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Issue Date: July 2005 Issue

Built to Last

We've seen the dream houses they build for other people. But what do they build for themselves? We went inside the $1 million-plus homes of three local builders to show you.
Lynne Thompson

Designing and constructing a French chateau-style home in rolling Moreland Hills was an exercise in downsizing for Dino and Libby Palmieri. The 49-year-old Dino, known more for the salons that bear his name than Palmieri Builders, and his 33-year-old interior designer wife had previously lived in an 18,000-square-foot abode nearby, one of the half-dozen residences Dino estimates he has built for himself during his years in the home construction business.

"It just was too much maintenance, to try to keep everything up," says a jeans-clad Libby of her previous address as she leans against a counter in the kitchen of her four-year-old home and finishes a bowl of cereal.

The space in which she stands boasts anigre cabinetry, honed granite countertops, a large center island with vegetable sink, eating area with tray ceiling and massive kitchen table, two dishwashers, a 5-foot Viking range, wood-burning oven, and side-by-side Sub-Zero refrigerator and freezer, each 36 inches wide -- not exactly roughing it by any cook's definition. "I love to cook," she says, as if to explain the setup. "That's about the extent of my domesticity." The two-story, 12,000-square-foot home also has five bedrooms with adjoining full baths and whirlpool tubs, two half-baths, a home office, children's playroom, and a walk-out lower-level too well appointed to be called a basement. The family room, kitchen, living and dining rooms all open onto a deck that provides spectacular views of the surrounding wooded hills. A flight of steps leads down to a patio off the lower level and the back yard, which slopes down to a manmade pond stocked with fish and a ravine with a stream running through it.

"It's got everything you could possibly need," Dino says with pride.

"It's still too big of house," Libby replies.

The first indication that the Palmieris failed in their attempt at downsizing is the two-story foyer, where the towering taupe walls are decorated with a hand-painted chinoiserie-style mural of dogwood branches and native Ohio birds. Dino points out that the French limestone floors are heated, as is the tile floor in the four-car garage. "It's nice, with the weather we have," he says. Beyond the foyer lies the living and dining rooms, elegant spaces with arched vaulted ceilings, windows draped in sheer chocolate-brown silk draperies, and walls wrapped in a mocha paper that shimmers with a subtle bronze overlay. The eye is immediately drawn to the dining-room chandelier, an enormous work of hand-blown Murano glass.

The design is repeated in the hand-blown sconces on the living-room walls.

A short hall to the right leads to the first-floor master suite, a restful retreat of creams and soft greens. The bedroom is endowed with a deep tray ceiling, the limestone bath with the requisite his-and-hers vanities, shower-for-two with multiple showerheads and body sprays, whirlpool tub overlooking the back yard, and a separate room containing a toilet and bidet. A private staircase just steps away from the his-and-her walk-in closets leads down to a lower-level exercise room containing what appears to be every piece of equipment imaginable. "We put the exercise room right beneath our master suite so it would be easier to get up, come downstairs and work out," Libby says. Next door is a bi-level rec room with a barnstone fireplace, pool table, foosball table, seven arcade-style video games, and two TVs, one mounted in each back corner so sports fans can watch more than one event at a time.

The house's contemporary decor is softened by traditional touches, such as the enormous custom-made tassels on the silk cords used to tie back the living- and dining-room curtains and the thick fringe trimming the pillows on the living room sofa. Dino says the result is "a change of pace" from the traditional look of their previous home. The only deviation from the soothing palette of creams, taupes, browns and soft greens Libby chose for the interiors is the family room, a casual hangout off the kitchen with a limestone fireplace, 54-inch built-in television, and granite-topped wet bar lit by a trio of brushed-stainless-steel pendant fixtures. The walls were recently painted a kiwi green, the first step in a gradual remodeling of the room.

"I went kind of bonkers," Libby admits. "When I pulled (the paint) out, the painter was like, ÔLibby, are you sure?' And I'm like, ÔOh, yeah. It's so gloomy out here all the time. Let's just do something really intense and fun.'"

And then there are the children's rooms, which are fantasies unto themselves. The second-floor TV room and adjoining playroom shared by son Tristan, 9, and daughter Raea, 6, sports a hand-painted continuous jungle mural of trees and animals on the walls and rattan armchairs with corded-velvet leopard-print cushions. An 8-foot-high plush giraffe and a life-sized plush baby elephant permanently occupy the TV room. Tristan's blue-and-green room is actually a corner master suite with a circular study area in the brick-and-limestone house's lone barnstone turret.

Libby added architectural interest to Raea's yellow room by installing the facade of a vine-covered playhouse, complete with shingled roof, shuttered windows, double-Dutch door and picket fence, along one entire wall. Inside is a built-in bookcase and child-sized sofa and chairs. "When we moved into this house, Raea was barely 2," Libby explains. "This room was really kind of big. We didn't want her to feel lost in it, so we built the playhouse facade." Butterflies are painted on the walls and ceiling so they appear to be fluttering off the butterfly-print sheers at the room's two windows. More realistic counterparts made of feathers are found lighting on doorframes, walls, etc. throughout the room.

Because the Palmieris entertain so frequently, one might assume that the abundance of space is justified. Libby says she and her husband play host to friends and clients every other weekend at gatherings ranging from dinners for two or three couples to Halloween and Christmas parties attended by a hundred or more. But as in most homes, guests tend to gravitate to the kitchen and family room, no matter how hard Libby tries to lure them into other areas of the house with spreads of food and drink. In fact, the only resident or guest to use the living room with any regularity is the family dog, a year-old Shar Pei named Lola.

"At least someone's using it," says Libby with a laugh as she stops to smooth a rumpled seat cushion on the nubby silk sofa.

It is one of the reasons Dino talks of moving into a smaller home. He is once again eager to begin work on a new house, one that incorporates the latest trends in the building industry. And Libby envies her clients, who are decorating their homes in the bright colors that are currently so popular.

"Instead of remodeling, builders move," Dino says philosophically. "We don't plan on staying here that much longer. We don't know where to go, but we'll find something."

There are plenty of good reasons why a couple acquires a large tract of land and builds a good-sized house. Privacy. Peace and quiet. The space needed to raise a big family or entertain any number of friends and relatives in grand resort style. The desire to buy some horses or some livestock, maybe put in a large garden and a few fruit trees. Take your pick.

Gayle and Don Prebis of the Don-Pre Development Group did it because of their four large dogs.

The explanation the 42-year-old Gayle gives as she sits in a wicker rocking chair on the screened-in porch of her year-old home actually makes a lot of sense. Early in their marriage, she recounts, Don fell in love with one of the model homes he built in a nearby subdivision, a 5,000-square-foot traditional brick abode set on two acres. The couple sold their first place, a farmhouse on 26 acres in Hinckley, to take up residence there. The house was certainly nice enough. But it had been decorated in a formal style, with cream-colored carpeting and cream-colored tile floors that showed every pawprint -- not to mention the tracks left behind by Don's muddy work boots.

"It was just a constant struggle to keep it clean," Gayle remembers. "I had three golden retrievers and a shepherd mix, and they'd come in just filthy. And when we had a big party, there was no place to put them. They'd have to race through the house, get in amongst everybody."

Add the fact that the dogs had nowhere to run, and you have a couple looking to move. Gayle and Don eventually bought 11 acres approximately three miles away from that house and began work on a 7,000-square-foot brick-and-shake-shingle structure with an eclectic decor that would better suit their needs.

"Our whole intent was to downsize," Gayle says. "But we didn't want the dining room any smaller because we entertain a lot and have big families. The family room and the kitchen couldn't be any smaller. You start saying what rooms are important, and the next thing you know, the house just grows and grows and grows."

The house has plenty of Fido-friendly features, to be sure. The most obvious is a "dog room" equipped with a doggie door that provides access to a fenced-in run near the four-car garage and a "dog shower" -- a shower base with 4-foot-high cultured-marble walls and a hand-held personal shower -- where Gayle bathes the animals. The couple added a first-floor master suite because one of the golden retrievers, a recently departed pooch named Topper, had difficulty climbing stairs. And Gayle selected the taupe carpeting in the family room and master suite, as well as the ceramic tile in the kitchen, because it would conceal whatever dirt the dogs (and Don) might drag in. She notes that the hardwood floors in the front hall and dining room are actually amendoim, an exotic wood that is harder than oak and therefore less likely to be scratched by the dogs' nails.

"Having wood floors and having dogs don't always go hand in hand," Gayle says knowingly.

But the two-story dwelling is endowed with plenty of creature comforts for humans, too. Architecture buffs will notice, for example, the "This Old House" details 48-year-old Don included in the construction -- arched doorways, thick moldings and baseboards, fluted door casings, etc. "We always use poplar," Gayle says of the trim, "because you can paint it or stain it." She calls attention to the paneled maple wainscoting along the front-hall stairs, the triple-tray ceiling in the master bedroom, and the mosaic of limestone, sandstone, granite and marble inlaid in the front-hall floor. The feature is repeated over the cooktop in the kitchen and the whirlpool tub in the master bath.

"Everybody loves the look and feel of old homes, but no one wants to fix them up," Gayle says. "So you try to make your new house look like it has some age to it, some character."

Perhaps the most impressive example of woodwork is in the two-story dining room. Two identical sections of granite-topped custom cabinetry connected at the top by a graceful arch and dental molding dominate one wall. Gayle explains that the space between the built-ins was created specifically to house her cherry Williamsburg-style buffet. The glass-fronted cabinets on top, she adds, are a substitute for the matching hutch she never got around to buying. The cabinetry was painted an off-white and glazed to give it an aged finish that contrasts but doesn't clash with the cherry furnishings and amendoim floors. Eight-foot sliding-glass doors lead to the screened-in porch, which overlooks a 3/4-acre manmade lake.

While the soft-green dining room is literally the centerpiece of the first floor, the living room is conspicuously absent.

"We had one in the home that we just left, and the only time it was ever used was for our Christmas party," Gayle says.

"It was a complete waste."

A butler's pantry featuring a wall faux-finished to resemble a grapevine-covered stone counterpart and arched ceiling painted to look like a cloud-strewn sky leads to the sunny yellow kitchen, with its maze of Shaker-style maple cabinetry punctuated by bookshelves, plate racks and more glass doors. The island has bun feet, a touch that gives it the look of a freestanding piece of furniture. "I love to bake," Gayle enthuses as she shows off the warming drawer installed underneath her cooktop and the two wall ovens beside it. The kitchen opens onto a family room with a vaulted-and-beamed ceiling, walls faux-finished to resemble Venetian plaster, a built-in entertainment center, and rustic stacked-stone fireplace flanked by sidelights. The latter serve as showcases for a pair of stained-glass panels depicting birds perched on flowering branches made by Don's late father. The bird motif is repeated in a mural hand-painted on the powder-room walls and another stained-glass window installed over a landing in the front-hall staircase.

"My mom and dad loved cardinals," Gayle says, "so I have cardinals all over the place."

A large portion of the walk-out basement has been finished to create a nautical-themed rec room. Amenities include a stacked-stone fireplace, wet bar and Don-Pre Development's trademark feature: a built-in "pub seat," this one made of pine and lit by a Tiffany-style hanging fixture Don's father made. There's also an exercise room for Gayle and a full bath shared by both spaces. Outside is a stamped-concrete patio that puts residents and guests just steps from the lake and a burbling stream created by a manmade waterfall installed in the back yard. The couple is planning to build a flight of stairs from the open deck area off the screened-in porch to the patio so more people will enjoy it.

The second floor consists of three bedrooms, one of which has an adjoining bath. The other two each have in-room vanities and share a toilet and shower stall located between them -- the couple's version of a Jack-and-Jill bath. Don, who demanded a better view than the one provided by the study off the front hall, turned one bedroom into his office. A floating staircase leads to a single third-floor room known as "Don's Retreat." The lodge-like space, inspired by the couple's former vacation home on Atwood Lake, is finished in split-log siding and furnished with easy chairs, a television, telephone, under-counter refrigerator and built-in microwave. The private deck offers breathtaking views of the undulating countryside.

"Sometimes we think we live in the mountains," Gayle rhapsodizes. "It's hard to leave here."

When Chris Pastel of North Olmsted-based Miller-Pastel Builders began breaking ground on houses in the tony Westlake subdivision of Capel Vale, he decided to eliminate the daily commute from his North Royalton address by building one for himself. The stately English country-style abode, constructed of handmade brick and accented by thick limestone casings around the windows and doors, was for all intents and purposes built as a model home. He and wife, Leslie, who move every three or four years, decorated the 5,800-square-foot house with resale in mind, choosing high-end neutral finishes -- carpets and paints in creams and taupes, for example -- and traditional furnishings. "But we started making selections more for us," says Leslie, a 42-year-old advertising account executive for WKYC-TV 3, as she sits with her 50-year-old husband at the kitchen table and gazes out 9-foot-wide sliding-glass doors to the stamped-concrete patio and backyard beyond. The result is a beautiful yet unpretentious haven that invites people to sit down and stay awhile.

"With the stress levels of people today, we wanted a home that you can just come into and relax," Chris says.

The heart of the 2-year-old home is undoubtedly its kitchen, a well-appointed space with custom cherry cabinetry, beveled-edge granite countertops, and limestone floors that accommodates up to 18 people "cocktailing," as Chris puts it, yet manages to retain an air of intimacy. "We're not black-tie entertaining types," says Leslie, who prefers to cook with a old-fashioned range rather than a microwave. Two easy chairs nestled in a bay window next to a fireplace provide a cozy spot for guests to relax and chat with Leslie while she cooks. A bar at the island and a large kitchen table that easily seats six supply additional seating. In a corner near the table are a built-in wine rack, small sink and under-counter refrigerator with a glass door that displays the array of libations available for consumption.

Other kitchen features include a commercial-grade stainless-steel range with decorative hand-painted stone insert over the backsplash, a 42-inch refrigerator, built-in convection and microwave ovens, and a dishwasher. But the room's most outstanding feature is undoubtedly its cabinetry, with its hand-carved rope moldings, baluster trim, and a fireplace mantel with fluted legs.

The carpenter's art is well represented throughout the house. The adjoining two-story family room, which pulls double duty as the couple's more formal living space, boasts a fireplace flanked by stacked-and-arched windows with a mantel supported by two hand-carved corbels. According to Chris, the paneled section above the mantel, which stretches to the vaulted ceiling, was installed as a handsome backdrop for the 50-inch flat-screen plasma television mounted there. The powder room has a cherry vanity with a curved top that, with its vessel-style sink, looks like a freestanding piece of furniture instead of a built-in cabinet. And Chris's office is a masculine domain of cherry coffered-and-beamed ceilings, 7-foot-high paneled wainscoting, and the same Brazilian cherry floors found in the foyer.

More architectural interest can be found in the dining room, an area off the foyer defined by 8-inch-wide columns and a reverse tray ceiling covered in an embossed cream wallpaper that mimics the look of painted pressed tin. "I didn't want the metal, so our painter brought some wallpaper books over," Leslie remembers. Another embossed paper was used to provide the look of ornate plasterwork under the chair rails on the burgundy-painted walls. French doors open onto a courtyard, where the couple plans to add a cafe set for more formal al fresco dining. The first-floor master bedroom is endowed with double crown moldings, a bay window and Miller-Pastel's trademark deep tray ceiling, this one accented by hand-painted leaves and vines and subtle lighting hidden in the poplar trim. A spacious bath with a steam shower for two and large adjoining walk-in closet complete the master suite.

"If I'm up early getting ready for work, I can be in here, and it doesn't disturb Chris," Leslie says of the arrangement. Chris adds that the sealed steam shower prevents any moisture problems from developing in the closet, a portion of which is located directly behind the unit.

A poplar staircase featuring hand-carved newel posts and custom-made wrought iron spindles leads to the second floor, which consists of three bedrooms with attached baths and a yet-to-be-furnished "bonus" room. (An area of "dead space" at the end of the hall, a portion of which overlooks both the family room and foyer, was finished as a utilitarian space for wrapping gifts.) The entire second story, Leslie explains, is heated and cooled by a separate system that can be turned down or off when the rooms are not occupied. The second master suite, built and decorated with Leslie's mother in mind, has a large, bright white bath with striking cobalt-blue granite countertops and a claw-foot soaking tub Leslie favors over the whirlpool tub in the first-floor counterpart.

An open staircase from the foyer to the finished basement provides access to more storage, another full bath, and an enormous recreation area outfitted with a brick fireplace and wet bar. The furnishings include a pool table, craps table and slot machine. Leslie admits that the couple's two dogs, a Labrador retriever and golden retriever, play more here than she, Chris and their guests. The couple does, however, make use of the exercise room next door, which sports a mirrored wall and rubber tile floor. A utility room houses the furnace, one of two on-demand water heaters, a central vacuum system, and the guts of a whole-house audio system. But Leslie reveals that her husband's favorite toys aren't in the finished lower level or, for that matter, the heated three-car garage -- they're in the first-floor laundry room. He gets a big kick out of the high-tech GE Profile Harmony washer and dryer.

"They talk to each other," Leslie explains. "You put the clothes in the washer, and then it tells the dryer what's in there, so you just throw the stuff in the dryer."

"That's all I get out of this house," Chris jokes.

The washer and dryer, that is, and plenty of business. Regardless of how long the Pastels remain in residence, the house appears to have served its purpose well.

"Most of the people that we bring through here, we wind up building them a home," Chris says.

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