When Deena Bell Llewellyn signed on to design the landscape for a prominent home on Florida’s Biscayne Bay, she found herself with a dream assignment: an expansive piece of oceanfront land and an unlimited budget.
But for Bell Llewellyn – one of Ocean Home’s Top 50 Coastal Landscape Architects of 2017 for the second year running – the best part of the project was the perspective of the homeowners, a couple with several homes around the world who were captivated by the Miami area and wanted to spend most of their time on the South Florida coast.
“These are clients who appreciated what a landscape could bring, in terms of utter creativity, construction and design,” says Bell Llewellyn. “They really understood that landscape architects are not simply gardeners. This was about whatever we could dream up.”
And dream she did. Bell Llewellyn and her six-person staff at Bell Landscape Architecture in Miami – along with general contractor Louis Gaines, owner of Canterbury Homes in Miami, and a sizable crew of subcontractors – approached the two-and-a-half-acre property as a masterful piece of living art.
The sweeping property, set around an elegant and traditionally styled Florida home, is a lush portrait of verdant plants and features that define several separate areas, including seven water features, a stunning yoga pavilion and a new car space for the owners’ automobile collection.
“They didn’t want any outdoor space to look like the other,” says Bell Llewellyn, the 2017 President-Elect of the Florida Chapter of ASLA (American Society of Landscape Architects).
“Each space was to have a different feel,” she adds. “I was completely excited; we were able to be as creative as we wanted to be.”
The project’s grand size and scope also presented its biggest challenge: Bell Llewellyn and her team were charged with melding the main property – the setting for a 20-year-old residence, Casa Baja – with a large swath of empty hardscape to the north, which the couple had purchased to build a guesthouse addition to the home.
“The most important thing to me was blending these two large properties,” Bell Llewellyn recalls. “The original landscape had lots of trees; the second space had nothing. It was very challenging to pick materials – trees, palms, paving materials – that appeared to give it instant age and blend.”
This called for some ingenious maneuvers. The first step, Bell Llewellyn says, was to transplant mature palm trees – some 50 years old – on the vacant lot, to lay the foundation for a seamless connection between the two properties.
“If there were eight coconut palms [in the existing garden], we found a place to put three or four on the adjacent property,” Bell Llewellyn says. Many of the palm trees were transported to the site by barge across Biscayne Bay when they proved too big to deliver street side.
Some of the trees, 20 and 30 feet tall, were lifted gingerly by crane over the house. After the trees were set, the crew planted different sizes of shrubs in masses “to make it look like they had grown in over time,” Bell Llewellyn says.
The mature trees and vegetation went a long way to blend the new lot with the adjoining original site. Today, there are several areas of flowers in bloom, many in variegated tones of yellow, purple, fuchsia and blue, which contrast appealingly with the deep-yellow stucco house, all combining to generate the aura of a lush tropical retreat.
The homeowners also wanted the property to reflect their extensive global travels; both have visited more than 100 countries.
“Their style is extremely eclectic,” Bell Llewellyn says. “In their home, every room is very different. Modern is mixed with antiques from all over the world, yet all is very cohesive and unified. We took inspiration from that interior style.”
The landscape has the same wonderful freethinking spirit. Bell Llewellyn and the architect hired to design the guesthouse, Ramon Pacheco, AIA, of Pacheco-Martinez & Associates in Miami, incorporated subtle touches to reflect a rich worldliness, such as Portuguese-inspired blue and white tiles placed under some exterior windows, contrasting prettily with the roof of handmade terra cotta.
On the home’s street side, Bell Llewellyn retained the property’s natural tropical feel while making it more functional. She and her team incorporated a new driveway, which is enhanced by a refurbished antique fountain; a cobblestone driving court; and a roomy car park tucked under the new addition and softened by tropical gardens.
While the husband, a nature photographer by avocation who is drawn to rich colors, helped choose the flowers for the landscape, Bell Llewellyn and her team worked with him to specify many of the other plants.
The first priority, she says, were plants that could withstand scorching sun, heavy wind and saltwater and that didn’t require a lot of water, such as the palms. Bell Llewellyn and the irrigation designer set up a high-tech system that uses town gray water on specified zones.
This, along with the landscape architect’s efforts at massing plants with the same water needs, saves precious freshwater. “There may be twice as many irrigation heads as a lot of other projects,” she says.
The ocean side of the home – where Bell Llewellyn did most of her work – shows what a professional landscape architect can achieve when given free rein. The roomy shoreline, where many guests arrive by boat, has far more to offer than beautiful flowers and palms.
Several water features include a 45-foot swimming pool edged with travertine stone, a lily pond and a fountain with bronze frogs. Under the house – 12 feet from ground level to comply with flood zone laws – is an outdoor kitchen and barbecue area.
Near the new guesthouse is a beautiful Asian-inspired sculpture consisting of three blocks of black granite, which produces a peaceful tinkling sound. Behind the guesthouse is a large open lawn, where the philanthropic couple holds frequent fundraisers.
With the help of a lighting designer, Bell Llewellyn developed a creative lighting plan centered on “moonlighting,” or positioning lights in trees, for a soft effect.
Around the swimming pool and lily pond are brighter, ever-changing colored lights “for a fun, fanciful effect,” she says. The lights are low voltage and energy efficient, with anti-corrosive, long-lasting fixtures of copper or bronze.
The pinnacle of the project may be the Asian-style yoga pavilion, a favorite of the woman of the house. Designed with mellow colors and soothing Eastern-style arches and rooflines, the pavilion is set over a lily pond with exotic koi. The pond appears to float for a meditative effect.
Two stone urns, filled with pink and purple desert roses, decorate the entrance. The urns, which Bell Llewellyn found hidden in a corner of the property, were rescued and refurbished. “I didn’t want everything we put in to be new,” she says. “Blending old with new creates a feeling of age.”
In the garden next to the pavilion is a beautiful black granite bench that Bell Llewellyn designed through her signature Bell-la Furnishings line, and had fabricated by Pan American Marble & Stone in Miami.
She founded Bell-la Furnishings, which includes custom lines of planters, fountains and other landscape items, built by local artisans, when she couldn’t find the products she wanted.
The Biscayne Bay commission ultimately became a multi-million-dollar landscape design, winning an Award of Merit from the Florida Chapter of ASLA in 2012. It also proved to be a professionally satisfying project for Bell Llewellyn, architect Pacheco and the rest of the team.
While her firm has accomplished some large landscape projects – most in southeast Florida and the Caribbean, including a seven-acre property in the Florida Keys – Bell Llewellyn feels especially fortunate to have helped create Casa Baja.
“Most of our projects are one acre or less,” she says, “so this was a real luxury.”
Image Credits: Photographs by Steven Brooke.