GROVE HOUSE HAS ITS GROOVE ON

Preserving and restoring the history of a home shouldn’t mean sacrificing style or aesthetic. Nay, it can only add to it. Contributor and interior designer Christian Lee guides us through the restoration and redesign of Fred and Robin Lopez’s home.

Photography by Tina Sargeant

The citrus industry has been an enormous part of the story of Florida since the earliest explorers planted the first trees in the 16th century. Our soils and tropical climate provide ideal growing conditions for an industry that has steadily expanded since 1915 when production first reached 10 million boxes. By the ’70s, the citrus harvest was over 200 million boxes. Florida has historically produced more oranges than anywhere else in the world, with the exception of Brazil. With an economic impact measured in billions of dollars, the industry touches us all. It’s no small wonder the orange was officially designated the state fruit in 2005. Over 400,000 Florida acres are planted in fruit, and some 45,000 jobs are tied to the citrus industry in one way or another.

Historically, Florida citrus growers often lived in the midst of their groves. The farms operated as family businesses, and the owners needed to live close to the land. After all, as President Lyndon Johnson said, “The best fertilizer for a piece of land is the footprints of its owner.” Florida farmers have always had to cope with just about everything: droughts, floods, pests, and diseases. The closer they lived to their crops, the quicker they could respond to whatever nature or life was delivering to them.

In 1910, a very groovy bungalow style wood-frame house was built near Lake Hollingsworth in the heart of a citrus grove. The grove has long since disappeared, but the house found its own rhythm and is thriving in a revitalized neighborhood not far from the First Presbyterian Church. Fred and Robin Lopez bought the house after Fred noticed it while walking Lake Hollingsworth with a friend. The house was in the middle of renovations and much work had already been done: drywall, plumbing, rewiring, and new roof. Fred approached the owners, James and Fabi Stewart, to see if they might have an interest in selling it and in the process learned a bit about the house and its fascinating history. The house had belonged to Peggy Boatwright. Her parents had built the house. It was the first house in the neighborhood, and it was surrounded by groves Mr. Boatwright worked. The Stewarts acquired the house from Ms. Boatwright and had been taking their time carefully bringing the house back to life. After several visits and some negotiations, a deal was reached and the Lopez family had a new project.

 

Robin and Fred Lopez both grew up in Lakeland. They met in the 10th grade at Lakeland High School and have been together ever since. They went to Alabama’s Troy University and married the summer of their junior year in Lakeland. Fred is a certified financial planner and vice president with Allen & Company, Florida’s oldest investment firm. “It gives me great pleasure knowing my clients feel good and secure about the advice our firm delivers,” Fred says when asked about his work. “In a world of uncertainties, they love our consistency and longevity.” Robin has been both a homemaker and a school teacher, including two years at her high school alma mater, Lakeland High School. She also has a background in accounting, the mortgage and lending industry, and has served as their church’s secretary for five years. She and Fred have three adult daughters: Emily, Ashley, and Katherine.

Robin and Fred have seen and experienced many changes in Lakeland over the years. “It has become community focused,” Robin says. “It’s a beautiful place to live, work, and play, and we love the public places and recreational opportunities. It’s a safe place to exercise and enjoy being outside. We like the sports, parks, lakes, and the variety of people. It’s very important to us that our community is diverse and welcoming.” The Lopezes also credit church and school for making the community such a positive experience for them. They were members of Covenant Presbyterian Church when, along with 10 other families, they planted Trinity Presbyterian Church in the mid-1990s. They later helped plant Christ Community Presbyterian Church and are current members. Robin and Fred have both been involved as teaching professionals in the school system, and their children have attended both public and private schools. “Schools and the school system as a whole have always been very important to our family,” Robin says. 

In January, Robin and Fred asked me to help them complete the renovations of their turn-of-the-century bungalow. We all viewed the project as a creative collaboration between the homeowners, designer, and the professional craftsmen and artisans that would be doing a lot of the work. I am always amazed at the depth, talent, and skill of the people in the Lakeland area. And from the start, the Lopezes shared my commitment to resourcing businesses from Lakeland and the surrounding community as much as possible to accomplish the restoration work necessary to rehabilitate their home. I have always felt that the community grows because of our willingness to celebrate and support each other, and not look elsewhere for goods and services we can find right here at home. People respond and appreciate the opportunity to participate in a worthwhile project, particularly one that adds value to the community and its historic neighborhoods.

The Lopezes are experienced home renovators. “We have always been interested in buying homes that are deteriorating and fixing them up,” Fred says. “We like the challenge, the before and after of home construction projects. We love old houses, and I just knew this house could be something special.” They have remodeled everything from beach houses to rental property, so they were ready for the sometimes difficult business of home renovation. “Most of the time it’s great, especially when I just listen and say, ‘Yes dear,’” Fred adds with a smile.

 

The kitchen is equipped with hip, retro-cool Big Chill professional appliances. Robin drew inspiration from memories of her grandmother’s traditional Ohio farm kitchen. We then combined open shelving with more traditional, conventional closed cabinetry to give the kitchen a historic feel. We commissioned a custom blue lacquer island with vertical brass bollards, open shelves, and butcher block countertop to both fit the space and contrast with the nostalgic look. The perimeter countertops are quartz, shot through with sparkly glass in homage to the popular decorative Formica work spaces of the ’50s and ’60s. Bar stools add to the island’s functionality and provide a gathering space for informal meals and conversation. The island is finished with a large, modern Thomas O’Brien pendant lantern Robin and daughter Emily found on a buying trip to Savannah. 

We installed new, recessed lighting and fabulous tongue-and-groove natural oak flooring throughout, enhancing continuity and flow to the largely open floor plan. A soft-aqua-blue front door opens into a living room balanced between a festively patterned, painted brick fireplace and an entertainment area anchored with an English rolled-arm sofa with down cushions and nail head detailing. A focal point in the living room is a pair of oil paintings by Lakeland artist Mary Witte over a transitional, square-arm sofa with matching twin ottomans. The living room pours into the dining room followed by the kitchen beyond, separated by a vintage honey oak dining table, ornamental spindle back dining chairs, and a jute basketweave rug. A vintage candelabra-style crystal chandelier is suspended over the table. The dining room buffet is original to the house cabinetry with an added Carrera marble top. Matt Kent of Lakeland’s Kent Made imaginatively remade an original hutch into two hanging glass front cabinets to showcase crystal glassware. The interior walls are a soft grey white, offset with grey/blue trim, creating a light, airy feel to the spaces. Thibaut Ikat wallpaper covers the powder room walls and ceiling, framing an antique mirror over a new vanity. The room is finished with woven black and white floor tile and subway wall tile surrounding a traditional bathtub-shower combination.    

One of the concerns Robin and Fred shared was a lack of closet and storage space. Their new home would be about half the square footage of their previous Scott Lake house. And older homes often relied on free-standing cupboards and armoires and did not include closets. So we converted a paired-down guest bedroom into a closet for the master bedroom and required all of the furniture throughout the house to include some form of additional storage space.

An unused attic was transformed into an 800-square-foot apartment for daughter Katherine and granddaughter Stella. Stairs were added to connect the spaces, and a beautiful custom stair rail, child safety gate, and bannister were created by Matt Kent, proving you don’t have to sacrifice design for function.

With vision and imagination, Robin and Fred finished the work lovingly begun by the Stewart family. The end result is a timeless, open, and welcoming home preserving a historically traditional aesthetic: a hundred-year-old grove house with a revitalized, modern heartbeat. The renovated house is a perfect fit for a family grounded in Lakeland. “We really wanted a home that would reflect our love of Lakeland and Florida,” Fred says. “We really believe in our community. Our friends and neighbors trust and invest with us every day. Like the Stewarts, we wanted to invest in the community.”

And how are the Lopezes doing now that they have finished easing their renovated grove house back into its old groove? Well, they love each other, their family, and the community, and they love the old grove house that now has its groove back. So, you might say, they have a “Groovy Kind of Love.”