Wednesday, April 06, 2011

South Florida Home Design - A Wide Lawns Primer

With the recent purchase and renovation of my new home I've come to the conclusion that just like with everything else down here that Florida houses are weird. Florida architecture is unique and I'm convinced that nothing else like it exists elsewhere in the country. On account of simply our geography, it seems we can get away with certain oddities of design and structure that wouldn't fly in Iowa. Or Delaware. Or Vermont, Utah or wherever you are that is not South Florida.

Our roofs are definitely weird. For many years we've had two basic roof styles, but a third has recently come into the mix so now we have three, but the third is still fairly rare. My house has the most common - the ubiquitous terra-cotta barrel tiled roof designed to make every house evoke some kind of Spanish mission. Used to be that terra cotta was all this roof, which reminds me of rippled pie crust or rows of ziti noodles glued on construction paper like a kindergarten art project, came in. Lately people have been painting their barrel tile, trying to slap some color on it. For a while back in the early 90s, having a cobalt blue barrel tiled roof was the height of fashion, but now the only place left with that is Benihana.  You can also have a flat white roof. Why we have such flat roofs in a place with so much rain is absolutely beyond my comprehension. Flat roofs are also prone to growth because dirt and seeds don't just roll off they way they do with normal roofs, so if you don't get the pressure washer out periodically, you'll end up with two yards - one in front of your house and another on top. I can't tell you how many houses I see like that. Someone should start a roof gardening trend. The third kind of roof is a Key West style tin roof. It looks cute on certain houses and is isolated to homes owned by gay men or the very highest class Yuppies.

Jalousie Windows
Out of all the South Florida architectural anomalies I'd say that jalousie windows are my most hated. These are the old style windows that are made of horizontal panes of glass that open outward with a hand crank. Jalousie windows suck. Plain and simple. Whoever invented them (Mr. Jalousie?) should be ashamed. They never open right or close all the way and the hand cranks always get corroded or painted shut so you practically snap a wrist bone just trying to get a stupid window open. First thing I got rid of in my house - jalousie windows. And then I kicked them while they sat in the trash pile, because I hate them that much.

Terrazzo Floors
Terrazzo floors were de rigeur in Florida 50 years ago when most of these houses were built. I've never seen terrazzo anywhere else except Florida, so for those of you in other, more normal places, terrazzo is a kind of speckled stone floor that looks like the floor of your elementary school or a mental institution. It usually has a white background with different colored speckles and it comes in many different color combinations, most of which look exactly like a field of lunch meat. There's just something about terrazzo that reminds me of salami or head cheese. I've even seen terrazzo that looks a bit like olive loaf and once I saw a floor that appeared to have bacon bits embedded in it. For most of my life terrazzo has been hopelessly out of fashion and homeowners groaned when they saw it and covered it with the clearly far more tasteful, aqua or pink wall to wall carpet. Now suddenly, terrazzo is back and everyone is ripping up that beautiful carpet (I have no idea why) and having their terrazzo restored. My sister is doing this in her house with fine results. Her floor resembles not deli slices but Breyers vanilla ice cream.

Garish Pastels
The basic rule here is that you can paint your house whatever color you want as long as you don't live in one of those gated communities with strict HOAs and Design Disapproval Boards headed by residents who like to make arbitrary rules. In that case, you can paint your house almost any color you like. Outside of the gates, anything goes. If you want your house as garish as a drag queen's face, have at it. You live in Florida. Guava pink, mango, turquoise, whatever. I live across from an indigo blue eyesore and in front of a home trimmed in Pepto-Bismol. Hell, I even got in on the action and added an aqua front door and shutters to my own house. You only live once and you're doing it in South Florida. Go for that lavender, papaya or marigold. Of course you want your house to be so bright that it's visible from the International Space Station.

Screened in Pools
In 1989 when we first moved to Florida I had never seen nor even conceived of something like a screened in pool, but down here, pretty much every home has one. I never quite understood. Is it to protect you from the sun? It certainly doesn't keep out the rain. Maybe it guards against these crop duster sized mosquitoes or perhaps the screen helps keep leaves out of the pool (and instead all collected in a mucky pile on top of the screen) thus reducing time that your pool man spends skimming (because I've never seen a south Floridian skimming his own pool). Who knows?

Stones for a Yard
I blame old people. They come down from New York after a lifetime of mowing expansive lawns in their Long Island subdivisions and they've had it. No more yard work. They're retired and they're not cutting any more damned grass, so they rip up the St. Augustine and replace it with piles of rocks and there you go. Stones for a yard. No cutting required. For some reason they always choose white rocks. The glacially white rocks have an odd Arctic look that just doesn't fit in the tropics and their yards end up looking like the polar bear exhibit at a bad zoo.  

Marble Windowsills

I am including this solely for my mother in law. Apparently they don't have marble window sills in other parts of the country except in like Donald Trump's houses. Here, they're in all but the most recently built homes. When my mother in law visited she asked about my marble window sills. My fancy and clearly extraordinarily expensive marble window sills, I'm sure she was thinking. Truthfully, I don't think about windowsills and I don't care about windowsills. My marble windowsills are here because the house is old and was built with them, just like all the houses in Florida and not because I'm some spoiled, marble windowsill having brat. Seriously, I mean if I were going to spend big money on something house related it would likely go into my kitchen or maybe I'd get one of those fancy cat boxes that cleans itself. It sure as hell wouldn't be windowsills. And why are the windowsills in Florida marble? I have no idea. 

Yard Art

People in South Florida love yard art. Down the street from me a family has a full sized gyspy cart in their front yard for no apparent reason and of course South Florida is where the original pink plastic flamingo originated. Life sized manatee mailboxes, toilets as planters, plastic flowers stuck in the ground as if they were real flowers and all assortment of tacky little statues are all a requirement if you live here. Just yesterday, I kid you not, I passed a house that had a giant, meaning bigger than me, stuffed gorilla sitting in a chair on the front porch. Yard art, might I add, looks particularly nice when you have stones for a yard.

Decorative Barred Windows 

Ahh, the decorative, wrought iron window bars, because South Florida is so dangerous, yet pretty, just like its women. Need I say more? Keep robbers out with curlicues and metal silhouettes of palms.

Neglected Fruit Trees

Every transplanted northerner has imagined a life in Florida where he or she could pick fruit from lush trees in the yard, so the first thing he or she will do upon moving is attempt to start an orchard. Growing fruit trees down here is much harder than one might imagine. Because of citrus canker and citrus greening disease we don't have the loaded orange and grapefruit trees in our yards like we once did. The citrus trees we have left are usually spindly, yellowing things that require a ton of work to produce anything edible. Still, many of us hold out hope and keep ratty looking trees in our yards. The one tree that will grow well unattended is a mango tree. There are tons of mango trees down here. I once heard a Cuban saying that if you have to buy mangoes at the store then you have no friends. That's, I'm sure, a terrible translation and I can't remember the original quote (help me out here Cuban friends) but the gist of it is that there are so many mango trees here that unless you're a hermit or a horrible person there will be someone to give you some of the fruit from these prolific trees.

Southwestern Decor

Southwestern decor refuses to die. After it's 80s heyday, Southwest style retired down here and is going strong. You may remember the fringed ponchos on the walls, howling coyotes either in statue or airbrushed print. Cow skulls ring a bell? What about dream catchers? Fake plastic cacti. Aqua and peach are a popular color combo, especially with Mexican tile floors. I've never understood the popularity of this style. Every time I see it I want to shout, NO you've got your directions mixed up. This is the South EAST! 

Coral Springs Decor

I have no other name for this style. Coral Springs is a western suburb and very average middle class. Most of the residents hail from New Jersey. We lived in Coral Springs when we first moved down here and this style of decorating was all over, which is why I call it Coral Springs style. Picture a lot of pink and a lot of aqua. Metallics rule. It's a kind of Art Deco meets old folks home meets the Sopranos. It's furnish your house at TJ Maxx at its best. There is sponge paint and fleckstone, usually pink fleckstone. Try not to have nightmares imagining what it looks like.

Kitschy Tropical Themes 

My house is your tiki bar. If your home looks like you're living in the Tonga Room or if the Luau from the Polynesian Village at Disney World could easily take place in your back yard then you have overdone it with the tropical themes. Lay off the Tommy Bahama. You live in Florida, not the set of South Pacific.

So concludes my primer on South Florida design elements. Yes, we have no taste and yes, our houses generally look like something out of a tropical version of a  John Waters movie, but would we have it any other way? I know I'm not giving up my aqua trim any time soon.


Arwen said...

It's funny... perhaps it's Cincinnati's (lack of) style that has rubbed off on Florida because other the rock yards (here it's rocks in flower beds :( I'll never get them all out) and citrus fruit trees those are all pretty big things in the Cincinnati area... even, inexplicably, the Southwest decor and Tropical themes...

The house I'm in now is the first one I've ever lived in (including rentals and apartments) that doesn't have marble window sills. It's such an anomaly that I want to replace them... the ones in this house are also abnormally narrow so I can't place flower pots or herbs in the windows. Heck, my poor cat barely has even room to squeeze up there but he sure tries.

My grandmother LOVES her Jalousie windows... she's about the only person I know that still has them though. When she sold her rental house, the first thing the guy who bought it did was rip them out and put in new windows... he was going to give her a really great deal on new windows but she refused... in fact, she picked his garbage to get extra replacement glass panes for her house... which she's done every time someone on her street got new windows... now she has enough glass to replace every pane in her house at least five times... sigh... I can see one pseudo advantage to them, you could open your windows to get some breeze and not worry about the average person cutting your screen and coming on in. The Jalousie windows can be broken rather easily but the average thug would be just as likely to break double or triple pane glass if they are willing to break glass at all. At least they have no qualms breaking my brother's triple pane windows all three times his house has been robbed (yes, he needs to move).

Underneath my carpet, my house has a terrazzo floor... it's really weird to me. I couldn't understand it when we replaced the carpet... I saw it and thought why would anyone ever look at that orange speckled floor and think "ooh, I gotta have it in my house" because I saw it and thought "ooh, someone spilled orange juice on the cafeteria floor".

Anonymous said...

I live in Tampa and I am total agreement with your list. Except I did have marble windowsills in my three houses in Ohio. I would like to add that Florida residents do not use the words porch or pond. Everything is a lake or a lanai. People, Lake Michigan is a lake. The fifteen foot in diameter body of run off water in your backyard is a POND. Having your house by it is not living on waterfront property. Basically, that's living by sewage. With snakes in it...

Oh, another one- why do people shave their dogs and CATS down here? The lion cut. Bizarre looking shaved naked except for their head, tail and legs. Golden retrievers and Persians have the look. Really? Looks ridiculous and no, it does not make less hot or prevent from overheating. Weird.


Rene said...

So I watch a ton of HGTV and the reasoning Mike Holmes gave for marble window sills is because if you use brick or cement then you have to use mortar to keep in in place. Which gives water a way to get in causing mold and other ickiness. The marble is all in once piece and doesn't give nearly as many problems. I don't know if it's true. I also don't own a house so what do I know.

Jenna said...

I love this list, because between the 3 houses/apartments I've had in Florida, I've experienced almost the whole set. I actually liked the windows, because I always assumed they were for keeping the inside of your house dry since it rains sideways here so much.

You forgot the mailboxes though! My favorites are the ones shaped like dolphins or manatees, and in my old neighborhood someone had one shaped like a giant fish. I guess they could fall under the category of lawn art.

cc said...

It sounds like Florida has a lot in common with the Southwest.

We also have:

-Xeriscaping (rocks for landscaping, although here it makes sense since THERE IS NO RAIN, EVER.)

-Decorative window bars

-Front yard art (especially religious art, built-in spaces in your rock fence or walls for statues, etc.)

-Garish pastels, especially in the older houses where older people (no offense, grandma!) live.

-Mexican tile floors

-I should also add: Stucco (which I HATE)

Erik said...

the small house i grew up in,in Titusville FL had those Terazzo floors i remember soo well..I think i remember hearing that they are concrete with marble chips in it..i always liked it in the kitchen in the summer,it was nice and cool on my feet..the house also had as did all the houses in that area,louver windows,you know the ones with 4 inch glass slats that all open..those i do not remember with fondness,as being sent out to clean them was saved for punishment ;)

Anonymous said...

Terazzo is wonderful and I wish we had it in my house! It's cool in summer. I was proactically ssalivating reading about all the stuff that I long for in my "contemporary Victorian" up here in Virginia. Ahhhh to have a pool with screening to keep out bugs and leaves and some shade, too...weird has functionality.

Anonymous said...

Wow, someone needs a pitcher of margaritas.

My gosh, if you hate everything about Florida and its homes, why are you here? Why would you buy a house with windows and floors you hate when there are clearly other options?

I think your blog is aptly named.

About Me

Blog Archive