Before & After: A Modest Midcentury in Miami Expands Around a Lush Courtyard
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Before & After: A Modest Midcentury in Miami Expands Around a Lush Courtyard

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By Melissa Dalton
Brillhart Architecture protects the home’s old-growth trees and adds two sleek wings for an oasis setting.

In Miami’s desirable Coconut Grove neighborhood, a small residence designed by architect Trip Russell in 1948 would have been slated for demolition if not for its seat on a double lot, which allowed Brillhart Architecture to intervene with an elegant, 3,000-square-foot addition. At 1,260-square-feet, the original one-bedroom had a low-lying roofline, concrete block construction, and exposed wood rafters—all hallmarks of its era. Protecting its midcentury spirit, preserving the existing trees, and adding two contemporary wings, Brillhart Architecture has created a refined home that embraces its tropical setting.

Before: Exterior

Before: The 1948 house was designed by Trip Russell, a well-known local architect, and sits on an 11,800-square-foot lot in the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami. Smaller homes such as this one are vulnerable to demolition, but Brillhart Architecture designed additions to flank Russell’s structure. "We wanted people to walk up to the gate and see the original house," says Brillhart.

Before: The 1948 house was designed by Trip Russell, a well-known local architect, and sits on an 11,800-square-foot lot in the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami. Smaller homes such as this one are vulnerable to demolition, but Brillhart Architecture designed additions to flank Russell’s structure. "We wanted people to walk up to the gate and see the original house," says Brillhart.

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When Brillhart Architecture was approached by a developer to expand the original Russell home for resale, the notable challenge for the firm was not only to preserve Russell’s design, but the trees that surrounded it. To do so, they flanked the original midcentury home with two new wings—a one-story kitchen wing connected to the rear, and a two-story living/bedroom wing on one side—to create a home that’s now 4,041 square feet. 

The additions form a rear courtyard, keeping those old trees intact. "In great tropical houses, courtyards are always the nucleus of the space," says architect Jacob Brillhart. 

After: Exterior

"Most homeowners would tear the whole thing down and start fresh," says Brillhart. "But it made for a much more interesting project, preserving a little bit of Russell’s legacy and then adding two new wings on each side of the building." An ipe fence now lines the front of the property, and the two-story wing can be just glimpsed through the trees on the left.

"Most homeowners would tear the whole thing down and start fresh," says Brillhart. "But it made for a much more interesting project, preserving a little bit of Russell’s legacy and then adding two new wings on each side of the building." An ipe fence now lines the front of the property, and the two-story wing can be just glimpsed through the trees on the left.

Keeping the established trees was extremely important to the firm. "As an office, we don’t like cutting trees down. We feel that the trees give the site a sense of history, and it makes the place feel like it has some meaning," says Brillhart. "We designed all the buildings and the new pieces to weave in and around the landscape. One of the goals of our office is always to make the architecture subordinate to the landscape." 

Such an approach was also appropriate for the neighborhood. "Coconut Grove is known for its tropical tree canopy," says Brillhart. 

Before: The Entry

Before: The original house was constructed from CMU blocks with exposed wood rafters and a tongue-and-groove roof deck, which was painstakingly restored. "Trip Russell was a modernist and was coming out of that era of the Case Study houses in L.A.," says Brillhart.

Before: The original house was constructed from CMU blocks with exposed wood rafters and a tongue-and-groove roof deck, which was painstakingly restored. "Trip Russell was a modernist and was coming out of that era of the Case Study houses in L.A.," says Brillhart.

Before: The siding had a bullseye painted on it.

Before: The siding had a bullseye painted on it.

After: The Entry

The facade received fresh paint, as well as new impact-resistant windows. The two-story addition rises behind it. "Given that the two-story wing was larger than the existing structure, it was critical for the new building to appear as lightweight as possible," says the firm. "The reading of concrete, which is an almost universal residential structural system in South Florida, would have been too heavy against the reading of the low-slung wood roof of the original house."

The facade received fresh paint, as well as new impact-resistant windows. The two-story addition rises behind it. "Given that the two-story wing was larger than the existing structure, it was critical for the new building to appear as lightweight as possible," says the firm. "The reading of concrete, which is an almost universal residential structural system in South Florida, would have been too heavy against the reading of the low-slung wood roof of the original house."

Before: Living Room

Before: The layout of the 1,260-square-foot interior was reorganized for flow and brought up to code. 

Before: The layout of the 1,260-square-foot interior was reorganized for flow and brought up to code. 

After: Living Room

Tall, double-glass doors foster sightlines to the rear courtyard, while two Matteo armchairs from Wayfair cozy up to the fireplace. The homeowners worked with interior designer Claudia Rozo to hone the interior palette.

Tall, double-glass doors foster sightlines to the rear courtyard, while two Matteo armchairs from Wayfair cozy up to the fireplace. The homeowners worked with interior designer Claudia Rozo to hone the interior palette.

During construction, the project found new homeowners in Suzanne Goldstein and Dana Greenwald, both retired. Having lived in historic houses before, the couple were struck by the property’s charm. "We liked the fact that this house had a history," says Goldstein. "This home has a soul to it," adds Greenwald. "It gives us the joy of the history and of modern living."

Before: Kitchen 

Before: The previous kitchen was very small and tucked next to the living room.

Before: The previous kitchen was very small and tucked next to the living room.

After: Kitchen

The kitchen and dining areas now occupy the new, single-level wing and also overlook the backyard via the glass wall. Silestone countertops waterfall over walnut cabinetry, and exposed wood rafters overhead received a coat of whitewash. 

The kitchen and dining areas now occupy the new, single-level wing and also overlook the backyard via the glass wall. Silestone countertops waterfall over walnut cabinetry, and exposed wood rafters overhead received a coat of whitewash. 

Before: Pool and Backyard

Previously, the rear facade connected to a pool area that ran perpendicular to the house. Several sets of double doors with mullions impeded sightlines outside. 

Previously, the rear facade connected to a pool area that ran perpendicular to the house. Several sets of double doors with mullions impeded sightlines outside. 

The pool was covered, while the rest of the landscaping was left untouched.

The pool was covered, while the rest of the landscaping was left untouched.

There was enough space on this side of the house to host the new two-story addition. Both wings were kept one-room deep, or 15 feet wide, to correspond to the depth of the Russell house and keep the scale of the interiors intimate.

There was enough space on this side of the house to host the new two-story addition. Both wings were kept one-room deep, or 15 feet wide, to correspond to the depth of the Russell house and keep the scale of the interiors intimate.

After: Rear Courtyard

The kitchen wing now sits in roughly the same area as the pool used to. Says Brillhart: "The one-story wing is CMU block with exposed wood rafters—a similar system to Russell’s but a little more 21st-century."

The kitchen wing now sits in roughly the same area as the pool used to. Says Brillhart: "The one-story wing is CMU block with exposed wood rafters—a similar system to Russell’s but a little more 21st-century."

The pool was relocated, and the couple redid its finishes with the Tuttle Pool Company, installing Pebble Tec, a waterfall feature, and surrounding it with modern, large-format pavers. 

The pool was relocated, and the couple redid its finishes with the Tuttle Pool Company, installing Pebble Tec, a waterfall feature, and surrounding it with modern, large-format pavers. 

A view of the new kitchen wing. "We weren’t trying to mimic Russell’s architecture, but we were trying to be sympathetic to the structure and the materiality in our additions and renovations," says Brillhart.

A view of the new kitchen wing. "We weren’t trying to mimic Russell’s architecture, but we were trying to be sympathetic to the structure and the materiality in our additions and renovations," says Brillhart.

An outdoor lounge area is tucked into the juncture made where the new kitchen wing joins with the renovated Trip Russell house.

An outdoor lounge area is tucked into the juncture made where the new kitchen wing joins with the renovated Trip Russell house.

The couple tapped landscape designer Carlos Somoza to capture the wildness of the site throughout the landscape plan. This grove of old-growth trees was saved, with new ipe hardscaping wrapping around them.

The couple tapped landscape designer Carlos Somoza to capture the wildness of the site throughout the landscape plan. This grove of old-growth trees was saved, with new ipe hardscaping wrapping around them.

The two-story addition hosts the master suite and a living area downstairs, and two bedrooms upstairs. It’s constructed of steel, concrete, and glass, to convey a "lightweight" quality that communes with the original, midcentury architecture.

The two-story addition hosts the master suite and a living area downstairs, and two bedrooms upstairs. It’s constructed of steel, concrete, and glass, to convey a "lightweight" quality that communes with the original, midcentury architecture.

Carlos Somoza "really brought the project home," says Brillhart. "With our hope of the architecture being connected to landscape, you need a great landscape architect on-board, and we had that in Carlos."

Carlos Somoza "really brought the project home," says Brillhart. "With our hope of the architecture being connected to landscape, you need a great landscape architect on-board, and we had that in Carlos."

After: The New Wing

"The nice thing about the second floor is that it’s like you’re living in a tree house," says Brillhart. "It’s really a magical Coconut Grove experience."

"The nice thing about the second floor is that it’s like you’re living in a tree house," says Brillhart. "It’s really a magical Coconut Grove experience."

In the master suite, there’s an ipe accent wall behind the bed and large-format porcelain tile on the floor. The homeowners relish the preserved trees. "One of my favorite details is that when we wake up in the morning, we’ve got this gorgeous Banyan tree outside with orchids blooming like crazy around the trunk," says Goldstein. "Just waking up to that is spectacular."

In the master suite, there’s an ipe accent wall behind the bed and large-format porcelain tile on the floor. The homeowners relish the preserved trees. "One of my favorite details is that when we wake up in the morning, we’ve got this gorgeous Banyan tree outside with orchids blooming like crazy around the trunk," says Goldstein. "Just waking up to that is spectacular."

Before: Floor Plan

Before: Malaga Residence floor plan

Before: Malaga Residence floor plan

After: Floor Plan

After: Malaga Residence floor plan

After: Malaga Residence floor plan

More Before & After:

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Project Credits:

Architecture: Brillhart Architecture / @brillhart_architecture

Builder: iBuild Miami (Exterior) Laurion Construction (Interior and Landscape)

Structural Engineer: ASD Consulting Engineers & CSE Engineering

Landscape Design: Carlos Somoza Landscape Architecture

Interior Design, including cabinets: Update Design

Sound Engineer: Elliott Mason and Sound Components

Closets: Turen Closets

Doors: Dayoris Doors

Pool: Tuttle Pool Company

Outdoor kitchen and Ipe wood pergola: Miles of Wood

Landscape contractor and horticulturist: Debra DeMarco of DDM Horticultural Services, Inc

Consulting arborist: Jeff Shimonski