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AMBASSADOR’S SUITE

Friday, January 1, 2016
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When Mary Ourisman, a former United States ambassador, told a Palm Beach town councilman that she had bought 300 Regents Park Road, a house in the island’s tony Estate Section, he was more than a little bemused. The 6,900-square-foot home, built in 1958 in a clean-lined style sometimes called Palm Beach Regency, had good bones and great promise, but it was also dated and in need of major work. The water-damaged living room floor had never been repaired after a hurricane blew an anchor through a skylight, and the house was shoehorned onto a narrow lot with no space to expand either front or back.

“He said, ‘My wife has always loved that house,’” recalled Mrs. Ourisman, who bought the home for $3.8 million in 2012. “Let me know if you can figure out what to do with it, because you’re either going to deserve all kinds of kudos or you’re the craziest person I know.’”

The councilman proved prescient. Ever since the completion in late 2014 of a nearly two-year rehabilitation project, the kudos have been rolling in, culminating in December with the presentation of the Robert I. Ballinger Award to the ambassador and her husband, Mandy, by the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach. The honor is given annually for outstanding restoration or renovation of historic architecture.

“We don’t want things frozen in time, sitting in formaldehyde,” said Alexander Ives, the foundation’s president. “We want houses that have their history but are a living part of their community, and that’s what they’ve done here with an addition that works seamlessly.”

The Ourisman home is in Regents Park, one of two Regency-style Palm Beach communities built in the late 1950s and early 1960s by self-taught architect Clarence Mack. The enclave, five column-fronted, symmetrically balanced residences arranged around an oval parterre, was named the first new historic district in 25 years by the Town of Palm Beach last spring. The Preservation Foundation’s campaign to extend such landmark protection to Regents Park had gained new urgency after the approval in 2014 of a demolition request from the owner of a house in Parc Monceau, the other Regency-style enclave Mack designed. That house was recently razed.

Regents Park could easily have suffered a similar blow to its architectural cohesiveness if not for the vision of Mrs. Ourisman and the design team at William R. Eubanks Interior Design. From the moment they saw the house, the ambassador and her designers, Mr. Eubanks and D. Mitchell Brown, loved the home’s gracious proportions and generous 12-foot ceilings, which are unusual for the island. But they felt the residence and its grounds needed to be adapted to the 21st-century Palm Beach lifestyle.

Mack was known for rooms that are overscaled by period Palm Beach standards, one flowing into the next in a commodious manner. “Unlike some of the Mediterranean houses of that era, which have lower ceilings or a lot of halls, Regency houses just go from room to room,” Mr. Brown said. “You have classical columns and dentil moldings, but at the same time it’s a big, open, tropical environment.”

Grace and scale notwithstanding, however, the house lacked a terrace for outdoor entertaining, a staple of contemporary Palm Beach living. The main entrance of the house is on its southern elevation, and its western side opened onto a long, narrow yard that ran right up to the bank of the Intracoastal Waterway. “But outside there was nothing there,” Mrs. Ourisman recalled. “It was the size of a football field, but there was no loggia, no tented area, no dock, nothing to protect you from the sun.”

The ambassador took the vacant yard as an opportunity. “I love to paint,” she said, “and it was like a great blank canvas where you could add anything you liked.”

Mrs. Ourisman, the U.S. ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean from 2006 to 2008, is an avid swimmer, so she and her designers built a 60-foot swimming pool, giving it a cobalt blue interior that lent it the vivid, shimmering quality of a reflecting pool. Along the western side of the house, they decided to add a covered loggia, an outdoor dining and lounging area topped with a classical pediment supported by columns. As a reference for the new loggia, the ambassador provided the Eubanks team with a photograph of a well-proportioned pediment on another Regents Park house, ensuring that the new pediment would blend organically into Mack’s original design.

“We and the Ourismans really wanted to keep the integrity of what was there,” Mr. Eubanks said.

The overall consistency of design was furthered, too, by a pair of matching balustrades flanking the new pediment, which were created with a mold taken from an original baluster on the main façade. To precisely match the cornice profile from the existing house, the Eubanks team rejected their contractor’s suggestion that the loggia’s cornice be made out of four-foot cast-stone sections, which might have left visible vertical seams. Instead, the new cornice was painstakingly troweled with stucco.

“We have very skilled stucco craftsmen here in Palm Beach,” said David Gengler, the Eubanks firm’s in-house architect. “They custom-made the troweling tools to match the three-stepped trim.”

The loggia gave the Ourismans three new outdoor spaces protected from the elements: a dining room, a living area, and a cozy fireplace area where Mr. Ourisman likes to smoke his cigars and watch football games. (Above the limestone mantle, a wooden overmantle with a faux-limestone finish is equipped with cleverly concealed doors that open up to reveal a television.)

At sunset, the vista from the loggia can be breathtaking: the long, shimmering pool flanked by pagodas and sago palm trees; the generous expanse of green extending to a handsome new dock; and beyond, the blue waters of the Intracoastal Waterway, with a sun the ambassador describes as “the brightest red I’ve ever seen” going down behind Bingham Island, a densely wooded Audubon bird sanctuary.

The outdoor living area from which the Ourismans and their guests take in this view is furnished with latticework sofas upholstered according to a very specific standard.

“We had the colors of champagne, rock crystal, and a little ocean blue in our heads the whole time we were selecting upholstery for the house,” Mr. Eubanks explained, pausing just a moment before purring, “which of course are also the colors Mary Ourisman looks best in.”

Photos by Andy Frame.


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