work to bring them back to their original luster. In addition, modern homeowners demand amenities that did not exist in the early 1900s. As with many historic properties, the first order of business may be to undo the misguided "improvements" of previous owners. Smith says in the 1960s, the Mediterranean style was considered old-fashioned and homeowners painted everything white and stripped the details from interiors. He calls these clumsy additions and changes "architorture."
Jim Carmo, a principal with Palm Beach architecture firm Bridges Marsh and Carmo, says post-war changes are the most out of character and in need of a fix. "They have cheap windows, linoleum floors, and drop ceilings covering beautiful cypress ceilings," he says.
On a Mediterranean-style house that needs work, crumbling foundations, sagging beams and joists, and leaky roofs are usually a remodeler's first concern. Over time, water seeps in behind the clay barrel tiles on the roof and damages the plaster walls, notes John Kennison, director of media relations for Today's Classic Homes, a television show that featured the remodel of a Mediterranean-style home in Florida. Inefficient HVAC systems and substandard wiring and plumbing also pose problems.
Bathrooms in these houses are too small and too few in number for today's lifestyle. Carmo will steal space from nearby bedrooms to enlarge the bath or create a master suite. Then he adds bedrooms above the garage or creates a separate guesthouse. Keith Alward, president of Alward Construction, Berkeley, Calif., says his clients want more bathroom square footage for luxurious amenities such as whirlpools or two-person showers.
Designers must think creatively to match the rustic handmade details found in most Spanish-style houses. Carmo avoids machine-made materials, which he says are instantly detectable to visitors. "If you can keep a higher percentage of elements man-made," Carmo explains, "it transfers to the overall effect of the house."
Most designers prefer to reuse existing materials or copy traditional methods. Troy Beasley, principal of Beasley & Henley Interior Design in Winter Park, Fla., reconfigured an entire metal staircase from one part of a Spanish-style home for use in the basement. "We cut it down and re-welded the parts together to fit dimensions of the staircase in the basement," he says. In the same house, he and his partner, Stephanie Henley, reused the original doors, floors, and ironwork. "What we could not find, we had made," Henley says.
Smith also relies on capable subs for a three-coat plaster technique for interior walls. He thinks this uneven finish better complements these older houses. He also likes to specify Venetian plaster -- a European mix that includes pigmented marble dust. His favorite finish is a beeswax polish on the walls.
When matching products can't be found, designers and remodelers put on their detective caps. On one project, to keep wall sconces consistent with the period, Alward had them hand-painted in a palette developed after extensive research at a builder's bookstore in Berkeley (see " Sources," below) and on the Internet. On the same house, Alward wanted to reuse hand-forged hardware but had to have springs made to fit the broken latches.
Smith likes to spec handmade roof tiles from Honduras and Guatemala or reclaimed roofing from France. He prefers barrel tiles, which offer a better profile when installed on the roof than S-shaped tiles, which cost about 50% less. When Farina needs to add roofing or re-roof, he sends out requests to roofers and roofing wholesalers across the nation. If he can't exactly match the tile, he "splits the difference" by shifting older pieces to the front and placing newer tile on less visible back sections.
Architect Butch Charlan of Charlan-Brock & Associates, Maitland, Fla., tries to remove the awkward compromises of past remodels. On one project, there were three additions that took away from the continuity and consistency of the style, so he went back to the original drawings. Similarly, Smith tries to "channel" the original architect. "If he were to come back and be hired by the clients, what would he have done?" Whatever the theme, Carmo believes designers should continue it throughout the project. "Otherwise," he says, "you've spent time working on something that is not believable."
When finding or using an original technique is impossible, remodelers turn to other materials and methods. Beasley used several creative solutions for one Spanish-style project. For the walls, his sub copied the hand-troweled plaster but added a faux finish to provide "instant aging." On the main staircase, he used standard castings instead of forged and hand-welded materials. "This made it convenient and cost-effective," says Beasley, "but kept the Mediterranean flavor." On the same house, architect Charlan added a covered entry. Beasley made columns for the entry by taking a mold of the original door pilasters. For a new bay window, he added a beam with a corbel bracket that looks like it's holding up the ceiling. "Instead of being made of traditional stone or concrete, we made them of plaster," Beasley explains. "Then we put on a faux finish so it appeared aged."
Overall, designers say it's worth the extra effort to find and match materials. "I think it's a very appealing, romantic part of our architectural heritage that will continue to be repeated," Alward says of the Mediterranean style.
Boards And Codes
Working with a historic review board and meeting local codes are important to the success of Spanish-style remodels. In Palm Beach, says architect Jeff Smith, the board is accommodating and understanding. "They want to see these houses preserved," he says, "but understand that lifestyles have changed." Smith praises their sensitivity to the requirements of a new infrastructure. He cites one job where he wanted to reconstruct a bell tower that had previously been removed. Even though building heights are restricted in this neighborhood, the board gave him a variance.
Remodeler Victor Farina says his local historic review board is especially helpful when it comes to hurricane codes. "Whatever we attach that is new has to be to code," he explains, but for the existing house, the board is less stringent. Still, he reinforces the old foundation where he can reach. Farina says his board helped the designers and homeowners add back a balcony on the front of one house. "The board helped them put it in appropriately," he says.
builders BOOKSOURCE (510) 845-6874, (415) 440-5773, www.buildersbooksite.com
Mediterranean Style, by Robert Fitzgerald
Mediterranean Domestic Architecture for the United States, by Rexford Newcomb
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