March 28,2022

Robert M. Swedroe Crafts a Modern Florida Home

by David Stewart

This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Architectural Digest.

The tranquil little Isle of Biscaya, in North Miami's Surfside community, is tucked away on the shore of a magnificent stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway, only a few blocks from the buzz and glamour of the Bal Harbour Shops. There, in 1946, in a section curiously named Normandy Beach, architect Donald G. Smith built a splendidly Modernist residence with a boathouse and a gate lodge in the style that the property's current owner and savior, architect Robert M. Swedroe, modestly calls "Miami Modern (MiMo) with traces of Art Déco."

Miami generally conjures images of Ocean Boulevard with its highly ornamental architectural details aglow with pastel accents. The Swedroe house, on the other hand, with its cantilevered decks, long railings, porthole windows and Art Déco horizontality, has the look of a modern ocean liner. It conjures the surreal glamour of the 1930s resort casinos along the Belgian coast. This is a nautically themed building René Magritte would have loved to paint, perhaps with a steamship sailing out of the living room fireplace.

Four years ago Swedroe set about the complex task of modernizing and restoring the semi-ruined house. The process, he miscalculated, would take a year. It is still a work in progress.

But Swedroe's vision was clear. The open, airy plan takes advantage of the abundant Florida light. He transformed old ventilation shafts into towering skylights and reconfigured the windows on the terraces into walls of sliding glass. He removed multiple panels on the interior doors to make way for tall, translucent pale blue glass ones.

He also restricted lighting throughout the house to coves, ceilings, skylights and niches, so as not to obstruct the water views. Not surprisingly, there are no view-challenging window treatments. "I hate curtains and rags on windows," Swedroe's wife, Rita, explains.

On the roof, two new terraces provide panoramic views of the surroundings. "This is the highest point in Surfside," says Robert Swedroe. "The Florida sunsets are spectacular, and in the evening it's a great place to look at the stars."

Once Swedroe had reconfigured the bones of the house, he and his wife turned to Fort Lauderdale-based designer Toby Zack for help with the interiors. She shares the Swedroes' belief that rooms should be simple and clean, with minimal furnishings. The couple approved the brown-and-white palette that is a Zack signature.

The nautical theme is evident in the great room, where a 600-gallon saltwater aquarium displays a living reef with corals, sea anemones and specimen fish, some of which were collected by Robert Swedroe's son Marc on his many diving adventures. Nearby, low-lying sofas and chairs, in shades of white, are grouped around limestone-topped low tables on a marble floor, all contributing to the sense of being on the beach.

"It's not a contemporary, Jetsons look," Zack explains. "It's Parsons—straight lines, right angles, great finishes, great wood, great stone, great surface quality and a sense of scale and proportion that is the foundation of great design.

"Ten years ago you couldn't find a straight line in South Florida," she continues. "So I created a furniture line. Almost everything in the house had to be custom-made to achieve the look Swedroe wanted.

"It's a joy," she says, "to work on architects' houses because they're so tuned in. They understand that successful design has got to be three-dimensional. Many people don't see that. They want everything to stand out, when, in actuality, it's just the opposite—it has to fit in." The couple's art collection is a good example. The orchestration of built-ins, art and furnishings fits flawlessly with the masterfully reconfigured house.

The kitchen adds a bolt of color to the otherwise neutral palette. There, Swedroe and Zack installed cabinets finished in a blue high-gloss metallic lacquer to echo the ocean outside.

"When people collaborate, the usual course is to design a racehorse and end up with a zebra," he observes. "In this collaboration we ended up with a racehorse."

  • David Stewart
  • March 28,2022

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