Lavish Landscape

Sarasota Herald Tribune (Sunday, August 10, 2008 )

Design groupies in the area might remember Sarasota’s 2003 ASID Designer Showhouse. But those who toured the showhouse then might not recognize the 1937 Leigh/McKennon residence, on South Washington Drive off St. Armands Circle, today.

The romantic, Italianate house carries a historical designation from the City of Sarasota, and was built by Paul Bergman, who also did the Powel Crosley mansion. After the 25 interior designers packed up their innovative room settings and left the home, Nancy and David Morgan (who have tended to 11 historical properties during their marriage) bought it and then asked architect Thorning Little to add two wings to the main house, bringing it to about 10,000 square feet.

lavish_landscape_paperThe addition has been so sensitively accomplished that the home doesn’t appear anywhere near that size from the street. A big reason for that is the landscaping by Michael Gilkey. His work acknowledges the grandness and Old World elegance of the house, while flattering all of it and creatively screening portions of it to give the homeowners privacy and create curb appeal of a park-like nature.

Nancy Morgan, in particular, had a special fondness for the property.

“Back when I was Nancy Frimbach,” she said, “I grew up on Siesta Key and graduated from Riverview High. In later years, when my mother was living at Plymouth Harbor, I used to bring her for walks on these lovely streets off St. Armands Circle. She lived in Sarasota from the 1940s, and knew many of the people who once owned these gracious homes … Marian McKennon was one. Marian was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Leigh, who built the home, and she inherited it upon their deaths.

“Marian was a puppet artist, and my mom had once painted sets for her marionette theater. Marian’s husband, Joe, owned a carnival at one time, and was quite an authority on the subject. He also volunteered at the Ringling Museum of the Circus.”

Nancy Morgan said she had always had her eye on the house, and, when it came on the market, the Morgans bought it “with the idea of both rescuing it and renovating it for post-air conditioning life for our family of three.”

It needed work

The original style of the house is “piano nobile” — a home whose living quarters occupy the second story to catch the cooling cross breezes. The house was in severe disrepair when the Morgans took it on.

Once the Morgans had chosen Thorning Little as their architect, they asked Michael Gilkey to join the team as landscape architect.

“I had seen work that his firm did, and I was impressed,” Nancy Morgan said. “I knew he could take our vision for the gardens and make it real while respecting the historical nature of the home’s vintage architecture.”

In the interim, the senior Michael Gilkey had retired, and the younger generation was now in charge.

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The overall landscape plan is a graceful and intelligent balance between formality and the kind of wit and whimsy that characterizes interior architectural flourishes and the home furnishings. The Morgans have been liberal with references to the circus and to carnival themes, with faux painting (one small room looks like a tent), posters and paintings. The cheerful tiles, by architect Little, that surround the fireplace in the living room depict circus performers and animals.

Outside, vivid flashes of unexpected color surprise visitors who follow the pathways that surround the home with gardens both lush and textural. Italian cypress trees and oversized classical urns near the entrance stand on either side of the geometric pathway from the street, through the black wrought-iron gate to the front door, with its original quatrefoil window. A new, multi-colored glass awning is an homage to Ca’ d’Zan, the storied John and Mable Ringling mansion.

“Nancy is a gardener and she had definite ideas about what she wanted for the grounds,” said Gilkey. “She likes plants with big leaves and she likes unusual specimens, such as angel trumpet. She’s eclectic in her tastes. She would see something in a book or a magazine and mail it to me, and I find that plant, or one like it, that would work in the setting.”

The oversized-leaf plants outside Casa del Carnevale harmonize with oversized black wrought-iron chandeliers inside the home that Nancy Morgan hand-picked on buying trips to Mexico. The homeowner’s opinion is that people think much too small when choosing accessories for house and garden.

“For his part, Dave had no use for installing small trees and waiting for them to grow,” said the landscape architect. “So for the front yard, we brought in a 660-gallon live oak. It’s 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide, and we needed a 100-ton crane to lift it over the power wires. The installation of just that one tree took a half a day. Since then, neighbors have stopped by during the garden installation to say how nice it was that I saved the oak tree and made a garden around it. They assume the tree has always here.

“The whole landscape plan has that welcoming, established look and feel about it. It doesn’t look like a new garden, and it has great textural presence.”

Gilkey said both homeowners wanted diversity of plant material and access to gardens from all areas of the property. They envisioned privacy and screening, but also lush color, and they wanted the gardens to match the scale and style of the Mediterranean home.

Gilkey was able to save and nurture a huge mango tree and a Bismarck palm during the many months of renovation, but he removed a large Phoenix Sylvester to his nursery, rehabilitated it for two years and then successfully re-installed it in the entrance court.

The value of teamwork

Although thoughtfully considered and meticulously planned, the landscape scheme and choices for plant material evolved over the two years the house was being renovated, finally coming together during the final six months of the project.

The result is just what every homeowner dreams of — a unified vision expressed in house and garden. It’s exactly what should happen when homeowners, architect and landscape architect work in concert from the beginning of the project.