By OCL Staff
Photos by Matthew Gane & Alexis Rhodes
If the cedar tree had fallen just a few feet more to the east, you wouldn’t be reading this story right now. According to the owner of the sunny little house at the corner of St. Francis Street and Cordova, had that happened, the 667 square-foot home would have been a total loss.
“I got so lucky. I thought for sure we had lost it when I saw the tree” said Cyndi Humphrey, “It just sheared the front and fortunately didn’t do the damage we thought it had as we drove up the street after Hurricane Matthew. That’s when we first saw it lying there on the house. The antique windows were fine and the tree was pulled away in a way that didn’t cause any more damage.”
Tearing it down would have been one of the hardest things that Humphrey would have ever had to have done. When she talks about the home, the love that she has for every square inch of the place is evident. In fact, one of the things that she says she loves most about the house is “…it’s the personification of my life up to this point. I’ve got bits and pieces of my career and my life that make for interesting things… I didn’t do it intentionally, but I’ve surrounded myself with things that bring me nothing but joy.”
The South Florida-native came to own the cottage in a roundabout way. At the time, she was living on the very top floor of The Cedar House Inn, the bed and breakfast she owns and operates. She was happy where she was, or so she thought. It was convenient for her work and she just didn’t see the need to relocate to a separate spot.
“I loved living at the inn, and I would be there still, but my guests kept saying, “You work too much”, and “You need to have your own space.” I would never have perceived it that way…but work became all encompassing. By being able to drive a short block and a half away and turn that key, something physically happens to me. My brain goes someplace else, and that’s what I think I love the most.”
Mia Martin, one of the original owners of the Cedar House Inn, was helping Cyndi look for a home somewhere in the downtown area, because as Humphrey says, she was just too busy with her daily duties to keep track of everything going on in the area, particularly real estate.
She recalls being at the stove, cooking breakfast early one morning, when she got a call from Martin telling her, “Turn the oven off, I’ve found your house.” Humphrey responded, “Mia, I’ve got 14 people to make breakfast for. I can’t do that.” Martin was insistent, “Turn the oven off, and go to 50 St. Francis Street, RIGHT now. GO!”
“So I did, and as I got there,” Humphrey recalls, “it’s 7:30 in the morning, and here come all these cars headed to the same place. At 7:30 in the morning!” she adds for emphasis.
Even with all the intense interest in the place, and after a lot of nervous moments, a bit of magic happened and Humphrey ended up being the new owner of the cottage.”
The house, dating back to 1860, is reported to be one of several that made up a part of an inn at that time, although no others seem to remain — rather appropriate that it ended up in an inn owner’s hand. But like so many buildings in the area, it needed extensive renovation. Humphrey brought in Coenraad van Rensburg from Latitudes NE Florida for the task.
“That was two Novembers ago. I did 8 months worth of renovation, and 29 days later, the hurricane hit.”
Even though the tree that missed most of the house didn’t do much damage, the water did. “We went back down to dirt and studs. The frame was fine but the water came up to the point of where everything would have started breaking down. We had to basically redo everything that we had just done. And, believe it or not, we did it in 7 weeks.”
Thankfully, they were able to save the original Southern Pine floors (only a bit had to be replaced because of the tree damage), original beams and antique windows. But she updated everything else in the house.
“It’s a small house so there wasn’t a lot we could add but one thing I insisted upon was a gourmet kitchen. It was a galley style before but Coenraad was able to get into a very small space, a beautiful kitchen with full-size appliances and the whole nine yards.” Compact as the area is, there’s a top-of-the line GE french door refrigerator, a 5-burner gas stove and a dishwasher. “People ask me how I can work in such a small space but truthfully, it’s easier because everything is right there. It’s not inconvenient to me at all.” she adds.
Cyndi laughs when she gives a tour of the rest of the house, because the terms she uses don’t quite fit the small cottage. “We walk into what I affectionately call my ‘Great Room,’ which is actually a mini-Great Room because if I stand, I can almost touch both walls, but it has nice high ceilings so it feels bigger. From there, you enter the dining room.” She laughs again because using the phrase dining room doesn’t quite fit the size of the actual room. “And there is the hall with a beautiful bathroom, with a lot of mirrors to help make it feel bigger, and then the bedroom in the back.”
The bedroom was a challenge because Humphrey insisted on getting a queen-size bed in there, and there was no way that would happen as the bedrooom was. To accommodate this, they were able to get the Historical and Architectural Review Board to allow for French doors leading to the back courtyard to be added. Problem was solved. “What was a really small, dark bedroom now had a lot of potential and possibilities. There’s even a small walk-in closet. There is nothing that I am lacking.” Smiling, she adds, “I’ve thrown one dinner party so far, and I was having people come at staggered times becasue the house was so small it couldn’t fit everyone. But everyone showed up, everyone stayed, and it was the best party I’ve ever thrown…ever.”
They worked to keep as much of the original elements on the outside as well. “For the most part, all the bricks are original and, since water is our friend here in downtown, my sister, who is a master gardener, put in water tolerant plants that we thought could handle the regular flooding we get in this part of the city.”
Even though the plants didn’t survive Matthew’s wrath, the friendly yellow home overlooking Lake Maria Sanchez did, and not just to the relief of Humphrey. “It’s a jewel of St. Augustine. Everybody loves that little house. In fact, I would suggest that it doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to St. Augustine. Everybody that walks by says ‘Thank you! We were worried that you weren’t going to come back after the storm…We just love this place and we didn’t want to see it go.’ It’s just a happy little home.”