Sarasota Herald Tribune Features Casey Key Project

The Casey Key Pagoda Garden, designed by Michael A. Gilkey, Inc. and built by Synergy Building Corp., was featured on the cover of the Sarasota Herald Tribune Real Estate Section on Sunday, September 15th. The article follows in its entirety.

On 1.2 acres of Casey Key bayfront, linked to one of the county’s largest mansions, is a dream landscape built for enlightened clients who seek the best and are willing and able to pay for it.

For Sarasota landscape architect Michael Gilkey, designing an Asian-inspired “pagoda garden” on that bayside acre has been a one-of-a-kind assignment and the project of his career, so far. It also won him the 2013 Residential Award of Excellence from the Florida chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Working with Joe Jannopoulo, owner of Synergy Building Systems, Gilkey conjured an intricate arrangement of gardens, pools, pagodas, moon gates, paths, a party deck, an 1,150-square-foot conservatory and even a grassy landing pad for a small helicopter.

Design took eight months before the first shovel hit sand, but it did not stop there. The design program evolved even as the project was built. Over the course of three years, Gilkey estimates, design took 18 months and construction and installation two years.

The house to which the pagoda garden belongs is well-known, at least to the philanthropic set and the Sarasota County Property Appraiser. With 19,700 square feet of air-conditioned area, it is the second-largest private residence in the county.

The owners hope to use their new pagoda garden both as a personal retreat and a place for fundraising parties for local charities.

“The intent was to create a unique retreat suitable for private use as well as entertaining, anchored by a world-travel inspired series of built elements and outdoor rooms,” said Gilkey.

Although the owners’ home, on a 2.5-acre Gulf-to-bay parcel, is one of the finest on the Gulf Coast, the bayside of the property was nothing but what Gilkey called “disturbed vegetation.” Some might use the term weeds.

“It was uninhabitable,” he said. “They had no view of the bay from their house. It was a big thing for me that the garden be connected to the house.”

At first, the owners just wanted a traditional Chinese garden with a koi pond, a greenhouse and some parking for guests.

“I didn’t have experience with a Chinese garden,” said Gilkey, a second-generation landscape architect, “but they wanted our interpretation of what that meant.”

Then the target started to move. A rose garden was added to the wish-list, and an edible garden. The pagodas and greenhouse added a structural challenge.

“I knew I was going to quickly get over my head,” said Gilkey. “I needed someone who can build it, so we brought in Joe.”

Jannopoulo and Gilkey did their homework and designed the structures and landscape over the course of about eight months. But “change orders” — the owners’ desire for additional features — meant design and construction often overlapped. Gilkey handed Jannopoulo more than a few sketches on napkins.

The greenhouse became a conservatory, sitting atop a 40,000-gallon stormwater vault that captures rain from the roof of the main house, with mahogany and glass. The koi pond is split into two sections — one for the fish, the other for plants that help filter the water. The three pagoda pavilions and two “moon gates” are solid concrete.

“That was Joe’s idea,” said Gilkey, who said metal framing was considered as a structural method for the pagodas. “One day he calls and says, ‘I’m a genius, I’m a genius. We’re building them of concrete.’

“The roofs are formed-in-place concrete. Watching them go up was amazing. It was a true design-build process.”

“This wasn’t a job where the owner came to us with a set of prints and said ‘go build this.’ This was a function of developing the entire site with purpose,” said Jannopoulo, “with Mike’s talent of being able to put all these items in place, and the client having a vision, and me being able to build it.”

Jannopoulo said the process was constrained by budget, site, time — “all the things that are important to the construction process. The koi pond turned into an authentic Chinese pagoda. The greenhouse turned into a conservatory for growing plants. The parking area turned into a traditional English garden. It all kind of evolved.”

“Once we did sketches,” said Gilkey, “and they saw things develop, they said, ‘Forget the parking. If we have a party, we will valet it. Let’s make more garden.’ ”

About the budget: When it was suggested that the project might have cost $2 million (a guess by this reporter), both Gilkey and Jannopoulo responded with blank stares. They know, but they are not saying.

“We still did this in the forecast time, and we did not have an open checkbook,” said Jannopoulo. “We had to stay frugal and budget-minded. Spend the money where it is important and create something great.”

“There is always a budget,” said Gilkey. “With Joe and I in the room at the same time looking at the budget, we were able to move this thing as we were constructing it.”

The garden contains a bayside deck in ipe wood for entertaining, a small zen garden with a deck for yoga and meditation, and other spaces and paths that are shaded with varieties of bamboo.

Nearly 200 tons of rock from Missouri and Tennessee was brought in and colored to match the rock found in China. Some pathways were made to look like a dried riverbed. Tabebuia trees stand in for cherry trees, which are not suited for the subtropics.

There is a geometric rose garden that would have pleased Mable Ringling. The edible plants include Florida blueberry, lychee, citrus, eggplant, mango, loquat and starfruit. Gold trees will add their spectacular color each spring.

Three waterfalls gurgle. Water in the koi pond is filtered every 90 minutes. Lily pads in the adjoining pond help remove impurities that could harm the fish.

Atop the arches of the two moon gates, the Chinese characters read “Mother’s Garden.”

“Of all the projects I have done in 15 years,” said Gilkey, “and all the architects and builders I have worked with, I’ve never had a true collaboration like this. The only reason this job was successful was the collaboration of builder, landscape architect and owners.”

One of them remarked to him, “Michael, I can’t tell you what it feels like to walk across the street and feel like we are on vacation. All the stress goes away.”

“It is their bit of solace,” Gilkey said, “and there is no better compliment. After all the money they spent, it would be very easy to have buyer’s remorse. But they absolutely love it. They love what they created through us.”

View the article’s accompanying photo gallery here.

September 24, 2013
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