A Shore Thing

A respectful innovation of an original 1940s Florida cottage honors the best of the past and present // Photographs by Jeff Garland
Million-dollar views await at the Brians’ Casey Key Fla. home, located between the beautiful Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota Bay

Location, location, location. That’s about all the 1940s cottage on Florida’s exclusive Casey Key had going for it when Bud and Donna Brian, Detroiters who now spend part of the year in Florida and another part on northern Michigan’s Torch Lake, purchased it in 2010. The couple had been living in a larger, three-story house a few doors away and decided to downsize when the 1,800-square-foot house, one of the last of the 8-mile-long key’s original bungalows, came on the market.

“They were all about the property,” says Grosse Pointe Park-based interior designer Kathleen McGovern, who has worked with them on other projects and was brought in to steer the renovation, along with Bloomfield Hills architect Mark Johnson.

The great room’s original ceiling was restored and refinished as part of the project, making a dramatic backdrop for the oversized green lanterns.

“I seemed to always be on the wrong floor when I needed something at our other home,” Donna explains about their reasons to move to the one-story structure situated between the Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota Bay. Its strengths included the deep and private lot, and the fact that the house “was a true beach cottage,” Donna says. “When you walk onto the gulf side of the property, you can look north and south and not see any other dwellings. It’s pretty special, and quite unusual, on the island today.”

This space features the original display cabinets and paneling over the newly tiled fireplace. The taxidermy tarpon came with the house.

The cottage’s weaknesses, unfortunately, included “just about everything else,” according to the designer. Built in 1949, it had been “updated” in the 1970s, McGovern says, “a time that was not particularly good for renovations.” Photos taken after the first remodeling reveal cramped rooms with low ceilings covered in acoustic tile, dated materials and colors (pink vanity or blue toilet, anyone?), and an awkward floor plan, much of it with rooms that didn’t take advantage of the stunning water views.

The Brians’ wish list included a more open floor plan as well as a casual and comfortable elegance that would accommodate not only them, but their energetic dogs and cats. Goals for the renovation included “restoring what was possible, renovating without destroying character, and modernizing for a contemporary lifestyle,” McGovern says.

Clockwise from top: The herringbone teakwood tile is an appropriate background for the custom bed in the guest apartment’s bedroom. The master bath, with pecky cypress cabinetry and a glass-tiled shower, leads to a private garden. The master bedroom has a view of the pool and the Gulf of Mexico. The powder room is unique, with teakwood tile. A custom iron mirror is by Michael Barna Design Studio, Royal Oak.

“Maintaining the original character of the home drove everything,” adds Donna, who describes the team of McGovern, Johnson, and Sarasota-based Today’s Builders as “the glue in the entire project.”   

The designer and architect tackled the layout first, juggling spaces in a game of architectural musical chairs to make better use of available space. The exterior footprint stayed the same, but all inside spaces were updated and reworked. “Priorities were different when the house was built in the 1940s, but honestly, who wouldn’t want to look at the water?” McGovern says of the original floor plan.

The Brians’ border collie, Sting, was photographed “mid flight” and the image hangs over the sofa in the study. The kitchen’s custom cabinetry is of locally sourced pecky cypress.

One of the worst offenses was the kitchen, which “was landlocked and had no exposure to the beautiful property,” Johnson says. “It had windows facing another building 7 feet away and a property line fence 8 feet away.” A one-time guest bedroom with a view made way for an updated kitchen, located now “where it should have always been,” McGovern says. An oversized master bedroom was carved up to include a spacious new master bath, while another bedroom was sacrificed to make way for a home office.

The custom armoire is by Northville furniture designer, Paul Rochon.

Another challenge was the home’s mechanical system, which “sat fully outside the building, with insulated ductwork running above the roof like a giant octopus,” the architect remembers. To fix the problem, a pitched roof was added over the master suite to house and conceal the mechanicals; it’s complemented by a new matching roof over the sunroom.

Most of the interior’s original details had been eliminated during the misguided 1970s redo. Removing the ugly acoustic tile revealed beautiful pecky cypress wood ceiling trusses — a discovery that inspired the rest of the renovation, McGovern says. New pecky cypress paneling was added to the main rooms, to complement the original details, and it was also used in new kitchen cabinetry.

Interiors throughout the cottage are now “relaxed,” according to McGovern. It’s a look and feel she achieved with low-maintenance, high-performance (and, of course, pet-friendly) fabrics designed to be sun-, stain-, and mildew-resistant, and versatile textured porcelain tile designed for a beachfront lifestyle. Not surprisingly, blue is a featured hue; it ties the rooms together and provides a common thread throughout.

Night dips are popular in the Brians’ inviting pool.

The challenging project took more than two years to complete. “It’s not easy to renovate or build on barrier islands, and requires lots of patience and persistence,” Donna says. The homeowners fondly nicknamed their new and more compact residence “Lil Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Cottage,” Donna says, after a well-known IPA beer. “Not because we like the beer so much, but because I just like to say it,” she clarifies.

The lanai, at sunset, was part of the original 1940s cottage and was updated in the renovation with a new frame and invisible screening.

Despite dealing with site codes and restrictions, the redone residence now “suits the homeowners to a T,” McGovern says. “There are very few of these original cottages left, and there are lots of big houses around it, but this one is a very manageable space on a beautiful piece of property. I can understand why they fell in love with it.”

A charming walkway winds amid a delightful tropical garden.


Interior designer, Kathleen McGovern Studio, kathleenmcgovernstudio.com, Grosse Pointe Park. Architect, Mark Johnson & Associates, Bloomfield Hills. Builder, Today’s Builders, Sarasota. All-weather wicker seating and teak tables, lanai, Lloyd Flanders (a Michigan company). Fan, guest apartment, The Modern Fan Co. Bedside lamps, guest apartment, Hubbardton Forge. Teak wall tile, guest apartment, Walker Zanger. Duvet and shams, guest apartment, Serena & Lily. Fireplace surround, Ann Sacks tile in “Fire and Ice.” Bed, master bedroom, McGuire Furniture (Barbara Barry caned bed). Bedside pendants, master bedroom, The Urban Electric Co. Custom rug, master bedroom, Seagrass by Stark Carpet. Sconces, master bathroom, Visual Comfort. Plumbing, Waterworks.25. Shower tile, master bath, Ann Sacks glass tile, Lucian, in Azure. Armchair, great room, McGuire Furniture – the Knot Chair (fabric by Chella). Sofa, great room, Kravet Custom (fabric by Pindler outdoor fabric, Luke, in Metal). Pillow, great room, Robert Allen Cabana, Terry, in Cerulean. Custom white metal side table, great room, Michael Barna Design Studio. Custom rug, great room, Stark. Sink, kitchen, Rohl. Counter stools, kitchen, McGuire Furniture. Refrigerator and range, kitchen, Wolf. Custom bar, pantry, Paul Rochon, Northville. Chair, study, Una. Sleeper sofa, study, Duralee.