A little imagination can make a historic home work for any generation
Photography by Penny & Finn • Styled by Rachel Plating
Tall and massive, with Mayan temple–like geometric ornament, the Columbus W. Deen house stands out from the sea of picturesque Lake Morton bungalows like a femme fatale in a
crowd of bubbly ingénues. The broad porch roof veils the home’s entrance in intriguing shadow, and the intricate motifs at the tops of the piers and pilasters beg further inspection. A stained-glass window, visible on one elevation of the house, adds to the domicile’s aura of mystery. This house, constructed in an area once viewed as the far reaches of Lakeland, possesses an unmistakable personality, one that over one hundred years of different owners, uses, and abuses have not been able to extinguish. Shining in its resumed role as a single-family residence, the house serves as a reminder that some pieces of history can become truly timeless.
The Deen house has seen its share of transformations. The stately home began its life as a mansion for banker and real estate developer Columbus W. Deen, who constructed the house near his pecan groves. Finished in 1912, the residence included all of the required spaces for a wealthy family of that time, plus a few more: living room, dining room, a reception hall and reception room, bedrooms, bathrooms, butler’s pantry, servants’ stairs, sewing area, and even a carriage house for Deen’s automobile, one of the first in the city.
After Deen’s death in 1927, Judge R. Lee Wright and his family purchased the home, but it spent much of the next decade as a hospital and sanitarium, or wellness facility, operated by Dr. Thomas Causey. Wright deeded the home to Florida Southern College, and in 1940 it became a student dormitory named Wright’s Hall in his honor. Over the years, the college used the house as student housing, a fraternity house, faculty housing, and ultimately storage.
In 1994, Lon Stanley and Keith Etheredge persuaded Florida Southern to sell them the house, and Stanley and Etheredge worked extensively to restore the structure to its original
appearance and purpose as a single-family residence, despite suffering from setbacks such as a ruinous fire. Their devotion to restoring the home’s beautiful woodwork, which had been painted numerous times over the years, and architectural details shows in the end result seen today.
Steve and Stephanie Shelnut have also added to the home’s restoration since purchasing it in 2012, updating roofing systems, using old photographs to restore the landscape, and making other repairs.
The Deen house exudes the influence of the Prairie School, popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright, while retaining characteristics of nineteenth-century Southern architecture. Wright rejected revivalist architectural styles, preferring more modern, “organic” dwellings designed with an emphasis on horizontality, inspired by the flat prairie Midwestern landscape
on which they stood. He espoused the treatment of the house as an artistic whole, utilizing high-quality materials and well-crafted fixtures, and carefully organizing the plan around the hearth, with large, more open spaces.
The Deen house’s low, hipped roofs with deep overhangs; sharply rectilinear piers, pilasters and chimneys; geometric details; and materials such as brick and ceramic mosaic tile
indicate that the architect, Guy Johnson Platt, had strong familiarity with Prairie School architecture. Its exterior bears a striking resemblance to Wright’s Martin House (1903- 1905) in Buffalo, New York. Inside, massive semi-circular fireplaces faced in brick, extensive paneling, exposed beams, and built-in cabinetry show the Prairie and Arts and Crafts styles.
However, other of the house’s features more strongly reflect nineteenth-century Southern ideas about climate and social interaction. Strategically placed to catch the cross breezes on this high point between Lakes Morton and Hollingsworth, the large, open porch acts as an exterior room to find respite from Florida’s heat in the days before air conditioning. A central hallway directly in front of the main entrance would have allowed for increased air circulation, as did transoms above each door. Pocket doors that close spaces from the hall would have determined the visitor-of- the-past’s experience in the home, with some ushered directly into the reception room without ever seeing the more familiar living and dining rooms. The central hallway served as a velvet rope in the nineteenth-century — if your name wasn’t on the list, you didn’t go very far.
All of this devotion to restoration at the Deen house, therefore, indicates the willingness, even the desire, to live in a dwelling based on a century-old lifestyle. The Deens of 1912 obviously did not have televisions, computers, and the like. Their carriage house and electricity were fairly modern for their time. Proper entertaining and conversation took place in specialized rooms or over a fine, beautifully served meal. The idea of a large kitchen in which to cook and simultaneously entertain would probably have sent shockwaves of horror down Mrs. Deen’s spine.
Living in such a home may mean sacrificing or working out some of the things those of us living in 2013 take for granted — finding a location for the washing machine inside the house, figuring out what to do with the butler’s pantry that no longer has the cabinetry, copper sink, let alone butler that once accompanied it, and purchasing wardrobes to make up for a distinct lack of closet space. However, it can also mean finding oneself continuously arrested in awe at the beauty of the house’s craftsmanship. It can result in the delight of taking a favorite book from a built-in cabinet and reading it while relaxing on a spacious window seat, the thrill of finding a new place to hide during each game of hide-and-go-seek, or the enjoyment of a lazy Saturday afternoon on the porch with a glass of lemonade. If one is possessed with a sense of humor, the narrow, winding servant’s stair might provide a much-needed chuckle after a rough day at work, and the small, very separate kitchen may not seem so bad when a batch of forgotten cookies burns in the oven.
Inhabiting an older house also requires the courage and vision to embrace putting one’s own stamp on a place. Older homes need not be treated like mausoleums or museums; they are meant to be enjoyed. Lon Stanley and Keith Etheredge’s commissioning of the large, stained-glass “Tree of Life” window that now bathes the main staircase of the Deen house in gorgeous, colorful light presents a wonderful example of putting one’s own unique stamp on a place. Executed by the talented Ken Berman of The Glass Onion in Lakeland, the design’s inspiration comes from the “Tree of Life” stained-glass entry at The Gamble House (1908), a Charles and Henry Greene (more commonly known as Greene & Greene) Arts and Crafts masterpiece in Pasadena, California. Berman’s translation of the design adds pops of red and gold and texture to the space. The window solves a renovation conundrum beautifully while adding a contemporary masterpiece that respectfully evokes the home’s early twentieth-century roots. Admittedly, adding or changing something can be tricky, but no one can deny the stunning effect the change has added to this home.
Like the Deen house, many of Lakeland’s historic homes have their own personalities to explore and expand. Given the perfect mixture of appreciation for the ways and styles of the past, dedication to making a home work for the present, and innovation to create new features for the future, a house and its best, most salient features can be preserved for the ages.
Furniture/props provided by Wish Vintage Rentals (www.wishvintagerentals.com)
Nature photography by F.W. Van
Fair Trade baskets provided by Jim Luna
(Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market)