Although his profession as a commercial designer takes him all over the country, creating dazzling display areas for jewelry stores and other retail spaces, Jesse Balaity had never designed and built a house for himself, even though it was always on his mind.
He had been living in a peaceful neighborhood in Palmer Ranch for seven years when a friend (for whom Balaity had designed a pool house) convinced the young designer to think about moving to downtown Sarasota.
Ready for a lifestyle change, Balaity scouted property on Seventh Street in the 1920s neighborhood of Gillespie Park, which is enjoying a remodeling renaissance. Balaity found two side-by-side lots and moved into a vintage cottage that he began renovating while he built his modern home on the lot next door.
He finished his custom home last year and moved in with his partner, Loe Phaengsavanh, a health-care professional, and Captain Jack, an active, 4-year-old dog that is a Yorkie/Shih Tzu mix. He sold the house he had been remodeling to a woman looking for a vacation retreat different from her North Carolina residence.
Balaity’s modern two-story dwelling of 4,300 square feet has a metal roof, detached two-car garage and a 600-square-foot guest house over the garage.
“The house came out just the way we wanted, and we actually bought furniture for some of the spaces before it was finished,” said Balaity, “because I could visualize every space and knew what would fit where. I like the open floor plan, the clean lines of the house and the big windows in the back that face out into a private back yard.”
Gillespie Park is considered a “front porch” neighborhood, so Balaity included a stone front porch with columns in his design. Upstairs, a generously sized, street-facing balcony connects the house to the neighborhood. He also placed his office at the front of the house so that he’s very much part of the urban streetscape.
“All that was fine,” Balaity said, “but when it came to doing landscaping in the front and back, I didn’t know where to begin. I wanted a garden that matched the style of the house, and I also wanted several things from a yard: a separate grilling porch, entertainment areas, private patio off the master bedroom, lots of privacy and nice views from the house into the yard. I also wanted low-maintenance plants in a variety of color and texture, and I did not want an irrigation system so the plants had to have low water needs.
“Oh, and I needed a private space and parking area for users of the guest house that would be separate from my garden areas.”
Balaity knew landscape designer Robert Davie, who has had his own firm based in Sarasota for nearly 40 years.
“After looking at his work online, I was afraid to call him. His projects were so beautiful, and many of them so big, and my project was so small,” said the homeowner. “But when we had a meeting, Robert told me I had more than enough space to work with, and he liked the house. He wanted to do a modern urban design, so I just turned the yard over to him and felt totally confident about it.”
Davie quickly dispelled the notion that landscaping for a modern home should be stark and minimalist.
“The only rule is that the yard must complement the house,” said Davie, “and really that goes for all gardens. The house and the yard should be one. So one of the things Jesse did is extend the inside floor right out to the covered back patio. The floors inside are polished concrete with shell aggregate.
“Outside, it’s the same floor, but not polished, and he added some mother-of-pearl to the aggregate for reflectivity. The furniture on the patio from Crate & Barrel is in the same clean-line modern style as the inside furniture.”
At the front of the house, Davie enhanced the curb appeal with low-maintenance ground cover (hotentot fig) instead of turf in the small patch of yard on either side of the stone porch. He installed a Yellow trumpet tree, a low hedge and then added a statement plant, false variegated agave.
“This agave has color and it’s pure sculpture. I love to see this big plant against a modern home. It always works,” Davie said.
The designer said the row of four olive gray, fan-like Copernicia palms in the back established a rhythm and followed the lines of the house. More trees, a wooden privacy fence and the pathways through separate garden rooms are mainly geometric and use materials consistent with the architecture of the house.
Some of the planting beds are topped with black river rock. Square concrete stepping pads connect different parts of the yard. Mulch and shell form other pathways for variety of texture and color.
The grilling porch is smartly placed near the kitchen door to the side yard.
“Because the location is so close to the indoor kitchen and just around the corner from the outdoor entertainment areas, we use the grill twice as much as we might have,” said Balaity. “It’s the ideal place for the grill, and the area is plenty big enough for cooking.”
When guests, the homeowners (and Captain Jack) are in the back garden, there is serenity and complete privacy from other homes on the block and from the street. And since there is night lighting (Jesse Balaity’s dad is an electrical contractor), the yard is used after sunset.
“I chose about 30 different plants, trees and shrubs and ground cover,” said Davie. “No area is overplanted, but there are filtered layers in terms of height for privacy and for textural interest and color. Everything has minimal water requirements and was picked to enhance the scale of the house and the geometry of the architecture.”
This chic city house has large windows, and all of them frame and capture a lovely view of the gardens. And that was accomplished by expert design.
“No matter what the style of your home, the views from the inside to the outside are just as important as the views you have while you’re in your gardens,” said Davie. “You can compose great views from both locations, and it’s worth doing.”