From the archives: Not just any house


Publication Date: May 1, 2004 

When a child loses a parent, what does she have to remember him by?

Most children who go through such a tragedy have a few pictures, some mementoes -- and their memories.

Lily Chapell, age 7, has few memories of her father, Don Chapell, who died nearly five years ago. But she has a house.

rbriefs02And not just any house. She has the house, the fantasy of colors and curves on Morningside Drive that is so hard to describe, so hard to forget. When a panel of architects sat down in August of 2003 to consider the best examples of modern architecture built in Sarasota since 1990, they chose the Chapell House as one of six buildings to be included in Sunday's "Thoroughly Modern" bus tour (information: 941-365-4723.)

But for Lily Chapell and her mother, Heather, their house is much more than an architectural icon. It's their home.

Which will make it all the more difficult to leave. The house is on the market for $4,625,000 through Barbara Ackerman of Coldwell Banker Previews.

Why? That's a perfectly fair question, especially for an almost-8-year-old. For starters, the house is too big for the family's needs. But let's just say life goes on and things change and she'll understand when she gets older.

"Believe me, I struggle with it all the time," says Heather Chapell. "It is a tough decision to make because for us, our life and our history is in this house. But the reality is I need to move on as well (there's a new man in her life), and there needs to be closure for me. It will always be Don's house. It is difficult, but life is difficult, it's complicated."

Heather knows it will not be "an easy transition" for her daughter. As a toddler, Lily's father would take her through the house as it was being built. She knew where her room was. "Some of the memories are from me," says Heather, "some she actually remembers. But she always knew this house was for her. She has a huge connection to it.

"It's a long process for Lily -- for her to leave this house, for me to leave this house is going to be a major thing. We're building a house next to her good friend (in the Avondale neighborhood near downtown Sarasota), and that was kind of the deal. We were talking the other day -- 'We're going to work on your room and you can pick out things' -- and she said, 'You know Mom, I'm not leaving. Daddy built this house for me.'"

PHOTO / ANDREA HILLEBRAND / COURTESY OF HEATHER CHAPELL Don and Heather Chapell with their newborn daughter, Lily. Now 7, Lily says,  "Daddy built this house for me."

Don and Heather Chapell with their newborn daughter, Lily. Now 7, Lily says, "Daddy built this house for me."

Don Chapell graduated from the University of Texas and as a young architect worked as an apprentice for Paul Rudolph. To an 8-year-old, that name might be unfamiliar, but most of Sarasota knows Rudolph as the greatest architect to ever work here. Around the corner and down the street, Rudolph designed the most important house of its day, the Umbrella House, which was just as dramatic in 1953 as the Chapell House was in 2001, when Heather completed it with the help of Wilson Stiles. Stiles calls it "Don's best work and one of the most important houses in Florida."

Rudolph was a big influence on Don's career, as was the late Mexican architect Luis Barragan, known for his colorful stucco buildings. But Barragan used one dominant color. Chapell used many pastel shades on his Morningside masterpiece.

Spending much of his career in New York, Chapell designed many homes in The Hamptons on Long Island, including one for himself.

"As with any architect, you evolve as time goes on," says Heather of her late husband. "Some of his original work, although it was very modern and sometimes cubic, was usually in cypress or different woods, and a lot of times in white.

"As time went on, he started experimenting with a little bit of color. His initial house, one of his own homes, was white. He put an addition on it with quite a bit of color and really enjoyed it, so he started using a lot more color."

Michael Saunders knew Chapell well and toured the house with him during construction.

"I walked that house with him and he saw it then, in its infancy, as it is today," she recalls. "He was a person of total visualization. From kind of a light in his eye, the vision, the whole process to the reality -- he did it all.

"He was such a special man. He used color when no one was using color. For mortals, to have someone like Don present color to them is very exciting because I don't know that we're brave enough to think in color, and he was. He stimulated us to think in color. You walk in and you think, 'It's wonderful. Why didn't I think of that?'"

Don and Heather met in the early 1990s when she was restoring the Hiss Studio on Westway Drive.

"He pulled up one day as I was stripping the front doors, and he said, 'I've got to meet you. Anybody who will save a Sarasota school of architecture (house) is OK in my book.' We became friends for quite some time and had a love of architecture and a love of design, and it went on from there."

Heather says her late husband was "an incredibly good architect" who also understood that houses had to be lived in, not just admired as sculpture.

"He truly believed that if anything, function had to come before form, or certainly be equal to. I don't know that a lot of modernist architects feel that way, or their work ends up giving you that feeling. The houses that Don built to me are very livable spaces. They're different, unique and exciting, but they have a human scale about that them. He'll always drop a ceiling or put a bridge or do something so you don't feel like the volume is too much."

Like many artists who bare their emotions through their work, Don Chapell wanted to be told that he was talented, that his work moved people. He needed to be told.

"You never tire of hearing something nice said about someone you love," says Heather. "I really feel Don had no idea how good he was at what he did. He was very, very modest and he was very insecure, as I think a lot of people are. He was always looking for somebody to acknowledge what he did."

Which is just another reason why the story of the Chapell house is so bittersweet.

"It's beyond heartbreaking. For me to even talk about it is very difficult because when somebody comes through the house and really enjoys it ... I think he would have so loved to hear another architect or somebody he respected to say something wonderful about the house -- and he never got that chance. He worked so hard, and to not see it to fruition was so sad.

"And to not see his child live in it, or his wife -- every architect wants to build a home for their own family, and this was the first time he ever had an opportunity to do that. The reason I think of this house as so fun and uplifting is because he was building it for Lily. He thought of it as a play house for Lily."

She was 3 when he died. Barely able to remember.

But she has this tangible expression of her father's love and talent. She will leave it, but it will never leave her.

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: March 29, 2015
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