words by Juliet Johnson // image by Agnes Lopez
In 2005, Mary Tappouni bought a crumbly chopped up mess of a house in Jacksonville’s oldest existing suburb, Springfield. She intended to explore several new green products and processes, and then sell the restored 1905 home to someone else. She had already rehabbed a 1920s house in Riverside, and was quite familiar with the process, both professionally and personally. Green restoration was improving at a rapid pace and Tappouni was excited to put it into action.
Tappouni loves old homes. In fact, she was such a history buff growing up, that her four older siblings thought for sure she would wind up a history professor. Actually, wound up a licensed general contractor and president of Breaking Ground Contracting. More than a preservationist, Tappouni is a pioneer. You can still count on one hand the number of female owners of commercial and residential construction companies in Jacksonville. Count Tappouni among them. If anyone was going to do right by this fragile 1905 home, it would be her.
The Satchett House, as it was known, had been a boarding house during WWII. When Tappouni purchased it, it was in bad shape—the result of extensive damage from both water and powderpost beetles.
Six months of structural work shored up the joists and saved the graceful staircase. The original fir wood floors on the second floor weren’t in a terrible state, and there were enough bits and pieces from other parts of the house to restore them to their full glory. Their warmth and depth of character lend a quiet stature to the bedrooms and upper sanctuary. Replaced wood from the framing of the house went into handcrafted recessed shelving tucked under the stairs.
Old houses, of course, tend to have quirks—it’s part of what makes them so appealing. Here, the first quirk comes via a side-entranced front door. A small foyer opens straight onto the original staircase with parlors to the left and right. All of the first floor is painted with the same soothing green with bright white trim; it makes the space feel open, calm and welcoming.
To the right is a small parlor with a charming Victorian fireplace, the first of three in the home. The fireplaces were originally built for coal and are narrow. Eventually, they will be retrofitted for gas, but are capped for now. New tile replaces what couldn’t be saved (“It would just crumble in your hands,” sighs Tappouni).
This parlor, besides being the domain of Raisin—a 17-year-old tabby cat—acts as the TV room. This was a clever move, as it means that the other side of the house—the kitchen and the larger family room— is quiet, making it ideal for visits, deep conversation, reading and creativity.
Knitted poufs provide movable seating in both rooms along with simple sofas from Crate and Barrel. Other pieces fill in from CB2 and local sources. Romantic, imaginative floral arrangements throughout the home are remnants of the family’s Easter celebrations, courtesy of Rose of Sharon European Florist.
An original pair of sliding pocket doors connects the TV room to the dining room where a round lampshaded chandelier lights a round dining table. “Round is an important shape for me. I like round tables, big round lighting pieces,” says Tappouni. “Everything comes back upon itself. It’s the journey of life.”
Between tall windows hangs a striking single panel of ferns, painted partly by artist Joanelle Mulrain. During a WomenBuild event back in 2008 for Habi-Jax, Mulrain brought a canvas every day. Everyone on the build would contribute and paint some part of it. The recipient of the home has one panel, and when Tappouni was finishing up her dining room, she bought another. “It has the perfect dimensions and reminds me of how much beauty we can create when we work together in community.”
Throughout the home the ceilings vary between ten and twelve feet in height. In the kitchen, though, the ceiling was dropped “to make it a little more intimate,” says Tappouni.
From the dining room one approaches the kitchen via a hallway that spans the length of the home. Along the way, you pass a powder room, walk-in larder with elegant frosted glass door, and an inset bookshelf made from remnant timber.
The kitchen is open to a family room. That the kitchen is a normal size for today’s “mod cons” is thanks to additional space gained from a structurally precarious exterior porch. The kitchen also connects to a new attached garage—built to resemble a 1905-style carriage house.
Another equally precarious porch on the second floor had to be addressed in a different manner. Incredibly, it hangs over the property line and is grandfathered thanks to having been there for longer than 50 years. The building inspector was adamant, however, that the porch would have to come down if any part of the home’s exterior was touched during renovation. So, it had to be renovated from the inside out. The space has since been transformed into a zen-like area—albeit, one that hangs above the neighbor’s driveway.
Elsewhere on the second floor, united by the original fir floors are two large bedrooms—the master and main guest room—plus a single bedroom and two spacious bathrooms. The master bedroom is a lusciously soothing and surprisingly spacious retreat.
“When I renovated before, in Riverside, we didn’t get a chance to finish [the master bedroom],” says Tappouni. “We put off the less visible projects. Here, I was determined to fully deliver on my vision for the home and to make it all my space.”
Throughout the renovation, the homeowner took care to not only use products that would emit fewer toxins for the home’s occupants, but also be safer for the crew to work with. And it wasn’t long before this sweet old house started to tug on her heartstrings. The more care she poured into the restoration, the stronger her connection to the house grew. As the house emerged from ruin, slowly starting to shine once more, it began to embrace its patron. When the economic downturn inevitably hit, it was this quiet, calm house that kept Tappouni focused on her mission and in touch with what she deeply cares about—sustainable, responsible living.
Looking ahead, Tappouni is embracing The Passive House, a German movement where each build adheres to a rigorous voluntary standard for energy efficiency, water conservation and a reduced ecological footprint. The structures are airtight “ultra-low energy buildings” that require little energy for heating and cooling. Air quality, efficient heat recovery and insulation take primary significance.
“What sustains me is that I don’t just have a construction company,” she says. “I have something that is engaged with the community, something that teaches something to others. It’s more of a reaching out; I don’t just build buildings. Anyone can build buildings. A lot of people do that, and do it well. I wanted to make a difference.”
Since breaking the glass ceiling in local construction, Tappouni continues to break ground, in Springfield and around the community, every day.