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His Sixth Sense

The Naples home of celebrated designer John Paul Regas illustrates the way this Chicago-based pro tackles a project. Regas purchased the Mediterranean-inspired, two-story house when it was half-built, then went back five times to study it. After days of pondering, he did some sketching, lined up his team, and started to tear the whole place apart and put it back together in ways that would leave a client breathless.. To give just one example, he big bright kitchen/gathering room used to be the master bedroom and bath. But the completed home looks so right and so welcoming that it's impossible to imagine that it be could be any other way.

"That's John for you exactly," says Maria Pappas, Cook County treasurer, a Chicago Woman of the Year, and a client who has been through four design projects with Regas over the last 25 years. The most recent is an apartment in Water Tower. "Most of us go through life using our five senses, but John has six. He has an amazing ability to create beauty out of almost nothing. He sees things that other people can't imagine. He always raises a client to a higher level of awareness and appreciation."

Pappas admits the process can be more than a person bargained for: "John takes a client on a journey and we don't have a clue where it will end," she says. "He'll sit and stare at a room for hours and he'll come back and do it again. You'll wonder just what in the heck the man can be looking at. Then all of a sudden, he'll start drawing and you're on your way. By the end of the journey you're totally in love with your house. All of John's clients will tell you the same thing."

Besides doing the initial renderings on a project (which he then turns over to a registered architect), Regas selects every object that will go into the rooms and guides the client in furniture and art placement. "But, a successful designer doesn't dictate," he insists. "If a client has a passion for a certain color, then I go with that color. I won't do a home that has a John Regas look to it. That's not a successful project. Each home must express the personality of its owners. I love Regency rooms, but I've done as many contemporary projects as traditional; and I think they are equally successful, because my personality isn't in them. The rooms say what the client wants to say."

Regas came to Naples six years ago to work on the Port Royal home of Fred and Susan Gold. He stayed in their guest house and oversaw the construction and furnishing of the home between trips back to his office and staff of five in Chicago. As he drove around Naples' neighborhoods, walked the beach, sampled the restaurants, and was welcomed into the social scene, Regas began to feel at home.

"I used to visit my aunt 40 years ago in Palm Beach," he remembers. "Naples reminds me a lot of that town in that time period. It's charming, full of fascinating people and fun things to do. I love the beach, the look of the city, the mix of great restaurants, everything about living here. Eventually, it became clear that I ought to buy a place of my own."

He selected a half-built structure in an intimate gated enclave on Gordon Drive. The choice was based on location, not the home's design. "It was all wrong," he states. "I could tell right away. The orientation didn't take advantage of natural light or views. The rooms were chopped up;, there was no real garden."

The indefatigable designer relocated the front door, created a new foyer, designed a curving staircase, and added a big lighted niche halfway up to display a large bronze statue of a reclining damsel. The kitchen became the new living room with dark bamboo floors and black baby grand piano. Perhaps the most ambitious feat involved Regas's new master suite. To create it, he pulled in the detached guest suite, doing away with a breezeway and enclosed lanai. In what used to be outdoor area, he carved a new bath, walk-in closet and hall. In the new bedroom, which overlooks the pool (as does the living room), he gave himself the luxury and efficiency of a built-in for the large television. Guest rooms are on the second floor.

Regas says his traditionally appointed kitchen of pickled maple cabinetry (he praises Artisans' Guild, which did the cabinets) and granite counters was inspired by a gnarled grapevine table base that's now crowned by a circular glass top. For his kitchen table, he created a generous bay window that overlooks a tropical garden. Regas is a good cook and often invites friends over on a Sunday morning to help lay a big relaxed buffet. In his historic French city mansion in Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood it's a Sunday-morning custom to cook in Regas's kitchen (there are four ovens and two dishwashers); and nearly 100 often gather there when he's in town. Apple pancakes are always on the menu.

Regas's magnificent Chicago townhouse of 14 baths and 11 fireplaces is famous for more that its food and festivities. The home was built by the legendary architect David Adler (1882-1949) and is one of only 18 Adler homes remaining of the 54 he designed in the Chicago area. Regas says he admired the Adler house as a teen, never dreaming that one day he would own it.

The house was built in 1921 for the Ryerson family, whose fortune was in steel. The Louis XVI-style home with its symmetrical limestone fa├žade and crowning mansard roof, the Louis XVI-style home has been called the finest French house in America. Regas acquired the 18,000-square-foot home in 1983 after it had been converted into 18 apartments. The designer spent years lovingly and carefully restoring it to sumptuous French glamour. So important is the home as a community architectural icon that it has been used 74 times for glamorous charity fund-raisers. "If we send out invitations limiting the event to 200 people, 400 show up every time," says the proud owner.

The youngest in a family of six boys (and a twin), Regas was born to strict Greek Orthodox parents. His father wanted all his sons to become lawyers.. Five ultimately passed the bar; Regas never took the test. "I was the odd one out from childhood," he remembers. "I was overweight, artistic, and by age 16 I was pretty miserable because I didn't long to be a lawyer, but I had no idea what else I ought to be. One day I wandered into Assumption Greek Orthodox Church just to say a little prayer. The priest noticed I was depressed. I told him my future looked bad. He said he had a big icon that needed cleaning, and why didn't I do the work. I did. By the time I had finished working on that gorgeous object, I knew I'd spend my life in the presence of beautiful things. It was that clear and that final."

Regas subsequently earned a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago. He took a paying his a job in a fabric cutting room to help with his expenses. The apprenticeship paid off in several ways. He moved to the showroom floor, became exposed to wealthy clients, and learned about buying and selling antiques and fine furniture. After three years, he left, and in 1963 he opened a small shop calling it Bon Fils Antiques. He lived in a tiny apartment above.

"My mom made the drapes for the shop, and my dad came to the opening," he recalls. "He gave me a $50 gold piece, shook my hand and said, 'Good luck.' He thought I would need it. I still have the gold piece; and the first week in business I sold $45,000 in antiques. I've never had a slow day since."

It was at the designer's second and larger shop that clients began to ask for design help. The first North Shore client he advised celebrated her residential renovation with a cocktail party that was attended by New Yorker Faye Levinson, the wife of wealthy diamond broker Isadore Levinson. Although the hostess refused to divulge the name of her designer, Levinson tracked down Regas. The designer did a home for the Levinsons, and for the next 35 years they were friends. When the widowed Levinson died, she left every one of her personal possessions to Regas.

"She was the one who really started by career," he says. "She was a great friend of Helena Rubinstein's and she had many connections. I've been busy from that time to now, knock on wood." He's been so busy with so many high-powered clients that he never bothered to have business cards printed up until two years ago.

Here in Naples, Regas has bought and reconfigured the commercial building on Seventh Avenue that houses Bravissimo Restaurant and an antique gallery. He's also working with Naples philanthropist Suzanne von Liebig on her new Manhattan apartment, which belonged to Lee Radziwell. A long ribbon staircase of walnut that Regas designed recently for the European style residence had to be hoisted by crane up the side of the building and maneuvered into the von Liebig apartment. The owner hopes to move into her Manhattan getaway in January. In the meantime, Regas has been busy ripping spaces apart and putting them back together in the way that only his sixth sense can envision.

* * *

John Regas on Naples:

"Naples is like Palm Beach was 40 years ago and I find that delightful. The town is full of smart, friendly people and the whole city is beautiful and alive. I never thought I'd want a home in Florida, but I love Naples."

"We need more high-quality antique shops to satisfy the kind of clients who are already here. Restaurants are plentiful and quite good."

"The beach, we tend to take it for granted, but it's such an important factor in the lifestyle here. I walk the beach every single morning and evening. I'll never tire of the beach."

"The Naples attitude toward a vacation second home is changing. That lightweight wicker look is gone. People want big, gracious, substantial homes that more resemble their primary residences. They want quality furniture, art and fine details in construction that express who they are."

"I like to see both modern and period architecture in Naples, but I'm a stickler for keeping the exterior of a home in conformity with the neighboring styles. A house should never stick out on a street, it should blend in and enhance the area. If you want a contemporary home on a street of Mediterranean houses, I advise that you make the outside of the house conform to the prevailing style. The inside can be any style you want. Neighbors will appreciate your sensitivity."

"You've got to have gardens. Naples homeowners understand this. Landscaping is very important here. It's one of the outstanding features that make this town so beautiful. I'm impressed at the ability of local landscape companies to move big trees to just where you want them."

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