One challenging rehab job


Having an old house is fraught with problems. It might have unappealing vinyl siding and substandard plumbing and electrical systems, or be insufficiently elevated to meet federal flood standards.

But for Punta Gorda contractor Garrett Kizer, the biggest problem in rehabilitating a house at 413 W. Retta Esplanade, in the city's National Register historic district, was that so much of the structure was out of square.

This circa-1895 house on West Retta Esplanade in Punta Gorda's Historic District has been rehabilitated by contractor Garrett Kizer. Kizer got permission to add a garage on Durrance Street. But as the house is in a "velocity" flood zone, the garage has breakaway walls in the event of a storm surge off Charlotte Harbor, which is just beyond Gilchrist Park across the street.

There was a lot of measuring twice and cutting thrice to make things fit where floors met walls and walls met windows and doors.

"You would have two inches here and four inches over there," said Kizer. "Sometimes we just put our tools down and eyeballed it."

By Florida standards, the property is nearly prehistoric, dating to about 1895, according to state records. Any property that old is listed as "1900" by the property appraiser.

"This is the second-oldest house in Punta Gorda that has not been relocated," said Kizer.

That made the project even more satisfying for the contractor, who inherited his love of historical structures from his mother. She would "drag" — his word — young Garrett along to antique stores and to visit historic homes in Tampa, his hometown, and Winter Park, where he spent much of his childhood. "Now that I am older, I appreciate it," he said.

The difficult rehabilitation "was by all means a headache, but it was a headache I enjoyed. To get to the end is awesome. There is no feeling like it," said Kizer, a former manager with Adams Homes of N.W. Florida, who now has his own company, Harbor Home Builders.

The house looks large but it has only 2,264 square feet of interior space. It is one room wide, with three bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms. An LLC headed by British investor Michael Knapp purchased the property for $360,000 in March 2009. Now that the eight-month rehabilitation process is complete, it is being listed at $659,000 through Bob Boehm (rhymes with home) of RE/MAX Harbor Realty. He will hold an open house this afternoon.

A lot of that price tag is based on the location: The house faces Gilchrist Park and Charlotte Harbor, and is just a four-minute walk to Punta Gorda's charming downtown, which has been attractively rebuilt after Hurricane Charley in 2004.


The house suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Charley — the front gable was destroyed down to the rafters, said Kizer — and it was only partially repaired before being abandoned for a few years. Fortunately, the former owners removed all the interior drywall after the storm, so Kizer inherited no mold issues.

The contractor replaced exterior vinyl siding with fiber-cement lap siding from Nichiha, a Japanese competitor to the better-known James Hardie Building Products. But beneath the vinyl, Kizer found lead paint, which he is certified to remediate.

Most of the windows have been replaced with impact-resistant, insulated and low-emissivity fenestration by Absolute Window. But the double front French doors and adjacent windows were retained.

"They just had too much character to take them away," said Kizer. "And they are on the street, so we kept them to maintain the look. You are not going to find them today."

The builder wanted to keep the existing electrical system, as the house had been renovated in the 1980s. It was then owned by attorney Paul Sullivan, said Boehm.

"But with Hurricane Charley," said Kizer, referring to how the 140 mph winds buffeted the structure, "there were a few too many issues, especially with an old wooden home like this, to take any chances. So we rewired, replumbed, new AC — as far as mechanicals are concerned, everything is brand new."

Like many houses of this vintage, 413 W. Retta has a large porch, on the north and east side. Kizer replaced the porch's floor and ceiling with new beadboard, but was able to save the ornate posts.

"The floor has stain and four coats of Thompson Water Seal," he said, noting that the space is exposed to wind-driven rain. "It might as well be plastic."

Kizer said there were moments when he wondered what he had gotten himself into "pretty much every week. But that was the fun part about it. You just had to slow down and think about the best way to attack" the problem.

"It is not like new construction, where everything is perfect, everything is square, everything is level. It was a fun project to use your head to make sure, long-term, it all came together."

Still, the house is just two steps above grade; the first-floor elevation is 6.6 feet in a FEMA velocity zone that has a 12-foot base flood elevation. Raising it was considered cost-prohibitive.

"Because it is a historical home, it is exempt from FEMA elevations," said Kizer. But the garage he added has breakaway wall panels, and the electrical outlets and coach lights are mounted near the ceiling to keep them above a storm surge. Outlets in the house are at normal heights, but have GFCI circuits.

"Everything is up to today's code outside of FEMA's elevation requirements," said Kizer.

"Under the Florida Building Code, historic houses can be rehabbed with new major mechanical systems," said Mitchell Austin, a Punta Gorda urban planner. "The intent is to restore historic homes and make then safe without compromising historic integrity. It has been there for 100 years, and with the work that has been done, it will be there another 100.

"I have never heard of that block being flooded," Austin added, "although 97 percent of Punta Gorda is in 100-year floodplain."

Working with the Austin and the city on permitting and approvals was a satisfying process, Kizer said. That included three appearances before the city county and the historical approval board, which approved the new windows and siding.

"They were excited to see the place get redone," said Kizer. "You hear these horror stories of just how bad it is to deal with the historical societies, but they welcomed me with open arms and it was a lot easier than I expected it to be. Hats off to them."


Boehm said such a house attracts a distinct buyer, and there are not many of them.

"It is a special house. It is not for everybody," he said.

"But there are people out there who like this and are willing to pay for it.

"There is not much like it. You go up and down Retta and see how many houses are for sale. Not many. It is a boutique market. It is not predictable. It is tough to get an appraisal in here. In Punta Gorda Isles, you can pretty much predict when a house is going to sell if you get the price where it needs to be."

History lesson

Austin, the urban planner, reviewed the permits and "certificate of appropriateness" for the house's rehabilitation. He said 413 W. Retta is one of 10 houses in the city that were built before 1900, and all are privately owned. The oldest dates to 1888.

"We have a pretty good stock of historic structures, and most are residential," said Austin. "It is not until the 1920s that the commercial structures survive, because of a fire in the teens."

Austin said the historic district, designated as such in 1987, was mostly a working-class neighborhood a century ago, as wealthy tourists and winter residents lived at the Punta Gorda Hotel. But the finer frame homes along West Retta Esplanade would have been built by the town's merchant class.

Austin described 413 W. Retta, which at one point was used as a boarding house, as "folk Victorian" rather than vernacular.

"It is a little more ornate than that," he said. "The millwork is more elaborate than you would have seen in a vernacular house at that time. This house, someone is trying to show off. The way the railings are done lends itself to a folk Victorian, but not the high Victorian one might find in Jacksonville or anywhere else in the U.S. In this period, Punta Gorda was the wild west."

He said he is "very happy" the house is "saved and stable."

"Is it perfect, a museum-grade home? No," said Austin. "But it is saved, and in the future someone may invest more and make it more period-appropriate. What is there is stable. In 30 years, when it has to be renovated again, it will be better."

Kizer said he loved working on the house, and, although he expects most of his business will come from building new houses in Punta Gorda Isles, where he lives, he is eager to restore or rehab another old house.

Kizer added that the house has drawn a steady stream of visitors, including some longtime Punta Gorda residents, during the reconstruction.

"There have been people in here literally crying, like 'I grew up here and as a little girl and I used to play on the floor over here.'"

Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: November 29, 2012
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