If you take the St. Charles streetcar out from the center of New Orleans toward Audubon Park, you'll eventually trolley into the Garden District, an exclusive old neighborhood known for gracious homes and gorgeous green spaces. It's a place where you want to linger and imagine what life might be like in one of those privileged leafy estates. If you wander into the 7,000-square-foot emporium called Garden District near downtown Naples, you can indulge similar lifestyle musings. And you will certainly find both the inspiration and the objects to realize anything you might conjure up for improving and embellishing your Florida outdoor spaces.
Garden District is owned by Rufino and George Hernandez, two brothers, from the close-knit Cuban family that has owned and operated Golden Gate Nursery for more than 20 years. In recent years, they say, their customers began wanting more than foliage.
"They'd come in asking to see fountains, garden statuary, furniture, art and things like that," says Rufino. "And because here in Southwest Florida we live in our outdoor spaces as much as we live inside, George and I could see there was a big part of the retail market that wasn't being addressed. Garden District fills that niche by catering to the garden lifestyle."
Besides the endless enchanting array of Scalamandre throw pillows ($175), ornamental pottery, garden books, fountains, trellises, candles, benches, statuary and even portiere (a custom fabric treatment used to conceal ugly metal support columns on screened pavilions), there are two major reasons to visit Garden District right this minute. One is that the brothers Hernandez have the area exclusive on Smith & Hawken tools and garden furniture in both wicker and teak. How nice to be able to see and handle this stuff and not have to deal with catalogs and online buying. The furniture starts at about $99 for an accent chair and advances to about $1,200 for the Belmont sofa that was used at Wimbledon this year. It has reversible outdoor-friendly cushions; and the fabric is Sunbrella, which means the upholstered furniture is safe from sun, mildew and rain. The sofa (and matching chaise, chairs, ottoman and various tables) are crafted of synthetic wicker and look just like the loomed furniture that graced the luxury boxes at Wimbledon in the 1920s.
Another reason to scurry down to Garden District is to experience the line of furniture California design authority Joe Ruggiero has created for Terra. You should know Ruggiero from Homes Across America and many other style specials for HGTV. He was at Garden District last month to meet with consumers and present an informal design seminar. Ruggiero now has several lines of furniture on the market, as well as more than 150 Sunbrella textiles, some so dressy they include matching bullion fringe and fancy cording. For his Boulevard line, he was inspired by the Japanese art of indigo dying, and his Garden Room furniture collection references the English conservatory look. Be sure to check out Ruggiero's new 60-inch octagonal table. It looks like fine bamboo, but is actually made of lightweight, durable aluminum. Just perfect for a Florida patio.
The store has no faux plants or flowers. Instead the brothers have scattered around luscious live orchids, bromeliads, palms, bamboo and such. Since they're already accustomed to container living in low-light situations, you can take them home to use as décor items inside and on the loggia.
The store also has an on-site design consultant in the multi-talented Mary Randelman, who moved to Naples from Manhattan three years ago. With 25 years in the design business, she's also the author of a best-selling cookbook, Memories of a Cuban Kitchen. Rufino Hernandez is a graduate of Johnson & Wales, the culinary institute in Providence, R.I., and knows a thing or a thousand about food, too. The 34-year-old co-owner keeps an espresso machine at Garden District, and delights in brewing up a cup for clients who like to sip while shopping.
When judy wayland-smith was growing up, she was drawn to the tales and illustrations of Beatrix Potter. So when she opened a store that specializes in children's clothing and accessories, she called her enterprise Cottontails, after one of Peter Rabbit's three saintly little sisters. You'll probably remember that Flopsy and Mopsy are the other two good bunnies in Peter's family.
The first Cottontails was established in Sherrill, N.Y. in 1984; it's still satisfying burgeoning buyers, their discerning moms and grandmothers in a town that is known as the home of Oneida silver. A decade ago, Wayland-Smith and her husband came to Naples to visit her dad, and she realized that downtown was a place she'd be happy to have a new little Cottontails. And so she installed one on Fifth Avenue. But like bunnies, her stores keep multiplying; now a third Cottontails has opened at Fountain Park Centre in north Naples. Twice as big as the downtown store, its parking is a lot easier, particularly during tourist season. And it's also convenient for her regular customers from Fort Myers and Bonita, says Wayland-Smith.
The biggest trend in children's clothing, Wayland-Smith reports, is multiple births. She stocks clothes for both twins and triplets. "Moms come in all the time wanting outfits for a boy and girl or two girls and a boy, whatever," she says. "They want them to match but each to be a bit different. Sometimes the boy's outfit will be the reverse pattern of the girl's. They are pretty adorable."
There's also a trend away from dressing children like little adults. "I like it," she says. "We're seeing a return to more traditional styling-clothing that is sweet and just for the very young." Another special part of Wayland-Smith's inventory is her line of clothes for premature babies. They resemble doll clothes.
Cottontails carries sizes newborn to 16 for girls and newborn to size 7 for boys. Fancy dresses top out at about $100.
Besides clothing and accessories such as shoes, bows, miniature sunglasses, charm bracelets and pewter/enamel charms, the store carries fine-quality items for birth or shower gifts, as well as birthday and holiday presents. Wayland-Smith also stocks a select collection of Beatrix Potter objects, such as porcelain figurines, picture frames, boxes, bookends, and a wonderful Peter Rabbit clock.
Standing near the slim three-tier Indonesian umbrellas at J. Semmler Home & Garden Collections on Fifth Avenue in Naples makes you feel like you're in the middle of The King and I. In Indonesia, these tall, colorful umbrellas are fashioned of paper and made to be held aloft only in festival parades. Then, after the procession, they're tossed away.
Jean Semmler commissioned a family of Indonesian artisans to make these umbrellas of silk-and-gold thread, deep fringe and teak poles. She also ordered special stands so they could be positioned like topiaries flanking a doorway or on either side of a foyer console. The umbrellas are available in the traditional checkered patterns in black, red, green or purple and white. Each is $399; the stand is an additional $50. You'll also want to inspect (and fall in love with) the bold, bright market umbrellas Semmler and her husband Steve often set up outside their palatial boutique in downtown Naples.
Born of years of corporate travel that took Steve Semmler all over the world, and fueled by Jean's exquisite connoisseur's eye for quality, their J. Semmler gallery is an eclectic mélange of Italian antiques, gracious reproductions, Asian-tropical furniture and home accessories, and three lines of Dutch Colonial furniture and décor items the Semmlers design. They personally oversee the crafting of these pieces at small family factories in Bali and Java. One of the most popular items in the gallery is the four-poster bamboo bed (queen size) that comes in a dark or light natural finish. The price is $2,995.
Besides the impressive lines of big furniture, you can browse J. Semmler for ornately carved mirrors, lamps, clocks, nesting tables, oil paintings, sconces made of palms, Buddha statues, fountains, decorative plates, porcelain figurines, and amazing Chinese fans with long tassels and special presentation pedestals. And a whole collection of garden furniture is both beguiling and remarkably well priced.
Even if you don't need furniture, worth inspecting are the handbags Jean Semmler buys in Thailand and Indonesia. Some have beautifully quilted interiors and fancy wooden handles. They range in price from about $50 to $125 and are absolutely breathtaking for the money. Jean has cleverly scattered the bags throughout the store. Follow these purses like they were breadcrumbs and you'll see a tantalizing array of home décor objects of desire.
4202 N. Tamiami Trail, Naples (239) 434-6700.
7935 Airport-Pulling Road, Naples. (239) 594-9005.
J. Semmler, Home & Garden Collections
365 Fifth Ave. S., Naples. (239) 430-7447.