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Architect About Town

St. Cyr's house a fitting legacy

Architect About Town - Special to the Fort Myers News-Press

In last month's column, I recounted the accomplishments of Sanibel architect Joe St. Cyr and shared my impressions of a man who was my mentor and friend. Many others wrote about their respect and admiration for Joe and his appreciation of family, the community, his clients and the environment.

This past Sunday evening on the Sanibel Causeway, I joined these friends and family members not to mourn Joe's death, but to celebrate his rich and full life.

It was the second such event I attended this past month. Sadly, another distinguished local architect, Bruce Gora, passed away on Dec. 16. Fortunately, just two weeks before, I sat with Bruce and chatted about his career and architecture in Southwest Florida. I plan to share his stories and views in a column soon.

As I stood on the causeway on Sunday, I reflected how both men had touched the lives of so many and how buildings designed by good architects mirror their lives.

Inevitably, I drew that parallel between Joe's life and the home he and Pat, his wife of 56 years, created together on Sanibel.

A home is often a manifestation of a person or family. The St. Cyr house perfectly synchronizes a lifetime together.

As an architect, Joe promoted a comprehensive building philosophy, and integrated the same attitude into his life: as a fisherman, a volunteer fireman, a father, a pilot and a lover of nature, to name a few.

Pat is a potter by education, a sculptor by trade and a successful businesswoman.

It's hard to talk about one without the other. And with their house, it is the same. It is difficult to distinguish who is responsible for what.

Former residents of Livonia, Mich., who visited Sanibel, the St. Cyrs made the move permanent in 1981. While in Michigan, St. Cyr Architects & Associates designed more than 100 churches, schools and office buildings. During the years I knew Joe, he designed countless buildings and private residences on the islands and the Florida mainland.

When the St. Cyrs were ready to build their home on Sanibel, they found a canal site, just yards from the San Carlos Bay. It was a sleeper site, adjacent to a main road with a bridge blocking the sun and views.

That bridge, however, crossed over a canal that provided a perfect location for Joe, who cherished the outdoors and loved to fish.

Joe suspected views of the bay awaited - once above the bridge and the trees. The story of him renting a cherry picker to ensure he got the design perfect left a huge impression on me as a young architect.

In all his designs, Joe demanded flexibility to accommodate future changes. No building better exemplifies this than the couple's Sanibel house.

Under threat of a local building moratorium in the early 1980s, Joe quickly designed and erected a straightforward island house - double pavilions with pyramidal shaped roofs, raised up on pilings.

But Pat was not impressed. "Who do you think is going to live here?" she recalled asking him. It was nothing more than a simple dwelling, and nothing as nice as the home/workplace they designed together in Livonia.

Fortunately, Joe managed to get the bones of the design right and, over the years, the house evolved into one of the most unique on the island.

In fact, I can't ever remember a time when some building project wasn't under way. The addition of an office, a studio, a deck, an elevator and a bay window for a breakfast table overlooking the canal all marked a response to the St. Cyrs' changing needs.

It is designed to be in complete harmony with nature. Outside, native vegetation shields the house from the sun and provides privacy from cars and cyclists passing by. From inside, this abundance of greenery creates the impression of living in a tree house.

As you arrive, an uncomplicated fountain bubbles to mask any noise created by cars passing by.

When the front door opens at the top of the stairs, sliding glass doors frame a view of the bay, confirming that indeed, you are on an island.

Inside, natural light floods through full height doors and open interior balconies into wonderful double-height living spaces that weave in and around, and open out to deep shaded porches.

Although modest in size, it accommodates the numerous guests who drop in for a quick visit or for dinner. It is possible to sit inside or outside, either screened from the insects or out in the sunshine.

On one level, it is a contemporary interpretation of a pragmatic Florida house: a simple shelter that provides shade, maximizes ventilation and creates a close link with nature. On another level, it is a strikingly warm and comfortable home created by Joe and Pat and reflecting the remarkable life they shared.

The interior is simply furnished with a mixture of styles and art, incorporating Pat's own work. You sense Joe's character and remember his infectious laugh, as his friends do.

"I will miss this dear fellow, and we were so lucky to have this nourishing spirit grace our community with his heartfelt presence. Joe St. Cyr ... such a true Island Treasure," wrote glass etching artisan Luc Century.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA