INSIDE VICTORIAN COUPLE’S DESIGNER RETIREMENT RETREAT
From faulty family villa to modern beach house.
From faulty family villa to modern beach house.
Australian retirees William and Catherine Parsons have settled down in a frontline beach house on the country’s south coast, about a 90-minute drive from Melbourne.
They took the long way home.
Back in 1995, Mr. Parsons, now a 71-year-old retired airline pilot, and his wife, 57, a retired nurse, spent $258,000 on a 1/7th-acre lot on a windy bluff on the, leading to the Port of Melbourne.
Their original plan was to raise their two daughters in a new 371sqm villa, completed in 1998, but faulty construction, they said, culminated in the home’s demolition in 2016. That fiasco paved the way for a $2.1 million do-over with new architects and new builders.
For several years the family endured makeshift living arrangements, including homeschooling their children, now adults, during extended overland trips on four continents, or “road schooling,” as Ms Parsons likes to call it.
Finally, in the autumn of 2019, the couple moved into a new 353sqm, four-bedroom home.
The three-story house has a concrete-and-eucalyptus facade sealed against potentially heavy winds and corrosive salt spray. The second floor has a sheltered terrace and pool area accessible from the split-level open living and dining area that highlights ocean views.
The couple make the most of the site, says Mr Parsons, with the help of poured-concrete walls and double-glaze windows. “We’re extremely exposed,” he says, “but the new house is rock solid. With the doors and windows closed, we can just hear the ocean. When they’re open, it’s like a train going past.”
Known for ideal surfing and hang-gliding conditions, the couple’s stretch of peninsula is a dunescape. They went for a wild look with $71,000 in landscaping, opting for low-maintenance indigenous species and a naturally planted roof garden.
The couple worked with Auhaus Architecture, a Melbourne studio specialising in upscale single-family homes. Kate Fitzpatrick, an Auhaus principal, estimates it costs an extra $160,000 to $200,000 to build on their site rather than on a sheltered inland lot. Benjamin Stibbard, her fellow Auhaus principal, says that the peninsula’s predominant southern winds, blowing most days off the ocean, can cause “rain that is horizontal,” adding that the house is “as waterproof as a bathtub.”
The peninsula can also have hot sunny spells in January and February, with temperatures well over 100 degrees. The couple spent $412,000 on concrete, and their double-thick walls help keep the house cool in summer and warm in winter.
The main section of the house includes a top-floor master suite and lower-level granny flat, while an adjoining single-storey wing, separated from the rest of the house by the $79,000 pool area and reached by a first-floor corridor, has bedrooms for their visiting daughters, as well as a music room and a yoga deck.
To navigate the main portion of the house, the couple spent $52,000 on an elevator—an upgrade, jokes Ms Parsons, of the previous home’s dumbwaiter. But their major splurge, they say, was a spiral staircase.
“I have always had a thing for staircases,” says Ms Parsons of the $87,000 set of stairs, which has a looming sculptural presence when viewed from the pool and terrace.
The interior of the home tends to rely on dark elements, including eucalyptus panelling, but the staircase itself is painted gleaming white—at her architects’ suggestion, says Ms Parsons.
She might have opted for the original battered-silver of the unpainted steel, she says, but the white, she decided, “looks elegant.” On the whole, it “takes away the brutality” of the bare concrete walls that show traces of the wood forms used to shape them on site.
The kitchen has a hushed quality due to blue-green Japanese tiles, which give the back wall a dark iridescence. Left over from the master bathroom, one of four in the home, the single-glaze tiles were a last-minute substitute for a continuation of the veined white marble used for a countertop.
“The sun can be glaring in summer,” says Ms Parsons, “but there is something so lovely and soothing about looking at the kitchen—it’s like looking into a rock pool.”
The kitchen cost nearly $111,000, with $46,000 spent on a suite of American appliances from Wolf and Sub-Zero.
The staircase led to a second splurge: the placement of an antique piano that Mr Parsons inherited from his grandparents. Too big for the winding stairs, it was moved into the children’s wing with a crane while the house was still under construction.
“It was our first piece of furniture,” says Mr Parsons of the 19th-century upright, made in Dresden, Germany. Mr Parsons plays mainly classical music, while his daughters when visiting from college, may join in on the flute, guitar or ukulele. The plentiful concrete boosts the acoustics.
Settled into their new home at last, the couple have an easier time visiting nearby fellow retirees: Mr Parsons’ parents. “My father is 102 and my mother is 100,” he says, “and they’re still going strong.”
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’
Gail and Ron Fink’s property in Jupiter Inlet Colony sustained major damage during an unusually windy day. ‘The whole backyard is shot. All the landscaping is gone.’
Gail and Ron Fink weren’t home the day the ocean swallowed their backyard.
The Florida couple, who are in their 70s, were a few miles away on Feb. 6—an unusually blustery day in the Sunshine State—as waves pounded their beachfront property in Jupiter Inlet Colony, sweeping sand, dirt and trees out to sea. When it was all over, the Finks’ newly-built, roughly 10,000-square-foot home was intact; so too was their free-form swimming pool, improbably balanced on exposed concrete-and-steel pilings.
“That’s what saved the whole thing,” said Ron, founder of an air- and-water purification company. “The pilings are holding up the house and pool.”
Drone footage and pictures from local photographers and the Finks’ builder show the severity of the destruction, which left their pool suspended in the air, with pipes protruding from the earth. Town officials said erosion claimed 7 to 10 feet of sand and created steep drop-offs in front of about half-dozen homes, including one belonging to Kid Rock , the rapper-turned-country rocker, who paid $3.2 million for the property in 2012. Conair heiress Babe Rizzuto also sustained damage to her property down the street, which she bought for $6.3 million in 2015 and currently has listed for $22.5 million, according to Zillow. Neither responded to requests for comment.
But the Finks house, located just past the end of a granite revetment wall—a kind of sea wall—bore the brunt of the heavy wind and waves.
“The whole backyard is shot. All the landscaping is gone,” said Ron. Also gone are fully matured Palm trees and an ipe-wood deck. “It’s out floating in the ocean someplace.” Ron is self-insured and the repair work will be quite expensive. undefined
A New Jersey native, Ron is an engineer by training who worked at nuclear-testing sites in California and Nevada before moving to Florida in the 1980s. He is the founder of RGF Environmental Group, which makes air- water-and food-purification systems.
For almost 40 years, the Finks—who have three adult children and eight grandchildren—have lived in Admirals Cove, a gated community in Jupiter about 5 miles from their new house. They paid $180,000 for the Admirals Cove lot in 1987 and built a roughly 6,000-square-foot house, Ron said. The Finks also own homes in the Cayman Islands and Bahamas.
Ron said they began looking for property in Jupiter Inlet Cove years ago. “It’s a neat place, just a closed little colony right on the ocean, low key and quiet,” he said.
About 20 miles north of Palm Beach, Jupiter Inlet Colony is at the southern tip of Jupiter Island. The town, founded around 1959, has approximately 240 homes and is surrounded on three sides by water—the Atlantic Ocean, Jupiter Inlet and the Intracoastal Waterway. Long a destination for wealthy homeowners, homes in Jupiter Inlet Colony tend to trade for between $2 million and $5 million, although one sold for $18.6 million in January, according to real-estate brokerage Redfin. Last year, a home on the Intracoastal sold for $21.4 million, a record for the town.
In 2020, the Finks paid $4.9 million for a vacant beachfront lot and subsequently built a coastal-style house with a copper-and shake-style roof, covered loggia, pool and outdoor fire pit. “You know, it’s kind of a dream home,” Ron said. “We have built quite a few homes, but this is the end of the line for us, hopefully the last one.”
He said the property originally belonged to the singer Perry Como, one of the town’s first residents. A prior owner demolished Como’s house, and when the Finks bought it, there were concrete-and-steel pilings sticking out of the ground.
Ron Fink said he never removed about 60 pilings, he simply added roughly 30 more. “Now I’m glad I did,” he said. (Pilings are based on the design of a house, so Ron retained some pilings that he didn’t necessarily need.)
John Melhorn of design-build firm Thomas Melhorn, which built the house, said the Finks were a final review away from obtaining a certificate of occupancy when the backyard was destroyed. “They were right there at the goal line,” he said.
Melhorn said the erosion began in late October amid unusually high winds and ocean swell. During the first week of February, sand beneath a row of sea grapes that stabilized the dunes between the house and ocean began to wash away. By the evening of Feb. 6, the plantings disappeared. The yard was gone by the next morning.
Melhorn said a pre-existing, low wall between the ocean and house—described as a cinder-block retaining wall on land surveys—also washed away, as did a walkway and steps to the beach. But he said the 2-foot-high wall was less of a retaining wall and more like a curb between the street and sidewalk. In this case, a prior owner used it to hold sea grapes back from encroaching on the property. The Finks replaced the wall with decorative stone, now lost to the ocean. An outdoor fire pit is still there, cantilevered over the ocean. “We tried to pull as many things out as we saw the erosion coming, but we lost a lot,” Melhorn said.
In Florida, erosion is increasing because of more frequent, more severe storms and sea-level rise, said Cheryl Hapke, a research professor at the University of South Florida and the chair of the Florida Coastal Mapping Program. But she said it isn’t just hurricane-level storms that cause major damage. “One thing I have found about barrier islands [like Jupiter Inlet Colony] is that sometimes a series of smaller events can have as big an impact as a major hurricane,” she said. “But people get caught off guard. It’s something they don’t think of.”
In Jupiter Inlet Colony, longtime residents said this month’s erosion is the worst the area has seen in years, possibly ever.
Mayor Ed Hocevar, who has lived there for 17 years, said it has been a particularly cool and challenging winter with an abnormal number of Nor’easters. On Feb. 6, local news channels warned of high winds, with gusts between 40 and 50 miles an hour. (There were also reports of an earthquake off the coast that week, causing high waves.)
Since the 1980s, Jupiter Inlet Colony has had a granite rock revetment wall that extends from the northern end of the community past 11 oceanfront homes. “But we’ve got 28 homes along the beachfront, so it isn’t complete,” Hocevar said. “Where the wall ended is where the significant damage occurred.” Hocevar said he doesn’t know why the wall wasn’t completed, although local lore is that homeowners building the wall ran out of money.
Last week, the town hired a local mining company to bring in 7,000 tons of sand to replace what washed away. Hocevar said it would cost about $500,000, which will come out of the town’s reserve fund. Long term, he said, extending the revetment wall isn’t a strong possibility.
Hapke, the coastal geology expert, said that in recent decades, sea walls and hardened structures have fallen out of favor as scientists discovered they are detrimental to the environment around them. “Storm water wants to flow, so it will redirect water to the area without a sea wall,” she said, adding that the most ideal long-term solution is to move homes away from the coastline.
Hocevar, 67, who has been mayor of Jupiter Inlet Colony for about a month, said the town is working closely with the Department of Environmental Protection on its response. He said the DEP’s recommendation, should erosion like this occur again, is to bring in more sand. Hocevar emphasised that the community is rallying together. “Think about it as a fortress and your wall has been breached,” he said. “You want to protect your neighbourhood and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”
Holly Meyer Lucas of Compass, who represented the seller when the Finks purchased their property, said Jupiter Inlet Colony is a “special little enclave” where sales exploded during Covid. “Listings sell after a day or sell off-market,” she said.
Lucas said the consensus among local real-estate agents is that property values will hold, despite the erosion. “I think this is a really rare, weird, fluky event,” she said. “I’ve sold everywhere up and down the coast and I’ve never heard of anything like this.”
Babe Rizzuto, whose house is two doors down from the Finks, listed her house for $24.5 million in December 2023 and cut the price to $22.5 million on Feb. 6, according to Zillow.
“She’s going to continue to sell,” said Milla Russo of Illustrated Properties, who is marketing the property with her husband, Andrew Russo. “Even though the timing isn’t great, it is what it is.”
Russo said there has been erosion in the past, and during hurricanes residents of Jupiter Inlet Colony are the first in the area to evacuate. But in general, people are not preoccupied with the weather. “Maybe because we live here, when the hurricanes come, we all have hurricane parties. We go to people’s homes and we barbecue and grill. Of course we’re careful and we lock up and all that, but weather is weather,” she said. “We’ve never been terribly scared.”
(The Russos were also involved in selling the Fink property. However, in 2020 the closing agent on the deal, Florida-based Eavenson, Fraser & Lunsford, PLLC, sued Milla Russo and Illustrated Properties as part of a commission dispute. The seller, Michael Cantor’s Range Road Developers, was named as a defendant and cross-plaintiff in the suit, in which a judge ruled in favor of Eavenson, court records show. Milla Russo declined to comment on the suit. Eavenson declined to comment beyond the judge’s findings and Cantor did not respond to requests for comment.)
Ron was also matter-of-fact about the state of beachfront living. Bring a life jacket, he jokingly told a photographer who inquired last week about taking his picture.
However, the Finks are facing weeks of costly repairs. Although the town is bringing in sand to replace the decimated beachfront, the couple is self-insured and will be on the hook for the cost of rebuilding. Several major home insurers have pulled out of Florida, and Ron said insurance on the house would have cost $100,000 a year. Now, he estimated they could face about $1 million worth of repair work. “We gotta eat it,” he said.
The couple, who was supposed to move into the house this month, has put those plans on hold—for now. An engineer recently inspected the property and deemed the house safe, Ron said. “We’re doing wallpaper today,” he said. “We can put it back together again.” The patio and pool area, meanwhile, are roped off while the area underneath is backfilled with sand.
Ron said being near the ocean makes it worthwhile. “I just love the ocean, we both do. It’s important to us,” he said. “It isn’t easy to look at, but I’ve been through a lot worse.”
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’