Caring for the soul

Gainesville homeowners transform '60s house to reflect their own style

The decor of the guest bedroom, which the Dondas call the Asia room, echoes the greens and browns of a small garden visible through a sliding glass door. A jute rug and reed fencing used as wallcovering give the room the feel of another place and time. The green color of the wall is a combination of four different colors applied with a sponge technique.

ROB WITZEL/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 10:44 p.m.
In its heyday, the house Laura and Russell Donda bought two summers ago was the epitome of 1960s cool: The flat roof house in concrete block construction and framed in steel beams had plush gold-colored wall-to-wall carpeting, grass cloth wallcovering in a muted gray, and skylights in nearly every room. The house was even featured in House Beautiful magazine in 1964 soon after it was built.
But in the summer of 2001, the Dondas had to look beyond the dated wrappings of their 3,700-square-foot house to see its potential. Inspired by the outdoors, which is accessible via multiple floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors throughout the home, the couple took the house's strengths and coupled them to a style of their own.
The process, said Russell Donda, required much reflection while sitting in the various spaces in the house where changes were needed.
"It took a lot of understanding what the space was asking for and what was important to us and finding a way to flow the two together," he said. "We were impressed with the essential grandness of the home - the brick columns, all the glass and high ceilings, the entrance pond, and the fact that you go beyond a wrought iron gate (to get to the house).
"All we did was let out the magic that the house had. We just happened to let it out more than what was currently visible. We didn't see the details (of a future design), but the grandness of the present moment."
The first room that welcomes any visitor to the house is the great room, which is just off a narrow foyer at the front entrance.
The room is about 35 feet long and about as deep, with four square columns in a light-colored brick that serve as dividing points for the dining area, a sitting area and the office work area. When they removed the carpeting, the Dondas found a speckled terrazzo floor that had survived the carpet adhesive. In addition to a floor-to-ceiling sliding glass door, nine skylights allow natural light to pour in adding to the open feel of the great room.
"We call it an outdoor temple," said Russell, who worked in technology development for 20 years. Today he is starting an interior decorating consulting business and is writing a book about modern science and the care of the soul. "It's about how we can add meaning to our lives as a result of what we know about the universe," he said.
"We like to think that our home is an expression of who we are at the deepest level," said Russell Donda. "How you decorate has the capacity to be caring for the soul."
When he talks to homeowners seeking decorating advice, Donda said he tries to find out what their hearts are drawn to, an exercise he describes as a form of therapy.
"For us, it was bringing in a world view. That's what was moving to us," he said. The great room, for example, has the outdoors represented in subtle ways, as in a natural vine creeping up one brick wall and continuing around a tapestry with a garden theme.
"They don't have to be expensive things," he said. "The vines cost me nothing. There are ways to do this without spending lots of money."
The three-bedroom, three-bath house, while in need of a decorating overhaul, was structurally sound and required no repair work. The galley kitchen did get new blond wood cabinets and the white tile countertop was replaced with granite. New appliances, including a new stove and oven, were also due.
The master suite, which has a sizable sitting area that overlooks the pool, is still a work in progress. The bedroom area of the master suite has been painted five times.
"It's like a living thing. We're constantly doing something to (the house)," said Russell Donda, who before moving into the northwest Gainesville home lived with his wife in a 1,300-square-foot condominium.
"We got this size house so all our friends and family can come and enjoy it," said Donda. "We love art and one's home itself has the opportunity to be a work of art. That's moving to me."
While Russell is usually the idea man when it comes to decorating, Laura, who comes from an artistic family, contributes her own brand of creativity. Her mother, Linda Pollini, is a Gainesville artist who works in glass, jewelry and sculpture, among other mediums.
Whimsical decorating touches, including the mosaic steps in the front foyer and glass beads around doorways, came from Laura.
"I love having people come over and say, 'Wow, that's beautiful,' " she said. "That's a touching moment for us. We're creating beauty, so people pause and gaze at it."
Inside and outside the house, there are spaces that inspire reflection. Skylights throughout - there are 16 of them - give the house an airy feel, even at night. On a clear night, one can follow the trajectory of a full moon's rays in the great room, thanks to the glass blocks in one wall and the skylights overhead.
Outside on the 1-acre property, down a half-hidden trail lined with azaleas, dogwoods and camellias, is a secret garden with a St. Francis of Assisi statue and a stone bench. The trail was there when the Dondas moved in, said Laura. Russell added the bench and lights that are hooked up to a timer.
"This house has helped us feel grateful. We really feel blessed," said Laura.
Lillian Guevara-Castro can be reached at 374-5039 or at

Directions for mosaic step

Laura Donda took this project on with her mother, Linda Pollini. Much of the tile came from leftover pieces from other projects in the house. She also got discontinued pieces of tile from a tile store. The project took about four days and cost less than $50 for three steps in her front foyer.
Materials and tools:plywood base ceramic tile mastic grout tile in different shapes and colors craft glass beads in various colors small pieces of mirror tile cutter (optional) notched trowel rubber float or spatula sponge aluminum trim Instructions: Nail or screw the aluminum trim to the edge of the step to protect the grout from chipping. Cut tile into geometric shapes with a tile cutter or break into pieces.
Before starting, arrange the glass beads and pieces of tile and mirror on the floor to come up with a pattern you like.
Begin with a small section, using the trowel to spread the ceramic tile mastic and positioning the beads, tile and pieces of mirror following the established pattern, leaving space between the pieces for the grout. Continue in the same way with the next section until the entire design is set in mastic.
Allow to dry for 24 hours. Spread grout with a spatula or rubber float filling in gaps between tile and glass pieces, and carefully wiping off excess grout with a wet sponge.
Allow to dry for about 24 hours

Reed wallcovering

Russell and Laura Donda wanted to give their guest bedroom an Asian feel and came up with this innovative approach to wall covering. The reed fence is available at Home Depot for about $20 a roll. It's a seasonal product, usually available in the spring.
Materials and tools: reed fencing tin snips 1-inch nails Instructions: Beginning at the top of the wall, nail the reed fence in place. Use tin snips to cut the fence to fit areas around the door jamb, light switches and electrical outlets. Inspect for bulging areas of the fence and nail in place.


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