Villa Mille Fleurs, St. Martin ............Be Yourself
When asked to name their favorite spot, Byron and Jack agree that--even though they love the easy comfort and classical aesthetic of the salon's furniture and the camaraderie-inspiring 15-foot glass dining table on the columned terrace--their favorite spot is not inside! Rather, it is the infinity pool area surrounded by flamboyant trees and a profusion of bougainvillea, desert rose, and hibiscus. As Jack says, "it's most spectacular out there in the evening watching the sunset".
And so they did. Today, the gloriously restored villa with its white tin roof, sits behind an eight foot wall on two and a half acres of land covered with lush palms, flamboyants and bougainvillea exploding with color, succulents too numerous to name, and papaya and coconut trees. When guests arrive, they are offered fresh fruit straight from those trees. But first, they step in to the house and down a few stairs, and find themselves in a room with a 16-foot ceiling and arched French doors opening on to the veranda--bringing the outdoors in. The smell of sea air mingles with the odor of jasmine. The entire house is full of light with views of the sea in nearly every room.
And indeed, when they drove through the iron gates and up the circular driveway to the property that was to become Mille Fleurs, it was more Appalachia than tony St. Martin. The huge house was overgrown; old appliances and plastic furniture littered the front yard; and inside the house was a menagerie of cats and dogs roaming among pieces of furniture with shredded upholstery. "We just loved it!" Byron says. "We looked at this run-down French-Colonial villa, looked at each other, and said in unison, "This is our next project".
As Jack tells it, they first discovered and fell in love with the cosmopolitan French/Dutch island of St. Martin (in Dutch, Sint Maarten) while visiting from St. Thomas. They were captivated by the European influences on the local culture and the range of sophisticated restaurants, boutiques and art galleries. But though they searched every corner of St. Martin for a home, they had no luck. They had just about given up when a real estate agent working with them said, "Okay, I have one more place. But I have to warn you, it's a dump!".
Rumor has it Villa Mille Fleurs is so seductive that guests never feel the need to go further than the five minute walk to the serene Plum Bay Beach where they snorkel with equally lazy sea turtles as companions. But there is plenty to see nearby. The 18th century Spring Sugar Mill introduces visitors to the sugar cane and rum business, once the financial backbone for many parts of the Caribbean. There’s also a nature reserve, a butterfly farm, and an old fort. But that’s not all. As Jack and Byron are quick to remind us, St. Martin is the foodie capital of the Caribbean. Whether your tastes run to mom and pop lolos (roadside or beachside grills for Creole-style chicken and ribs) or fine Parisian-style dining, there are abundant choices. Byron and Jack’s favorites are Palm Beach and Tropicana. “At Tropicana, desserts like The Pyramid of Profiteroles are works of art,” says Jack. “Or go nowhere for dinner,” Byron chimes in. He says caterers and private chefs can be arranged. Dine on the Mille Fleurs veranda, he advises, under a night sky full of stars. “There’s nothing better!”
Only two decades old, the four-bedroom house
--more south of France than Caribbean in style
--already has a compelling history. It was built in
the mid-eighties reputedly by an Italian Marchesa
who became widowed shortly after it was completed
and never lived there. In the 1980s, when St. Martin
was the "it" place for celebrities, the house was sold to one of America’s most famous R&B divas, Diana Ross. Fashionable celebrity haunts change like the weather and when she tired of the villa in the 1990s, it was sold again, this time to a Swiss impresario who owned several entertainment spots on the island, but he returned to Europe and lost interest in the house. When Jack and Byron arrived on the scene, what they found was unique. The grand house with its terracotta floors, arched doorways, and spectacular views of the sea is the only French-colonial style home on St. Martin. Jack and Byron say it had a European ambience and an ineffable grandeur. In fact, the house’s rather formal architecture inspired them. They were determined to give it a new life.
IN THE 1980S, WHEN ST. MARTIN WAS THE “IT” PLACE FOR CELEBRITIES, THE HOUSE WAS SOLD TO ONE OF AMERICA’S MOST FAMOUS
R&B DIVAS, DIANA ROSS
“You could see the splendor,” Jack says. They were determined to restore the villa (at that time called Domaine de la Benjamine) to its former glory. But not everyone shared their vision. Some friends and a few of the neighbors thought the California renovators were crazy, but Byron and Jack were undeterred — maybe even a little fired up by the naysayers. As Byron says, “Both of us love a challenge.”
Although Jack Fleishman and Byron Monson have
been building and renovating homes for years,
curiously, neither of the L.A.born and raised pair
has a background in architecture or the trades.
Jack, who worked in the entertainment industry
before jumping in to real estate, studied economics
at UCLA and Berkeley. Byron’s degree is in international business from Brigham Young University, and he spent some years in the restaurant business. While they are jacks-of-all-trades, neither will quite admit just how many times they’ve hit their thumbs with hammers while teaching themselves the business. They’ve learned a lot over the years, they say, so when they found the villa that is now the jaw-droppingly beautiful Mille Fleurs, they were prepared for the challenge…well, almost.
“WE LOOKED AT THIS RUN-DOWN
FRENCH-COLONIAL VILLA, LOOKED AT
EACH OTHER, AND SAID IN UNISON:
‘THIS IS OUR NEXT PROJECT!'”
Laughing, they both admit that although they’ve worked together successfully for many years, these passionate do-it-yourselfers come from different backgrounds and each has his own approach to the work. “I’m the optimist,” Byron says. “Jack’s a….” Byron starts to say pessimist, but Jack jumps in quickly and says, “You could say I’m LESS of an optimist.” One thing they most assuredly have in common is a love of design and architecture (along with their favorite architects, William Krisel, William Cody and Richard Neutra.)
Renovation and construction were hardly new to the pair. In fact, for nearly three decades before discovering the Caribbean, they devoted themselves not only to building new homes, but to renovating interesting older houses in Los Angeles, San Diego, and even southern Utah. While each project has had its charm and its challenges, they say it’s the almost indescribable feeling of “bringing a house back to life,” that keeps them going.
Jack Fleishman admits his partner, Byron Monson, had to “drag” him out of his cozy L.A. digs and onto a plane for a vacation in the Caribbean. Not only is it unusual for Angelenos to vacation there (versus Hawaii), but when it comes to vacations, Jack says, “While Byron is a beach bum. I’m a city person.” “But once out of my comfort zone,” Jack continues, “I just loved it!” That made two of them.
And so began their Caribbean adventures, first restoring a little beach shack for themselves on the U.S. island of St. Thomas back in 2002 and then their most recent and grandest adventure, the year-long restoration of the elegant, four-bedroom villa Mille Fleurs on St. Martin, an island both Jack and Byron call “magical.”
Island Life – Take a Tour of this French
Colonial Villa on St. Martin
Step inside the house that Jack (and Byron) built
BY JUDITH RITTER
April 7, 2014