Arthur Neumann, a landscape architect updated the hardscape with natural seashell embedded bricks and clay pavers to echo pioneer tabby construction. Marc Rasmussen Photography

On the back porch, a newspaper and coffee. 

Before the digital age, mornings were simple pleasures.

John Brechel

Nancy and Steve Bliss have been re-discovering the unplugged moments in a home, as time-honored as the old daybreak ritual. They restored a cottage in the heart of Naples Historic District that was built between 1917 and 1920. 

“I’ve always loved the cottages in Old Naples and the feel of the neighborhood,”Nancy. “I felt like we’re living in Florida and we should embrace old Florida rather than try to create something we had in New Jersey. I was sipping wine one night while looking online. The cottage had just come on the market.”

The home, dubbed Martha’s Cottage by its original owners, met their modest requirements: It had a yard for Nancy’s gardenWith the same level of walkability as their condo. The virtual tour was a hit with Nancy. “I loved everything about it—the ficus surrounding the cottage, the front gate, the openness inside. I was wearing my rose-colored glasses,”She laughs. 

The Blisses moved into Martha’s Cottage in 2017. They decided to renovate the kitchen as the next step.

Foundation piers, structural floor systems, and the entire first floor were reconstructed. Photography by Marc RasmussenReconstructed foundation piers, structural floor, and the entire first-floor were all restored

The Road to Restoration

Like many of Old Naples’ turn-of-the-last-century homes, the cottage is wood-frame construction with board-and-batten walls and a shallow crawlspace running the entire length of the residence. Many of the historic homes don’t conform to current-day zoning restrictions or state building codes, which limit renovations to under 50 percent of the home’s value. As a result, many of the city’s oldest homes have been razed and replaced.

The first-story floors and staircase are capped with reclaimed white oakReclaimed oak is used as a cap for the staircase and first floors.

The Blisses’ cottage had truly stood the test of time, enduring the wrath of storms, wind, and saltwater from the nearby Gulf of Mexico. It was built by the Moxleys of Kentucky. family documented in photos and in mentions peppered throughout Collier County’sThe Blisses also inherited a binder and historic archives. Interior updates and DIY repairs were mostly superficial over the years. John Brechel, the hired carpenter to remodel the kitchen’s interior, gave the bad news.

“John told us he wasn’t doing the kitchen,” Steve recalls. “The whole cottage had to be shored up. There were major structural problems. It was being held up by a pile of bricks in one corner.”And tree trunks, too, says Brechel, who specialized in restoring early 1900s homes on Chicago’s Gold Coast before relocating to Naples 16 years ago.

Impact-rated windows with muntin bars match the original window style.Windows with impact-rated ratings and muntin bars match the original style.

The Blisses’ cottage floor needed to be ripped up to level the home because it was a good 7 inches higher at one corner. “It had to be taken down to the bones,”Brechel. “It was time to remove the Band-Aids and fix it so it will stand another 100 years.”

“We had renovated older homes before and had been through so much construction; I didn’t think I could do it again,” says Steve. “It wasn’t in good shape at all. John’s news sent us down the road of redoing the entire cottage.”

Steve and Nancy had only a few caveats: They wanted interior modifications to reflect the cottage’s vintage character while providing modern conveniences, and they wanted to phase major renovations so they could live in the house during season. They added the screened-in back porch to their wishlist.

General contractor and carpenter John Brechel built custom cabinetry, millwork, siding, and railings, and resurfaced teak deckingJohn Brechel, general contractor and carpenter, designed custom cabinets, millwork and siding, as well as railings and resurfaced teakwood decking.

Brechel, a general contractor and the owner of Classic Carpentry, had established a local reputation for restoring older homes, including the Naples Historical Society’s landmark Palm Cottage. The restoration of Martha’s Cottage began in earnest in winter 2018 with the Blisses taking up residency in the guesthouse—with their two dogs—while Brechel and his team tackled the floors and foundation.

A custom bed in the guesthouse doubles as a bookcase and cabinetA custom-made bed

“My passion has always been restoring things, bringing them back to life,” Brechel says. “I love the challenge, the research, and seeing something transform right before your eyes. Steve and Nancy had a vision for their cottage and Steve told me from the very beginning, ‘I want it done right.’ This type of project really tests your abilities, your talent, and your creativity.”

Brechel sourced the cottage’s reclaimed oak flooring from Chicago, built cabinetry and millwork in his shop, and researched the tiniest details for authenticity. Modern materials were used in order to reproduce exterior features like railings or weather-beaten cedar siding. “Everything was done in the era to maintain the home’s character, right down to the hardware,”Brechel explains. “The kitchen cabinetry looks hand built. We restored the cottage as it was. You can’t tell where the old ends and the new starts. It looks like a brand-new 1917 home.”

General contractor and carpenter John Brechel built custom cabinetry, millwork, siding, and railings, and resurfaced teak decking.

For the third and final phase—the beloved back porch—Brechel spent a day on Boca Grande, snapping photographs for inspiration. 

Sunlight streams through the three walls of windows in the plant-filled porch, which offers a cozy sitting area with two wicker chairs, a breakfast table, and Nancy’s swing. “My porch swing is heaven,”She says. “If anything is bothering you, it just melts away.”

The front porch was completely reconstructed and the original teak deck boards were resurfacedThe front porch was completely reconstructed and the original teak deck board boards were resurfaced.

Inside, walls of windows flood rooms with natural light and play off a mélange of bright, saturated color found in turquoise- and white-painted ceilings and the master bedroom clad with a wood-paneled ceiling and wallpaper with a modern palm tree motif (“I call it the tree house,” says Steve). The bathroom walls are home for dragonflies. Fabrics are made from leafy greens and stripes. There’s the occasional hint of pink, too, including Nancy’s desk pushed to a window overlooking the back porch. Nancy’s paintings are colorful and include artwork that she has collected over the years. You will also find a variety of glass, marbles, and antique flower frogs. 

“I thought, ‘Why not have color?’ I didn’t want a serious house. We have a mish-mosh that works,”Nancy. “I love the openness because it lets me see my collections. This home is my little jewel box.”

Steve and Nancy Bliss requested the addition of the back porch—home to her relaxing swing and morning solitudeSteve and Nancy Bliss requested the addition of the back porch—home to her relaxing swing and morning solitude.

Historic Haven in In-Town

In windows, you can see the tropical landscaping created by Arthur Neumann (Naples landscape architect). Hardscapes were updated with seashell-embedded pavers and clay bricks to create a more natural look and recall the original tabby construction of Florida’s pioneer homes. Neumann also changed the straight path leading to the alleyway entrance into a meandering pathway that gives the visitor a sense of arriving. He searched for a replacement trellis to support a bougainvillea arch for over a month. Neumann also devised a nutrition plan to help Ficus, and brought in a stonemason to give new life to the tile accenting pool.

New plantings were selected to attract birds and butterflies and provide year-round blooms and a light, white palette to showcase Nancy’s orchids. “It’s very visual. You walk in through a hedge and your eye is moving around,”Neumann. “You really get a sense of place.” A dwarf ylang-ylang tree—the dominant scent of Chanel No. 5 fragrance—and Tahitian gardenia perfume the air. 

The cottage is full of bright, saturated color in accents and finishes, such as palm tree motif wallpaper in the master bedroom on the second floor.Accents and finishes throughout cottage use bright, saturated colours, such wallpaper with a palm tree motif in master bedroom on second level.

The Blisses were fortunate to have their cottage appraised at an even higher value, which allowed them to slip below the 50 percent rehabilitation rule. The Naples Historical Society has since spearheaded legislation—approved unanimously by the city in March 2020—exempting individual historic homes and those in the Naples Historic District, a compact area consisting of 90 parcels and 59 homes in less than one-tenth of a square mile. It was the culmination of five years of hard work by Elaine L. Reed,CEO Naples Historical Society. She noted that two historic houses had been destroyed.
Last year. 

She hopes that the new legislation will help potential homeowners learn how to restore and buy historic homes. It will also clarify misinformation about the historic district that has plagued it since its 1986 federal recognition. 

Lush greenery surrounds the Bliss home.The Bliss home is surrounded with lush greenery.

“This gives homeowners a pathway to rehabilitate our historic homes and do it as painlessly as possible,”Reed. “These homes are a symbol of our community. The historic character is what makes people move to Naples.”

Nancy Bliss is also in agreement. “Naples wouldn’t be the same without these cottages. It takes a lot of patience and stamina, but it’s well worth it. I just wish we’d done this sooner.”

“Of all the homes we’ve had, this is the one I’m most relaxed in,” adds Steve. “This house has soul. Because of how this house turned out, it makes me love Naples even more.”

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