A family prepares to say goodbye

Cleaning out your heart’s closet takes place at the same time you clean out the garage when selling a home, especially when you helped build that house nearly 30 years previously. Both require a lot of time—longer, in many instances, than you had planned.

Danny and Terry Sell said they wanted, at first, to have their parents’ home at 12121 SE Heckler sold by the end of October, now long passed. Their father, Robert, died in August this year, and their mother, Frances, had died in 2002.

Danny moved home 17 years ago to lend a helping hand to his aging parents, and Terry, who lives in Palmetto Bay in southern Miami-Dade County, stays in Hobe Sound now to help his brother sort what was stored in their family home, price it and carry it out to the driveway set up for yard-salers. Every room in the house is stacked with boxes, countertops cluttered with knick-knacks standing in line for their time and place in the sun.

“Some things, like Dad’s tools, just can’t be sold at a yard sale,” Terry says. “They are unique. Some of them are one-of-a-kind, so they’ve got to go on e-bay, where there are more people who can appreciate them, can understand what they are.”

Robert Sell’s brother-in-law had been a machinist for S&K Tool, so Robert—who had owned an elevator company and was a well-driller in Miami—often became a tool tester for him. A tool extended the skill of his hands, and allowed the mechanics of his mind to perform, so he kept every single one—even if they were never mass-produced. His garage is a treasure trove for tool collectors.

“Father was always building a rig for something,” Terry recalls. “He built a little rig when we were building this house to help put up walls, to help get the roof on. Here it is; here’s a picture of one of his rigs.”

Terry gingerly pulls one of hundreds of snapshots of the house under construction from a yellowed, plastic sleeve in one of a dozen photo albums. Each album documents a particular phase of construction, from the empty lot to the celebratory party that took place one year and one day after construction began in 1981, ending the day after Father’s Day.

The family moved to Hobe Sound from Homestead, because their father had accepted a position as an elevator inspector for Martin County. The home, though, had been a dream of their mother’s for some time. She had searched for an appropriate blueprint—to which she had access as the secretary to a plumbing contractor. The family spent evening after evening perusing the plans she had brought home from work each day.

Then they found the plans that pleased the whole family, modifying them to suit the lot they had purchased and their mother’s particular wishes.

“There’s no other house like this one anywhere in the world,” Terry says. “The closest one is a house in Xanadu (in Jupiter) and you’d never know the house had started with the same plans, because it’s situated on their lot with the front door facing the street.”

The front door of the Sell house faces the driveway, orienting the house vertically on the lot rather than horizontally. Their mother also insisted that skylights be installed in the master bathroom upstairs to grow her African violets, and that the “bridge” from the second-floor foyer to the master suite upstairs be extended to the other second-floor bedroom.
The result is two master suites upstairs with a bannistered walkway that overlooks the vaulted living room below. There is another bedroom and bath downstairs, and on the patio is a half-bath. Separating the kitchen from the living area is a table-height bar.

“The smallest bedroom is 15′ x 13′,” says Terry, “so it’s really a comfortable house.”

Its most stunning feature is the two-story, stone fireplace in the corner of the living area. A Hungarian-born stonemason whose name is long forgotten built the chimney and also covered the interior post with orchid watauga, a stone quarried in Tennessee, its slightly purple cast the rarest of watauga stone colors. It also covers the barbecue outside, which shares its flue with the fireplace.

“He used 21 tons of stone, pulling them up the ladder one bucket at a time, and there’s 21 feet of draft in that chimney,” Jerry says with a grin. “We don’t have to worry about the chimney smoking inside the house, and that barbecue is just unbelievable.”

Another homeowner’s chore they did not want to worry about was painting the house, so the exterior stucco covering the first floor was tinted sage green. The second floor is sheathed in cedar planks that need only to be pressure-cleaned occasionally.

“If you live here, you never have to paint a house again,” he adds. “That is, if you like green.”

The light color of the stucco forms a soft backdrop to the lush landscaping that was Terry’s particular interest. He would not permit his father to cut down any of the trees on the lot prior to construction, moving them instead to new spots, where they have thrived, particularly a palm south side yard and an areca palm in the back that shades the patio.

“My mother, though, is the one with a green thumb,” he says, as if she still occupied their home. “She could get anything to grow. She had plants everywhere, even before we got finished with the house, she was moving her plants here. A tiny shoot would become a monster vine in just a few weeks.”

She also was delighted to discover that hummingbirds were a fixture of the habitat in Hobe Sound, and her sons are convinced that her desire later to add an in-ground swimming pool was not for exercise, but so she could better watch the hummingbirds flit around her plants.

The sliding glass doors that open from the living room onto the patio disappear into pockets in the wall, opening one wall of the house to the outdoors. These small touches make the biggest difference in the Sell house, Terry says, many of them go unseen or unnoticed. They happened during construction.

“Father did not believe in monolithic slab construction,” he says. “Not on sand, which is what you’ve got here in Hobe Sound, so he went with footer-and-stemwall construction.”

Robert dug a footer about two and half feet deep, filling the trench with rebar and concrete, building up the interior with tons of additional sand, covering that with sheets of Visqueen—a construction plastic—before pouring a six-inch slab of concrete.

“And he let that slow-cure for 30 days under a water sprinkler,” Terry says, “before he started the walls, which were block, and which I filled with Vermiculite. So the footer is tied to the columns, and the columns are tied to a poured concrete tie-beam…even the planter box beside the front door has a footer and tie-beam.

“We didn’t miss much,” Terry adds, who was around 18 when the house was built, spending all his free time giving his dad free labor. “I mostly took pictures. Danny and Bobby (a now-deceased brother) escaped the worst of it because they were not living in the area then.”

Terry was attending college at FIT when the housing construction started. “This house pretty much ended my college education, but I did learn a lot, that’s for sure.”

Filling the hollows of cement blocks with Vermiculite was a tip Terry got from a construction contractor, who told him that it improved the insulation properties of the block. And it works, according to Terry. Even the walls between the garage and the house are well insulated, as are the walls surrounding each of the bathrooms.

“That’s one thing you don’t want to have to listen to…to someone doing their bathroom business,” Terry says, as he shakes his head, “and we never had to.”

Other touches not found in conventionally built homes include the framing for the second floor. His father used 2 x 6 boards instead of the 2 x 4’s in the exterior walls that were called for in the plans, and he doubled each of the 2 x 4’s in the interior walls. The interior doors are solid-core doors.

He also laid conduit for all the electrical wires, instead of the now-popular Romex. He used higher-rated insulation than the plans called for, Terry adds, and he built the house three inches higher from the crest of the road than was required by the county.

“He drove inspectors crazy. They didn’t know what to think,” says Terry, as he points to the 6-inch deep window panes above the glass doors. “They wanted to deal only with contractors, not owner-builders, and they certainly did not know…or want…to deal with someone who did more than what he had to. Sometimes, they would just stand there and shake their heads.”

But Robert and Frances Sell planned never to move away from Hobe Sound, and they wanted to live in a house that would be a bulwark to the storms that sometimes threatened off the coast. They wanted to be sure also that their home would stay dry in spite of the fact that the house lay only a few hundred yards from the Intracoastal.

“I had to talk my dad into going up that extra three inches (with the foundation),” Terry says, “but it paid off. He was a happy man when he discovered that it cut the cost of his flood insurance in half—at least, it did then.”

The only part of the house that’s been changed over the years was a new roof of wind-resistant asphalt shingles that replaced the original cedar shakes. The landscape also has matured and includes a 12′ tall magnolia tree.

“The landscaping really has been neglected,” Terry says. “I’ve got to spend some time out here trimming bushes back and cleaning out the beds. I’m the one who designed the landscape originally, but the yard is not something that anyone else takes any interest in … not since Mom is gone.”

The house generally reflects the absence of a woman’s touch, and many potential buyers would consider the house dated. The kitchen counters are Formica-topped, as is the breakfast bar, and the appliances are almond. The floors are an Italian white clay tile, in good condition, but the carpeting in the bedrooms is worn, Terry says. It’s unlikely, though, that the brothers will replace it.

“There are a lot of little things that need to be done,” he adds, pointing to a tear in the patio screen, “but it’s mostly figuring what to do with all this stuff. And if someone wants stainless steel appliances, they’ll have to buy them for themselves.

“That stainless steel stuff is so much work to maintain,” he says, “you’re always having to polish ’em. I just don’t understand why anyone would want them in their kitchen.”

He and Danny recognize that the housing market remains depressed, that it’s not an ideal time to sell an asset, but they also need to settle the estate since they have another sibling to consider and the possible loss of their father’s homestead exemption to absorb at some point.

“There’s also a small mortgage on the house,” Terry says, “so there’s just too much piled up at one time that would allow us to keep the house.”

Danny concurs, though it is especially difficult for him since he was living at home to care for his parents.

“Pop shouldn’t have died,” he says quietly. “It never should’ve happened.”

He recounts the day that his father fell and hit his head, requiring an emergency trip to the hospital. Doctors suspected a brain bleed, he says, but did not schedule the CAT scan at another hospital quickly enough to prevent his death.

“It was that darned medication, those blood-thinners that they had him on that killed him,” Danny says, his still-raw emotions revealing themselves in the timbre of his voice. “He never should’ve died.”

Though having entered his 80’s, his father still was able to putz around the garage, watch sports on TV with his sons, share each others’ company and the pleasures of their Hobe Sound home.

“Well, we can’t go back,” Danny adds, “and the neighborhood itself is changing. We’ve had four deaths in this neighborhood over the past year. Things are gonna change around here…it’s definitely the end of an era, especially now that Pop is gone.”