A look at a noted architect’s new home in the heart of historic Coral Gables
In his book “The Most Beautiful House in the World,” author Witold Rybczynski puts it quite directly: the most beautiful house in the world is the one you build yourself. While Willy Bermello, the principal of Gables-based Bermello Ajamil & Partners, did not actually build his new home — that accolade goes to The Calta Group — he did design it, right down to the most fanatical detail. And for an architect, that is something of a dream.
Bermello’s new home, completed late last year, is situated across the street from the Biltmore Hotel. It fills part of an open field that has for years been used for everything from overflow parking at the nearby Coral Gables Congregational Church to a resting spot for the police department’s mounted patrol and its horse trailer. Now it is filled, in part, with a 7,000-square-foot all-white architectural fantasy that combines a number of styles, from Florida Pioneer to Neoclassical.
“Spanish Mediterranean architecture is about Spain. I wanted a house that was more American, more the feeling of this country,” says Bermello. “I wanted something that would have some Neoclassical touches, a little bit of Key West, a little bit of the cracker-style house, in a special combination — and certainly, breaking away from the Spanish Mediterranean. I love George Merrick, but yeah, been there, done that.”
The house was not in the family’s master plan, says Bermello, but came about as a result of the pandemic. “Our exercise routine changed from going to the gym, which was closed. The only activity that we had was just walking. So, we started really meeting the Gables and understanding our neighborhood, walking down to the Biltmore and back. And I saw a property [for sale].”
Bermello thought it was “the right time to buy, when people were concerned with what was happening in the world. I thought this would be a buyer’s market.” He ended up buying not the first lot he saw, but the one where he built; regardless, he hit the market at the right moment, just before Florida housing prices skyrocketed with buyers arriving in droves from the Northeast.
The house that Calta Group constructed is not an ostentatious home as much as it is a perfected residence, with everything bespoke to Bermello’s taste. As a collector of (mostly Cuban) art, Bermello was always frustrated by the lack of adequate wall space in his family home for 28 years on Alhambra Circle. His new home provides ample wall space for his oil paintings, as well as numerous wall niches — each lined with gold leaf — for sculptural pieces.
It also contains a small pool in a central inclosure, reminiscent of an Arabic courtyard — with one side up against a wall. This is not permitted for pools, per se, but because of its square footage — 240 feet — Bermello was able to classify it as a “spa.” On one side is an expansive kitchen and family eating/sitting area, on another a glass door to the master bedroom, and on a third a kind of two-story tower capped with a veranda where Bermello goes to smoke cigars and gaze at the nearby Biltmore tower.
“I mean, it’s just special,” says Bermello. “Getting to the house on a Friday [evening] after working long hours, I go upstairs. The sun comes down on the terrace. I’ll have a Presidente beer. I light up a cigar. I put on my 1970s music — Creedence Clearwater Revival — and I’m off and running. I’m there, happy as a lark.”
To get to the tower, Bermello takes a small built-in elevator. He says he is tired of walking up staircases, one reason he placed his master bedroom on the ground floor. Another unique element is a circular dining room on the edge of the house where Anastasia and Malaga Avenues meet and form the tip of a rough triangle. Here, four couples can sit beneath a chandelier in a space that is classical in proportion, with columns lining the exterior.
As remarkable as the structure itself was the speed in which it was built. Breaking ground in March 2020, it was finished in November of 2021, in roughly 18 months.
“A house like this would easily take two years,” says Ignacio Caltagirone, the CEO and co-founder of the Gables-based Calta Group, which specializes in high-end residential homes. “And this was during the pandemic, when things were delayed and [supplies] were hard to come by.”
One reason things moved quickly was because the middleman was eliminated. Normally, there is a three-legged stool in such projects: the architect, the builder, and the homeowner. In this case, the architect and homeowner were one and the same. “Willy had it very clear in his head what he wanted,” says Caltagirone. Another key factor: Caltagirone is married to Bermello’s daughter Alexia. So the dialogue between the two was, at the very least, guaranteed to be cordial.
“There’re always differences between the drawings and what is actually put in place,” says Caltagirone. “You figure things out together a lot of the time. So, if [Bermello] had a general contractor instead of someone in the family being the GC, I think it would have taken a lot longer, just the process of bouncing ideas off each other and resolving issues and taking decisions.” That give and take was critical, considering the complexity of the project.
“The geometry of the house, as a lot, is a trapezoid,” says Bermello. “But once you work the setbacks, what you’re left with to build is an isosceles triangle. So, people ask, ‘What’s so different about that?’ Well, there are walls that are not parallel… every truss that’s above us, every single truss, was a different dimension. And the joinery, instead of being at a 90-degree angle, is at an oblique angle. It’s complex.”
“I saw this as an opportunity to improve what I do, which is build luxury homes here. But I’ve never built anything of this detail or with this difficulty,” says Caltagirone. He considers the home a showcase of the Calta Group’s skills.
As for living in the house, Bermello says it still hasn’t sunk in that this is his new home. “I feel like every Saturday morning, I think I’m going to get a little notice from the front desk [that] you’ve got to go, you’ve got to check out. Because I feel like I’m in a resort. It doesn’t feel like Coral Gables, it feels like I’m somewhere else.”
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