An Earthy, Comfortable Home on the Shores of the Florida Panhandle
Light, space, quiet, and nature. That's what a couple craved when they built a weekend retreat. Today, their new home has it all—and the owners are so delighted, they've made it their permanent residence.
The one-hundred-mile stretch of the Florida Panhandle between Panama City and Pensacola might not have the cachet of Malibu or the Hamptons, but it may have the finest beaches in the United States, with sand as soft and white as sugar, and features statuesque homes to match. "It's the southern Nantucket," says Mountain Brook, Alabama, architect Jeffrey Dungan, who has designed more than two dozen properties over the past 20 years on what's known as the Emerald Coast, which skirts the Gulf of Mexico's sparkling blue-green waters.
His latest feat is a vacation-turned-full-time residence for a couple of empty nesters from Fairhope, Alabama. Dungan's clients came to him with an enviable piece of land in Santa Rose Beach, overlooking a coastal dune lake located just 200 yards from the gulf. "There are only a few places in the world with lakes like these, where several times a year the salt water breaches the dunes and creates a unique ecosystem," Dungan explains. (Others include Oregon, New Zealand, Australia, and Madagascar.) The resulting brackish water allows certain freshwater and saltwater plants to flourish side by side—and gives his clients an exciting reason to get their feet wet. "We can paddleboard from our backyard right into the gulf," says the husband, a real estate developer.
Dungan has cultivated a distinct vernacular for his projects in this region. The style references the sculptural, gleaming island architecture of Bermuda and the Dutch West Indies, but his designs have unexpected twists, like sweeping expanses of windows (made to withstand hurricane forces, of course), New England-style cedar-shake roofs, and lofty rooms with romantic alcoves that keep them from feeling boxy. "This house is stucco over cast concrete, which has a malleability that makes it possible to give wonderful shape to walls, archways, and staircases," says Dungan in his honeyed drawl.
"Jeff is a maker of intriguing shapes," says Birmingham interior designer Betsy Brown, with whom he collaborated on the residence from its inception. "It's a large house, but you don't see a big mass. And our clients are an energetic, outdoorsy couple who wanted a fun—not serious—home." To keep things casual and beachy, the design duo agreed on tongue-and-groove poplar ceilings and white-oak floors without rugs. Brown's furniture choices were similarly restrained, in deference to both Dungan's design and the clients' wishes. "My goal was to let the architecture thrive," she says. "I kept pieces simple and comfortable so the house would speak for itself, and not be dressier than it wanted to be."
The privacy-minded owners couldn't be happier with their new home base, and neither could their grown children, who visit often. "It's clean and cheerful and bright," says the husband. "I wouldn't call it minimalist, but it's uncluttered, so the details shine through." It's also highly customized, in ways both practical (just look at that kitchen) and poetic. "Jeff did a lot of subtle arches and other details that don't call attention to themselves. But we really appreciate them, and they give the house a wonderful character."
Built-in bookshelves in the living room were stained a rich brown to match Sherwin-Williams paint in Sealskin and arranged with the owners' geodes and ceramics.
Room to Relax
A Wolf range is flanked by a Sub-Zero refrigerator and full-size freezer. The custom plank-door-style cabinets are crafted of bleached oak, and classic LEM Piston stools pull up to an island topped with Carrara marble.