Coffee and a newspaper on the back porch.
Before the digital age, mornings were a simple pleasure.
Steve and Nancy Bliss are rediscovering those quiet, unplugged moments in a home as time-honored as the bygone daybreak ritual: the circa 1917 to 1920 cottage they lovingly restored in the heart of the Naples Historic District.
“I’ve always loved the cottages in Old Naples and the feel of the neighborhood,” says Nancy. “I felt like we’re living in Florida and we should embrace old Florida rather than try to create something we had in New Jersey. I was having a glass of wine one night and looking online. The cottage had just come on the market.”
The home, dubbed Martha’s Cottage by its original owners, met their modest requirements: It had a yard for Nancy’s garden with the same walkability they enjoyed from their nearby condo. A virtual tour later, Nancy was smitten. “I loved everything about it—the ficus surrounding the cottage, the front gate, the openness inside. I was wearing my rose-colored glasses,” she laughs.
The Blisses moved into Martha’s Cottage in 2017. Their next step, or so they thought, was to update the kitchen.
The Road to Restoration
Like many of Old Naples’ turn-of-the-last-century homes, the cottage is wood-frame construction with board-and-batten walls and a shallow crawlspace running the entire length of the residence. Many of the historic homes don’t conform to current-day zoning restrictions or state building codes, which limit renovations to under 50 percent of the home’s value. As a result, many of the city’s oldest homes have been razed and replaced.
The Blisses’ cottage had truly stood the test of time, enduring the wrath of storms, wind, and saltwater from the nearby Gulf of Mexico. It was built by the Moxleys, a Kentucky family documented in photos and in mentions peppered throughout Collier County’s historic archives and a binder the Blisses inherited with the home. Makeshift repairs and interior updates over the decades had been superficial at best. John Brechel, the carpenter hired for the kitchen remodel, delivered the bad news.
“John told us he wasn’t doing the kitchen,” Steve recalls. “The whole cottage had to be shored up. There were major structural problems. It was being held up by a pile of bricks in one corner.” And tree trunks, too, says Brechel, who specialized in restoring early 1900s homes on Chicago’s Gold Coast before relocating to Naples 16 years ago.
The Blisses’ cottage floor needed to be ripped up to level the home because it was a good 7 inches higher at one corner. “It had to be taken down to the bones,” says Brechel. “It was time to remove the Band-Aids and fix it so it will stand another 100 years.”
“We had renovated older homes before and had been through so much construction; I didn’t think I could do it again,” says Steve. “It wasn’t in good shape at all. John’s news sent us down the road of redoing the entire cottage.”
Steve and Nancy had only a few caveats: They wanted interior modifications to reflect the cottage’s vintage character while providing modern conveniences, and they wanted to phase major renovations so they could live in the house during season. Eventually, the screened back porch was added to their wish list.
Brechel, a general contractor and the owner of Classic Carpentry, had established a local reputation for restoring older homes, including the Naples Historical Society’s landmark Palm Cottage. The restoration of Martha’s Cottage began in earnest in winter 2018 with the Blisses taking up residency in the guesthouse—with their two dogs—while Brechel and his team tackled the floors and foundation.
“My passion has always been restoring things, bringing them back to life,” Brechel says. “I love the challenge, the research, and seeing something transform right before your eyes. Steve and Nancy had a vision for their cottage and Steve told me from the very beginning, ‘I want it done right.’ This type of project really tests your abilities, your talent, and your creativity.”
Brechel sourced the cottage’s reclaimed oak flooring from Chicago, built cabinetry and millwork in his shop, and researched the tiniest details for authenticity. Weather-beaten cedar siding, railings, and other exterior features were replicated with modern materials made to look vintage. “Everything was done in the era to maintain the home’s character, right down to the hardware,” Brechel explains. “The kitchen cabinetry looks hand built. We rebuilt the cottage as it once was. You can’t tell where the old ends and the new starts. It looks like a brand-new 1917 home.”
For the third and final phase—the beloved back porch—Brechel spent a day on Boca Grande, snapping photographs for inspiration.
Sunlight streams through the three walls of windows in the plant-filled porch, which offers a cozy sitting area with two wicker chairs, a breakfast table, and Nancy’s swing. “My porch swing is heaven,” she says. “If anything is bothering you, it just melts away.”
Inside, walls of windows flood rooms with natural light and play off a mélange of bright, saturated color found in turquoise- and white-painted ceilings and the master bedroom clad with a wood-paneled ceiling and wallpaper with a modern palm tree motif (“I call it the tree house,” says Steve). Dragonflies flit about the bathroom walls, and fabrics feature leafy greens and stripes. There’s the occasional hint of pink, too, including Nancy’s desk pushed to a window overlooking the back porch. Colorful paintings by Nancy, artwork collected over the years, plus an assortment of jars, glass, marbles, and antique flower frogs add to the elegant whimsy.
“I thought, ‘Why not have color?’ I didn’t want a serious house. We have a mish-mosh that works,” says Nancy. “I love the openness because it lets me see my collections. This home is my little jewel box.”
In-Town Historic Haven
Windows showcase the tropical landscaping, completed last year by Naples landscape architect Arthur Neumann. Hardscapes were updated with seashell-embedded pavers and clay bricks to create a more natural look and recall the original tabby construction of Florida’s pioneer homes. Neumann also reworked a straight walkway from the alley entry into a meandering pathway that creates a heightened sense of arrival and spent more than a month searching for a trellis to replace the former one that supported an arch of bougainvillea. He also developed a nutritional plan for the faltering ficus and brought in a stonemason to breathe new life into the tile accenting the pool and a guesthouse wall.
New plantings were selected to attract birds and butterflies and provide year-round blooms and a light, white palette to showcase Nancy’s orchids. “It’s very visual. You walk in through a hedge and your eye is moving around,” says Neumann. “You really get a sense of place.” A dwarf ylang-ylang tree—the dominant scent of Chanel No. 5 fragrance—and Tahitian gardenia perfume the air.
The Blisses were fortunate their cottage reappraised at a higher value, allowing them to slip under the 50 percent rehabilitation rule. The Naples Historical Society has since spearheaded legislation—approved unanimously by the city in March 2020—exempting individual historic homes and those in the Naples Historic District, a compact area consisting of 90 parcels and 59 homes in less than one-tenth of a square mile. It was the culmination of five years of work for Naples Historical Society President/CEO Elaine L. Reed, who notes two historic homes were torn down
She hopes the new legislation will educate and encourage potential homeowners to buy and rehabilitate a historic home and demystify some misinformation beleaguering the historic district since its federal designation in 1987.
“This gives homeowners a pathway to rehabilitate our historic homes and do it as painlessly as possible,” says Reed. “These homes are a symbol of our community. The historic character is what makes people move to Naples.”
Nancy Bliss agrees. “Naples wouldn’t be the same without these cottages. It takes a lot of patience and stamina, but it’s well worth it. I just wish we’d done this sooner.”
“Of all the homes we’ve had, this is the one I’m most relaxed in,” adds Steve. “This house has soul. Because of how this house turned out, it makes me love Naples even more.”