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Tampa Tribune

Latin Quarters


May 17, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Tampa Tribune, Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

A couple shop from Madrid to Miami to bring authentic Spanish Mediterranean decor to their Carrollwood dream house.

TAMPA - Sunshine streams into the lakefront home and a fountain burbles in its interior courtyard, setting a tone of timeless tranquillity.

The courtyard is reminiscent of those in the old San Juan district of Puerto Rico, says Arlene Johnston, who grew up there.

When Arlene and her husband, Mark, began building their dream house in Carrollwood, they had definite ideas.

They wanted to evoke the feeling of a Spanish Mediterranean house, with religious icons, decorative tiles, antique furnishings and portraits of royal figures.

At the same time, the Johnstons wanted a comfortable home equipped with modern conveniences suitable for their busy family. Arlene is an active stay-at-home mom, with twin 18-month-old sons, Jared and Joseph, and Mark's teenage sons, Robby and Ryan. Mark is chief executive officer of The Melting Pot Restaurants Inc., working from headquarters at Busch and Twin Lakes boulevards.

Designed by general contractor Ron Martinez, their home on Lake Carroll is a spacious 5,025 square feet, with five bedrooms, four full bathrooms, two half-bathrooms, a pool and a 31/2-car garage.

The family room and interior courtyard's 21-foot ceilings evoke a sense of grandeur - and practicality, like the Old World homes designed to take full advantage of soft Mediterranean breezes. Other rooms have generous 10-foot ceilings.

Interior decorator Gail Appel worked hand in hand with Arlene, adding the furniture, art and other elements to bring the Johnstons' vision to life.

"She was like having an apprentice," Appel says. "She was my dream come true. She wanted total authenticity."

Appel, whose clients have included baseball players Derek Jeter and Tino Martinez and Rooms to Go President Jeff Seaman, says Arlene came up with creative ideas.

"I went on a trip to Madrid. She gave me a list: "Gail, if you see this, if you see that ...' " Appel says. "I ended up buying her antique studs for her door, antique bullfight posters, paintings."

At auctions, the decorator would call Arlene to describe pieces. Arlene would hang up, do some research on the Internet, then call back to tell Appel whether to bid.

Beneath the accouterments is a concrete block-stucco finish house with rounded corners and windows, and 27 arches, says Joe Buscia of JB Construction Services Inc. of Tampa. "There's nothing square on the outside of the house," Buscia says.

Inside, the cabinetry was finished to give it a weathered look, and the tiles were carefully selected for authentic style and design, he says.

The Johnstons made five trips to Miami to find the Spanish tiles that decorate the risers on their cypress wood staircase. They used about 80 tiles at a cost of $5 each, Arlene says. Each riser has a slightly different design.

The interior of the house, a light yellow, is intended to create a warm, welcoming feel, Arlene says. For an ancient look, she glazed the walls with a raw umber pigment. That took hundreds of hours.

"She was on a ladder for months," says Mark.

The couple also had antique lanterns electrified to illuminate the foyer, staircase and bathroom in the master bedroom.

Mark loves the effect. "I'm crazy about shadows," he says.

While Arlene focused on interior decor, Mark and a friend, Ron DelFavero, went hunting for palm trees to transplant into the yard.

"We went into the fields. We found them in various places in South Florida," says Mark, who had 32 palms including coconuts, sables and queens trucked to his home and planted.

The couple hand-selected each plank of cypress for the house's floors, ceiling beams and exterior porch ceilings. They chose cypress because it holds up well and has a beautiful grain, Arlene says.

Mark decided where each plank would go.

"I liked a lot of rustic knots on the floor," he says.

The beams in the dining room and kitchen cost $20,000, in part because of the work required to make them look old. They were beaten with chains, scratched with screws and sanded.

The house boasts genuine antiques as well, including a pair of 17th century Charles II chairs valued at about $6,000.

A St. Francis of Assisi statue, which stands in the family room, dates to the early 18th century. It's worth about $4,000. Mannequins of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph occupy alcoves just off the interior courtyard. Built in the early 19th century, the wooden figures came from Valencia, Spain, and are valued at $1,200 to $1,500 each.

According to tradition, the mannequins were dressed in various costumes, based on the Ecclesiastical calendar, Arlene says.

An 18th century French Provincial clock in the kitchen keeps monk's time, signaling time for prayer by ringing five minutes before and five minutes after the hour, Arlene says.

Arlene designed two sets of doors featuring wrought iron that lead to an outdoor terrace and a courtyard.

The family eats its daily meals on a Moroccan ceramic table on an outdoor terrace behind the house or at a Louis XV table just off the kitchen. The kitchen features an island, where people gather while food is being prepared.

Her Hispanic friends say, "Oh, my God, I feel like I'm in my grandmother's kitchen," Arlene says.

Although construction of the house was completed in 1998, the Johnstons continue to add new touches. But Arlene says she will never tire of the basic look.

"This is a style that is very casual, and it's timeless," she says. "This will never go out of style."

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