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House*Home: Palmetto’s Crown Jewel

Mark Alkire is trying find the hidden passageway in his billiard room. It’s built into a wall of shelves, but it hasn’t been opened in years—it’s stuck. He removes stacks of books and wiggles each shelf until he hits the right spot. A section pulls away from the wall revealing a dark, empty closet. But then he can’t get the shelves to click back into place, so he tells his wife, Karen, to step into the closet and pull while he pushes with considerable force.

It’s like watching one of those magic shows where the woman gets into the too-small box. Fortunately there’s an escape route—a back door that leads to the laundry room. A minute or so after Mark replaces the books on the shelves, Karen appears in the doorway, her black dress dusty.

Mark Alkire insists if his home were in San Francisco, no one would be very interested in it. But it shines like a jewel in Palmetto’s historic river district, a sleepy village graced by hundred-year-old oaks overlooking the Manatee River. Downtown Bradenton lines the south side of the river, and from this side of the bridge, it looks like a downright big city. In the evenings, joggers and drivers slow down to read the illuminated historical marker in the front of Alkire’s home. A howling Bluetick coonhound keeps them from lingering too long.

The truth is, Mark isn’t sure he wants anyone writing about his house. They’ve got a full life—he’s a cardiothoracic surgeon, his wife, Karen Raimer, practices maternal and fetal medicine. They have eight—yes eight—children ranging from age 27 to nineteen months. Spare time is nearly non-existent between work, flying lessons, motorcycle riding and building wood hull speedboats. Mark has turned (national) magazines away before, but as he gets talking about the home’s history and all the work he’s done to it, he warms up to the idea, and the next thing you know, we’re past the proverbial parlor.

Adapting 1899 to 2006

When Mark and Karen first saw the Queen Anne Victorian in 1991, it was in serious disrepair. “But you have to see beyond the house,” says Karen. “You have to have a vision.” Mark and Karen are both from Louisiana— he’s from Covington and she grew up in New Orleans—and the house reminded them of home. “It was so unlike the traditional stucco Florida houses,” says Karen. “We grew up with wood framed homes and Acadian cottages. We could relate to this house. It reminded me of the Garden District.”

The Alkires lived in the home for five years before tackling the renovation. But finding a place to live in the interim presented problems. “Who’s going to rent to a family with six kids and a dog?” says Karen. Their solution? A 670-square-foot trailer. “The neighbors thought it was for the workers,” she recalls. The space was so cramped, one evening they found their son Keith sleeping under the trailer with the dog. “He said it was too crowded inside,” Karen laughs.

Mark is clearly impressed with his wife. “Very few women would be willing to live in a house for five years and then move into a trailer for 18 months,” he says.

With only two families owning the home for 92 years, elements like original woodworking and floors were still intact, allowing Mark to focus more on renovation than restoration. The family hired architect Max Lasseter, who Mark says “straightened everything up and corrected the historical accuracy, but also made it livable.” Lasseter added a wing of bedrooms, converted the attic to a bedroom suite for the older boys, widened the third-story staircase, restored the shape of the east turret damaged in a fire years earlier and designed a to-die-for carriage house. “Max has a real sense of how to balance things,” says Mark. Insulation, plumbing and electric were all updated. A central air conditioner replaced the 13 window units that had (barely) cooled the home.

In the new wing, cypress doors were built to match those in the rest of the house, and on the floors, reclaimed wood offers a seamless transition between the new wing and the original heart pine. “We pulled the wood out of the Suwannee (River), and it might even be older than the originals,” says Mark. Special knives were made to recreate the original molding patterns. In Queen Anne Victorians, “every room has some bit of lavish visual,” says Mark.

Throughout the home, the ticking of over 70 antique clocks serve as a steady reminder of time marching forward. Mark says he likes them because “they work for a living.” He points to a clock built in 1840. “The guy who made this is dust. He’s probably been dead a hundred years, but the clock still does what it was intended to do. It’s a statement of good craftsmanship. Something that lasts.” This love of craftsmanship and hard work is evident throughout the home, and it’s something Mark emphasizes with his children.

During the renovation, those who were old enough helped build copper foil leaded glass windows, transoms and doors throughout. Rather than working with new glass, they used old, weighted glass from a New York salvage yard. Although the windows aren’t the most air tight (“curtains move when the windows are closed”), they are appropriate for the home. “I understand why people do it, but these houses aren’t supposed to have windows with UV protection and sustain 180-mile-per-hour winds,” Mark says, adding, “Windows are like seeing someone’s teeth when you smile. With aluminum windows, you look at it and it just doesn’t look right.”

A Balance of Utility and Flair

Despite the lavish details and ornate craftsmanship throughout the house, Mark is quick to point out the utilitarian floor plan, which essentially repeats itself on each of the home’s three floors. “Even though the roof is asymmetrical, the floor plan is very symmetrical,” he says. “All the bathrooms are stacked on the northeast corner of the house.” A 6-foot-wide hallway also repeats on each floor. “Today people would consider this hallway wasted space,” says Alkire. “But they aren’t just passageways.” He points to the crown molding, the arches.

Adjacent to the dining room, a traditional music room maintains its purpose. Shiny black fingerprint-covered guitars and drums surround a grand piano. Mark’s college-age twins play in a band, and they practice here in the middle of the house. Mark seems to enjoy using the home as it was intended—after all, he could’ve banished the band to the carriage house. “A music room wasn’t optional back then,” he says. “Nobody gathers around a dinner table now. Back then they didn’t have home theaters. They had to entertain each other somehow.”

Italian Victorian appointments shine throughout the home. Ceilings are papered in William Morris style designs from Bradbury and Bradbury in San Francisco, who helped the family select appropriate patterns. “They do it all based on the year of your house,” says Karen. “They keep you from making mistakes.” Mark realizes this style isn’t a hot home trend right now, but it’s what’s right for the house. “Maybe it’ll come back. Maybe it’ll be 100 years from now,” he says.

In true Alkire fashion, the kitchen masters the balance of tradition and function. Heartland appliances create instant nostalgia (not to mention “oohs” and “aahs” from visitors), and a copper backsplash provides a gleaming antique framework.

A Room of One’s Own

Up until baby Anna joined the family, Lauren, 16, was the only girl amongst a squad of freckled brothers, all of whom seem to share the same shy, toothy smile. It’s probably a good thing, because had there been another girl, she would’ve had some stiff competition for her bedroom. Her bed sits beneath a turret, and like a storybook princess in her tower room, she can gaze at the stars from her four-poster bed.

It’s difficult to tell who the other rooms belong to—and for good reason. It turns Lauren is the only child with an official “assigned” bedroom. “They just kind of sleep wherever they land,” laughs Karen.

Maybe baby Anna will claim the other tower room when she grows up. Accessible through a short door off the older boys’ third-story suite, Karen says the empty room hasn’t been used much over the years. “It’s mostly a conversation piece,” she says. “The kids play in there.” Perhaps that’s the best thing about living in a Queen Anne Victorian—there’s always room for one more.

Florida in 1899—Buggy, Muggy and Hot

Queen Anne Victorian, or “High Victorian,” architecture came on the scene in the late 1800s, when Florida was still regarded as a hot, buggy, swampy, inhabitable place. “When this style of house was popular, there wasn’t a lot happening here,” says Mark Alkire. “First, there weren’t many people in Palmetto, and second, there was no AC. It was hot.”

That didn’t dissuade Palmetto founder Samuel Sparks Lamb from moving his wife, son and five daughters to town, which he named after his native South Carolina (“the palmetto state”). The Alkire’s home was built by S.S. Lamb’s son Julius in 1899.

In 1919, J. Pope Harllee bought the home, where his family remained until 1991, when they sold the property to the Alkires.

The Carriage House

Out back, a carriage house is filled with Mark’s projects, past and present. There’s an unfinished wood hull racing boat he’s building, a Lotus Seven sports car, five motorcycles, jet skis, a Dodge Viper and a ’72 Sanger hull speedboat called “Lil Miss Laurie” (since 16-year old Lauren is the one who uses it most). Everything in their collection sports an “Alkire Racing” logo, which originated when the kids started racing go-karts.

By Britta Alexander. Photos by Gene Pollux.
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