For The Love of a House
by Marion Laffey Fox
The soaring 27-foot-high living room “is where we live most of the time,” says Allison. The pecky cypress Juliet Balcony, which Chapin used as a shortcut from the master suite down to his office, was removed sometime in the 1990s. The bookcase below cleverly conceals a television set. The elaborate pair of painted wood and metal chandeliers is original. Doors lead to terrace with broad lake views.
If the splendid house called El Caserio, created by Charles Wait in 1928, is considered an architectural masterpiece, it is also the beloved family home of George and Allison Wood, who consider themselves stewards of the remarkable property.
Built for Alfred H. Chapin, a larger-than-life businessman from Springfield, MA, the Spanish-Mediterranean complex of varying rooflines, turrets and towers, balconies and belfries, borders on the fantastical. If the mere sight of its whimsies inspires thoughts of Gaudi’s work or pristine mansions on the Riviera, the imposing edifice feels more like a stage set than a mere dwelling.
Those sentiments would probably have pleased Chapin, who savored life to the fullest and loved collecting exotic treasures for his many houses during his frequent travels. “On one hand, he was a party animal, an extrovert who loved to entertain. He was a great tennis player who served as treasurer and director of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association and won many championships, once even defeating King Gustav of Sweden with his son, Alfred, Jr.” says George Wood. “On the other, he was a family man and dedicated father who had fun with his eight children and subsequent grandchildren,” adds his wife, Allison.
The home is situated on almost seven acres in Mountain Lake, FL, in the mostly flat center of the state best known for its citrus groves. The private community and club boasts gently rolling land, native pine forests and two lakes. Founded in 1915 on 3,500 acres by Frederick Ruth of Baltimore, the park now stands at 1,100 acres, but has maintained its original character as a place of exceptional natural beauty with a lifestyle that is purposely unpretentious and outdoor-oriented. It also enjoys the presence of 127 distinguished residences, 80 of which were designed by preeminent architects such as Wait, who was responsible for more than 30, and the Olmsted Brothers. Others included Franklin W. Abbot, Marion Syms Wyeth, Harden de Valson Pratt III, Ike Colburn, Wallace Neff, F.B. Meade, James Hamilton, Peter de Bretteville, and S. Scott Joy.
From inception of the project, Ruth engaged the most esteemed resources in the country to contribute ideas for his “colony.” They included Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., who meticulously laid out the earliest plans, as well as Seth Raynor and later Charles Banks, who designed an outstanding golf course that began and ended at elegant Colony House, its social center and clubhouse. The picturesque course, distinguished by the inclusion of several European and British elements, is one of the 100 most historic courses in the U.S. and one of the finest in the South.
The Spanish-Mediterranean complex of varying rooflines, turrets and towers, balconies and belfries, borders on the fantastical.
Within this milieu, the gregarious Chapin imagined a gracious lifestyle with his growing family and compatible, like-minded friends, far from the harsh winters of Massachusetts. His inspired choice for the man to unleash those dreams was Harvard-educated Wait, who had also studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and the American Academy in Rome. Chapin then commissioned the famous Olmsted brothers to tackle the outdoor planning.
This brilliant collaboration was augmented by the availability of an ultra-talented team of craftsmen who happened to be working simultaneously on an ambitious construction project for homeowner Edward Bok. After building a tasteful house with wonderful views, Bok acquired 25 additional acres of the hilliest land to create a nature sanctuary centerpieced by a soaring tan coquina stone and pink Etowah marble carillon tower. The skill level the mammoth task demanded was daunting, but Bok succeeded in assembling an impressive group.
Happily for all concerned, the team of American and European artisans was willing to moonlight on the Chapin project after work on Bok’s job concluded each day. This unexpected, highly experienced labor trove completed Chapin’s unbridled, freewheeling design dream that reached for the sky, and cost was not an issue. Among the brightest stars, famed blacksmith and metal artist Samuel Yellin executed lacy ironwork grilles and balconies, and fine metal fittings for the thick wooden doors. In addition, J.H. Dulles Allen, founder and chief designer of Enfield Pottery & Tile Works, added bursts of color in multi-hued mosaic tiles in fountains, floors, wall decorations, and trims.
The sprawling 10,000-square-foot, two-story estate he named El Caserio (The Country House) reflected the rage for Mediterranean Revival houses popularized by Addison Mizner’s body of work in Palm Beach. Here, Wait wisely constructed interior walls of hollow terra cotta blocks that served as the perfect insulation from the tropical heat, while Portuguese terra cotta barrel tiles covered the rooftops. “It was built like a fortress,” said Fred Ryan, Director of Real Estate at Mountain Lake for 53 years. “In fact, it was designated as a bomb shelter for the club during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The basement walls are two and a half feet thick.”
If common sense anchored the house, a sense of whimsy clearly rules its heart. Above the complex structure, a bell tower was crowned by a weather vane decorated with frolicking cherubs, and the living room’s intricately decorated cathedral ceiling features painted canvas panels between massive beams emblazoned with the children’s initials. Like a chamber in the Alhambra palace, the dreamy master suite features Moroccan columns with twisted shafts of wheat and trompe l’oeil painting.
Outside, Olmsted’s planning represents the extent of his genius in the seamless connection of indoor spaces with the exterior. Using tropical vegetation in a myriad of settings, he laid out breathtaking vignettes in gardens enhanced with tile terraces, bubbling fountains, reflecting ponds and many other intricate details. The stately courtyard is reminiscent of the Cloisters in New York City.
Underscoring his unabashed adoration of his children and grandchildren, Chapin commissioned Wait to design a separate two-story abode, complete with fanciful elements that would delight the little ones. As a result, the endearing “Mother Goose Playhouse” evolves like a fairy-tale, rife with tunnels, staircases, turrets and a drawbridge. A cat’s head pops out of the roof, peepholes become eyes, and an ear appears on a stucco wall.
One can only imagine the idyllic winters the family spent at the estate, enjoying the sound of Bok’s carillon concerts above the trees and contemplating vast lake views from one of the six terraces and other outdoor sitting areas.
Later, the house passed through a series of owners and, in the housing downturn of the 1960s and ‘70s, was purchased by the Mountain Lake Corporation and divided into four co-ops, one of which was owned by George Wood’s sister, Elise duPont.
“We are third-generation Mountain Lakers, having come here for years with our families for Christmas celebrations and spring breaks. So, Allison and I became enamored with this house over 30 years ago, when we were newlyweds,” says George Wood. Initially, they purchased a 1916 house in 2006. When the first co-op in El Caserio came up for sale in 2012, they bought it, as well as the three remaining parcels within the following two years.
A vintage photo documents early furnishings of the vaulted, carpeted passageway lined with colorful green, yellow and blue Enfield tiles. Graceful cream columns feature teal blue and gold accents refreshed by restoration artist Mary Kenneally.
“Our goal was to take it back to its original footprint and that is what we have been doing since then,” says Allison of the task that has been made easier by Olmsted and Wait’s original drawings. “We have finally removed all the extraneous additions that various owners erected,” says George, who admits that the preservation aspect of saving this wonderful building “was simply the right thing to do.”
After the house was made whole again, they enlisted the help of restoration artist Mary Kenneally of Bellevue, ID. “When houses like this are reimagined into condos, a lot of the painting and other fine ornamental work is lost,” said Kenneally. “To achieve the best results, I used vinyl water-based paint called Flash, whose colors do not fade.” For more than a month, the artist repaired arches and columns in several rooms, floor lamps in the dining room, and a remarkable golden yellow Venetian plaster ceiling in the dining room. “It was a unique experience to work there “says Kenneally. “I had never seen anything quite like it.”
“My wife, Lise, and I feel the same about this fantastic house and unique community,” says Christopher Wolf, Chairman of the Social Register Association, who traveled to Mountain Lake this past winter to meet with members about creating a reciprocity arrangement with the SR. After dining with members at Colony House and enjoying a cocktail party at El Caserio, Wolf felt it would be a perfect match and the arrangement is presently in place.
As for El Caserio? “Everywhere you look there is something to be done, especially in the gardens,” says Allison, who clearly adores everything about the house. “It is a life’s work, a loved, well-lived-in family home. It is not a showplace.”
Proud stewards, Mr. and Mrs. George Wood. Mr. Wood admits that the preservation of
El Caserio “was simply the right thing to do.”