Cycladic State

A Fort Myers builder and designer couple turned a tired teardown into a restorative, family-friendly retreat.

BY March 9, 2022
White-washed walls in places like Santorini, California and Mexico inspired the backyard’s design, with stucco walls, an intimate cave, lounging nooks and a cupola fashioned after the Dome of Juan Ponce de León in Puerto Rico. Another standout feature took its cues from the couple’s kids: a curving waterslide that DeLaCruz designed to blend seamlessly with the rest of the space. (Photo by Dan Cutrona)

Life in the bucolic Buckingham area of Fort Myers is sweet for Michelle DeLaCruz. She values the Hispanic culture that flows in from nearby Lehigh Acres and the influx of people who are relocating from Miami and abroad. But the draw is more personal than cultural. “When I first came to Florida as a little girl of 8, I remember driving through this neighborhood with my parents. We had nothing, and to just look at these majestic properties—it was a dream,” she says.

Manifesting that dream was an exercise in patience. DeLaCruz and her husband, Lupe, hunted for the perfect plot for years before she stumbled across a property that was less than pristine. “I came to look at a lot, and next door to it was this huge corner parcel that was full of weeds,” she says. “I saw a faded sign through an overgrown orange grove, and it said, ‘For Sale By Owner.’” She called the number on the sign and left a message. Then she left another. And another. Finally, someone called back. “We made the deal over the phone, right then,” she recalls. “I was astounded. It really felt meant to be. I didn’t even know the lot came with a house.”

While the average couple might be tempted to walk away after finding out they had unwittingly bought a residence built in 1997, Michelle, a designer and co-owner of DeLaCruz & Co. with Lupe, has made a business out of making the retro more refined. “Any builder can build from scratch, but to make this house feel lived in and new at the same time? That’s magic,” DeLaCruz says.

They knocked down walls, opened the floorplan, carved out a chef’s kitchen, transformed the former primary bedroom into a boutique-style closet and added a new primary suite with his-and-hers bathrooms. To complete the design, DeLaCruz chose finishes and family-friendly furnishings in black, white and gold, describing her style as “modern and Old World at the same time.”

The true showstopper is the outdoor living space, which measures roughly the same as the nearly 3,000-square-foot interior. Initially, DeLaCruz planned to outfit the pool area with traditional river rock, but one night she had a revelation. She’d been researching a trip to Santorini and was captivated by its Cycladic architecture and cave homes. She also thought about sun-drenched locales like California, Mexico, Spain and Texas, where homes have large, enclosed white-walled patios that create privacy. And, though the project presented a heavy investment and there was no local playbook (“I have personally never seen this done here,” she says), she was convinced. DeLaCruz and her husband created the walls, a cave and a cupola inspired, in part, by the Dome of Juan Ponce de León in Puerto Rico, DeLaCruz’s native country.

Outfitted by Lynx Professional Grills, the outdoor kitchen, where the family can host more than 100 people, was tucked under a curved, Greek cave home-inspired roof; the patio was enclosed in white hand-plastered stucco walls; and mod, chic details, like the Tuuci striped umbrellas, a nod to the iconic scenery of luxury resorts around the world. “Umbrellas are an afterthought to a lot of people, but they’re probably one of the most important things in the design,” she says. “If you were to visually disappear all those umbrellas, the place wouldn’t be the same.”

Every detail is intentional—from the low-maintenance ribbons of turf that frame the pool and break up the large pavers to the translucent LED globe lights that set the scene aglow at night. Other Florida-specific design choices include vanilla travertine decking, which stays cool and prevents feet from burning, and the 44-foot pool with a waterfall and spa.

The couple’s children, 14-year-old Geo and 11-year-old Mia, imagined the centerpiece slide. “The first thing the kids told me was they wanted a slide, and they didn’t want a ‘baby slide,’” DeLaCruz says with a laugh. “Honestly, their rooms are a bit small, so I had to do them right.” The fun feature fits the design scheme seamlessly. “I call it a sexy slide. It curves, and you almost can’t see it,” DeLaCruz says. For the designer, the fun addition also offers the prime position to appreciate just how far she’s come. “When you go up the stairs, you can see the whole 7-acre property and then some from that slide,” she says.