Kathleen Hackett: It’s brave to take on clients who are related to you — and even braver when those clients are your parents! But I suppose they couldn’t — or wouldn’t — think of hiring anyone else.
Sara Gilbane: My parents are very laid-back people. But they have waited 30-plus years to own their dream house in Palm Beach, so there was a little pressure. I confess it was easier to say, “Too bad, I already ordered it! You’ll love it” to my parents when they pushed back than it would have been to any other client.
There were certainly a lot of decisions to make.
When I first laid eyes on the place, I was rather shocked: It was a soulless spec house on the Intracoastal Waterway, with 6,000 square feet, five bedrooms, and seven bathrooms. The decorating was overdone, and not one of the moldings matched! We quickly realized that we needed to begin by changing the interior architecture in order to give the house some gravitas.
And a feeling of refinement! How did you pull it off?
To create a sense of continuity throughout the house, I went nuts for pecky cypress, the beautiful reclaimed wood from the Everglades that shows up everywhere. It has wonderful character on its own, but it can also be a terrific base for special finishes. I had the wood stained or painted a flat white for a modern, chalky look — and when you fill the crevices with epoxy, it looks like drift- wood. I added a new coffered ceiling to the living room. It’s the most formal room in the house and as close to a proper Palm Beach interior as I got on this project.
Your parents lived in the same house in Rhode Island for 35 years. Was a nautical theme tempting?
They are New Englanders, so navy and white is in their blood. Plus, much of the furniture in their home was inherited from my grandmothers. They were excited to start fresh with a common thread of comfort and ease. That said, for them, making choices for a Florida interior was like learning to speak a new language. For example, where they wanted beadboard, I used that pecky cypress. And we shifted from a preppy palette to a more Southern one: rich, deep blues combined with coral and mango.
The result is a Palm Beach look that avoids the clichés.
I love the style, but I was also aware that this house had to be comfortable. My parents have lots of friends and family constantly coming to visit. In the living room, which one has to walk through to get to nearly every room in the house, I used a rug pattern and color that would mask the trails of sandy feet. The cypress is painted flat white to brighten up the space. These are not typical choices for a traditional Palm Beach home.
If I’m not mistaken, there are also nods to your parents’ Northern roots.
I think it’s essential to incorporate disparate elements into a room, especially if the clients have lived interesting lives. Starting over is one thing, but erasing all traces of the past can feel unsettling. So the dining room features furnishings from about five different periods. What grounds it is the Empire dining table, which is something you would see in Rhode Island. But then we added the bright pink peacock chair and the painted grass-cloth walls — those details convey that these are people who want their guests to enjoy a rum drink and have some laughs.
Who wouldn’t feel joyous surrounded by that whimsical mural?
While the dining room was our greatest challenge, it ended up as one of the most exciting rooms in the house. The space is quite dark, with north-facing windows, but when we painted the walls with palm trees and flamingos, it really came to life. And what room is complete without a tented ceiling?
And what garden is complete without a towering privet hedge and palm trees!
The garden is only about 10 feet from the Intracoastal Waterway and just steps away from the pool. Instead of a cabana, I chose outdoor seating with attached sailcloth canopies. With the hedge, there’s shade enough for afternoon reading and evening cocktails. And the view is a gift.