When Liz Dolan’s husband, Justin, first sent her the listing for their future dream home, she refused to set foot in the house. An interior designer by profession, Liz took one look at photos of the home’s interior and knew it wasn’t the right fit for their family. “Every wall was painted a different color,” Liz recalls. “Cookie Monster blue, mustard yellow – it just wasn’t the kind of project I wanted to take on.”
But Justin was insistent that the two-bedroom, marsh-front house in secluded Pelican Reef was exactly the space they were looking for. Originally built in 1995, the custom home was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s highly distinctive Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, a building created in the late 1880s at the prompting of Japanese aristocracy to cater to the Western tourists.
From the exterior, the similarities are evident in the pair of balanced pyramid-shaped rooflines flanking a central courtyard at the entrance to the house. The real parallel between the two designs, however, lies in the concrete used both as a decorative element throughout the home and as its unique floating foundation – just like the Imperial.
Once Liz heard the house’s unique backstory she jumped on board, and the couple closed on their new home just before Christmas 2017. They originally planned to rent while they worked on the remodel, but when those plans fell through, the couple and their one-year-old daughter, Lo, moved into the house and lived through the chaos of a six-month renovation.
In addition to changing up paint colors throughout the house, the Dolans also had to make some adaptations to transform their home – which was originally designed for a retired couple – into a space fitting for a young family. They closed in a formal dining room to create a guest retreat at the center of the house with a transom window above the kitchen cabinets to filter some natural light into the quiet space.
On the same side of the house, the Dolans turned what was originally the guest room into a princess suite that even adults will envy. French doors open from Lo’s bedroom onto an enclosed porch with a long wall of windows facing the backyard. An oversized chair and a shelf full of books make for the perfect space for Lo to enjoy sunny days and watch for birds dancing across the marsh.
Special touches throughout both rooms bring the natural elements inside as well, including a weathered wood art piece over Lo’s bed that features a mermaid tail made of shells from Vilano Beach.
Lo’s reading room connects to the open kitchen and living space where the Dolans focused most of their attention during the renovation. The previous owners carried their Imperial inspiration into the original kitchen design with rebar-reinforced polished concrete countertops. Justin took on the removal of the countertops as one of his personal projects.
“It took a sledgehammer and some special tools to cut through the rebar, but it was so rewarding to come home from work and do something with my hands,” says Justin, a financial broker. “It’s not like building an online portfolio for a client – this is something really tangible that I can say I did myself.”
In place of the concrete, the Dolans chose Carrara marble granite with a matching herringbone tile backsplash installed by another local craftsman, Tony DiCecco. The same pattern is repeated on the Dolans’ new gas fireplace in the adjoining living room, where the blue-gray and white tile matches the blue and white color palette that Liz chose for the open living space.
To add a bit of warmth, Liz implemented a few woven pieces throughout the kitchen as well as an antique wooden bench that provides a great spot to sit and enjoy a morning cup of tea.
Aside from the structural renovations to their space, the Dolans also had a special eye for finding just the right pieces to turn their house into a home. Liz, a Pennsylvania native who attended Moore College of Art & Design, met Justin, a St. Augustine High School and Flagler College graduate, just days before she was planning to pack up and move back to her family’s farm. Right away, they knew St. Augustine was where they wanted to stay forever.
“I remember coming here the first time, driving over the Bridge of Lions,” says Liz, “I was just so mad because I thought – ‘why have they been hiding this beautiful place from me?’”
In fact, one of the major selling points for their new home was its proximity to downtown. “Everything is so accessible from here,” says Justin. “We can jump on our bikes and ride to the Amphitheatre or go right over the bridge into the city.”
Justin and Liz’s love for St. Augustine is also incorporated into their decor, which features a number of pieces from beloved local artists like Jenna Alexander and Danielle Waldrop, as well as unique finds from their favorite local shops, Declaration & Co. and West to East.
Keeping with their year-round aesthetic, Liz prefers clean, white décor for the holidays, but with some very important personal touches. Their tree is decorated with ornaments that hold special memories from some unforgettable spots like Key West, where the couple wed in 2014; and the British Virgin Islands, where they took their honeymoon; and Stone Harbor, New Jersey, where Liz’s parents have a summer vacation home. The Dolans’ family tradition includes dressing up in their favorite holiday attire, putting on some festive music, and maybe enjoying a hot toddy while they decorate the house.
While the Dolans still have a few more changes planned – including a clawfoot tub in the guest bathroom and a new pool for the backyard – for now, they are enjoying the calm after a renovation storm in their impeccably-styled, coastal retreat.
Photography by Brian Miller