When Melanie and Paul Wagner purchased Elizabeth Island in the Bahamas, they started with nothing but a caved in-cistern and a ruin of a boathouse that had been abandoned for 50 years. They had to bring everything: barge loads of building materials, appliances, and furniture and today, the “simple life” in the Wagner’s’ private compound in the Lower Exumas features a nearly 360-degree view of the harbor, swathes of lush greenery, several beaches, and the endless blue waters of Exuma Sound.
On their 38-acre property, the couple have freedom to roam, find tranquility, and create art. (In Bahamas fashion, the Wagners have a renewable 2,000-year lease on the island, now sharing it with two other families.)
A boathouse contains the family’s public space, including the kitchen, dining area, office, and laundry. The three-story Cistern House – literally built over the cistern water source – has a master suite on the top floor, where the name of the house, Top of the World, proves itself. On the second floor are three more bedrooms and two baths. The ground floor is divided into a garage, workshop, and art studio. The studio, which overlooks a courtyard, is key to the couple’s working life and a passionate interest: creating art.
Paul Wagner’s father was the late Sherle Wagner, who designed decorative hardware and bath fixtures. Ahead of his time, Sherle Wagner also designed a line of contemporary furniture with materials such as mirror-finished stainless steel and semi-precious stones. Paul Wagner had a career designing for the company and now designs sculptural wood furniture for the family. Many of his pieces and special light fixtures decorate the Bahamas property.
Melanie Wagner designs glass jewelry, constructs sculptures with driftwood and other beach finds, and also paints. Their daughter, Chloe, is a jewelry maker and son Jeremy is an artist, as is his wife, the printmaker Jiyoung Park.
The family’s most sizeable art project is the Bahamas house. “Melanie and I designed and oversaw every aspect of the project, carrying out much of the work ourselves,” Paul Wagner says, including a gazebo they built with their son at the highest elevation on the island, 75 feet.
For two years, the family used hand tools to clear the two miles of trails that weave around the island’s private beaches. They also maintain the protected two-acre marina.
But mostly Elizabeth Island is the same as it ever was. There is no pavement and the lagoon, surrounded by mangroves, has nothing manmade except two floating docks. “We’re very tuned into the beauty of the island,” Melanie Wagner says. The island has meant a lot to the couple. “For both of us, it’s been the freedom to be and do as we please,” Paul Wagner says. “It gives us an independence we’ve grown to cherish.”
Now the Wagners are being lured back to a life closer to their mainland roots and have placed Top of the World on the market. The family will move to another island, the more settled Martha’s Vineyard, off the Massachusetts coast.
Somehow it seems there always will be an island in the couple’s life. “For us,” Paul Wagner says, “the ultimate luxury has been the enjoyment of our lifestyle, surrounded by the natural beauty and crystal-clear waters of the Exumas.”