Architect for rapper Eminem, says Marco, Collier construction on the rebound

Do you think development is on the turnaroud in Collier County?

See the results »

View previous polls »

Architect William Lewis of WHL Architects stands in a maze of walls being constructed following his design for a Marco Island “MacMansion” on Laurel Court.

Photo by CHERYL FERRARA, Special to the Eagle

Architect William Lewis of WHL Architects stands in a maze of walls being constructed following his design for a Marco Island “MacMansion” on Laurel Court.

Looking overhead, this cupola rises multiple stories above the great room of a mansion designed by William Lewis and being built on Laurel Court. Lewis uses the cupola as a signature feature for his homes and to provide open space and light.

Photo by CHERYL FERRARA, Special to the Eagle

Looking overhead, this cupola rises multiple stories above the great room of a mansion designed by William Lewis and being built on Laurel Court. Lewis uses the cupola as a signature feature for his homes and to provide open space and light.

One of the largest homes currently under construction in Collier County, architect William Lewis says its conception brought about an end to an otherwise dry spell for building on Marco Island.

Photo by CHERYL FERRARA, Special to the Eagle

One of the largest homes currently under construction in Collier County, architect William Lewis says its conception brought about an end to an otherwise dry spell for building on Marco Island.

— Going to the “big house” has a different connotation for architect William Lewis. Instead of being his place of confinement, the big house he designed on Laurel Court has been his liberation.

The relief he feels when he goes there to view its construction is the result of his journey through boom and bust on Marco Island.

Lewis started with a promising career. In his thirties, he designed a 16,000-square-foot estate for Marshall Bruce Mathers, better know as the rapper Eminem.

“At the time, he was my largest client,” said Lewis who designed the house for Mathers in Rochester Hills, Mich., a suburb of Detroit.

For a hometown boy raised on a working farm in Hopkinsville, Ky., Lewis was riding high. But his sense of success was tempered with his life experiences. He was not naive about hard work or the pain of failure.

“My parents were rural crop farmers. In the 1980s, when times were hard and all farmers were in trouble, my father lost everything — his house, his land, his equipment — even his car.”

Joining Anchor Engineering on Marco Island in 1984, Lewis was sure Southwest Florida held his future opportunities. In 1990, while business was good, he left Anchor Engineering and struck out on his own as WHL Architects.

That’s when his career on Collier County’s “home building roller coaster” began.

The first year was good, then President George H.W. Bush announced Desert Storm in 1991 and that cancelled the season’s usual building, Lewis recalled.

“We were at war,” he said. “People took a ‘wait and see’ attitude.”

The short-lived conflict didn’t keep Lewis or potential clients sitting on their hands for long. Times were good with property values rising and design square footage increasing by the thousands. The desire for posh vacation homes reached a fevered pitch.

“We hit the first significant threshold when we started building two-story houses,” Lewis said. “Then the Mediterranean theme took hold with taller ceilings, larger window, tiled roofs. It was a good fit with so much waterfront on the island.”

Lewis had two small children and a home office so he could stay with his family and still be able to work in the evenings, on holidays and on weekends. For the rest of the decade he remained so busy that he had to turn down work on a regular basis.

Although his business was on a high, the “perfect storm” was brewing.

It began when Hurricane Charley hit Florida’s West Coast in 2004. Next Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and all Gulfcoast communities appeared venerable.

Hurricane Wilma in 2005 was the final blow.

“Marco Island was no longer precious. We were one of the ones hit,” Lewis recalled.

That storm brought other disasters to the building business: Insurance rates quadrupled, cost of construction skyrocketed, and taxes continued to rise.

“I remember, that in just two years, concrete prices went from $60 a yard to $120 a yard,” Lewis said, “and people couldn’t close on their properties because insurance companies were pulling out of Florida and nobody could get coverage.”

Lewis contrasted the mid 2000s with Sept. 11, 2001.

“We survived Sept. 11 comfortably because people assessed the area and believed Marco Island was a safe place to be.” After Hurricane Wilma that assessment was not favorable.

Hurricane Wilma’s effect was coupled with the Iraq War, a conflict that started taking its toll on the country’s psyches.

“My phone wasn’t ringing, but I had enough work to keep going for about two years,” Lewis remembered. “I kept telling myself next season would be better, but it wasn’t.”

Lewis started warning his builders and subcontractors to make plans and get ready for the slowdown. In 2008 it happened.

“The phone just stopped ringing,” Lewis said. “We went months without a single call. Every season was worse. By the winter season of 2009, the phone was absolutely dead.”

The building roller coaster had taken Lewis to the very bottom of a long and painful slide.

It was the result of an earlier renovation Lewis had designed that the phone rang again. A realtor familiar with his work had a client looking to redesign a property on Laurel Court. After seeing the renovation plans, the client realized a teardown and rebuild would cost just about the same.

The new structure would become the one Lewis refers to as his “big house.”

“This home has nine bedroom suites including a captain’s apartment, four cooking areas, four laundries, 13 bathrooms, 11 refrigerator/freezers, a six-car garage, and a pool to rival any on Marco with fountains, spitters, bubblers and an infinity edge,” he explained.

Lewis’ client asked that the square footage not be mentioned, but suffice it to say it’s gargantuan.

“Even though the client is very rich, he’s also a humble man,” Lewis said, explaining his reticence to reveal the actual size of the structure.

The “big house” is not the only good turn that Lewis has taken this past year.

Starting around Thanksgiving 2009, phone inquiries picked up at the Lewis house. Design requests have come in for two restaurants renovations, two home renovations, two speculative homes and a model home.

“People are getting tired of waiting,” Lewis explained. “We’re into the redevelopment market on Marco Island now, and people are getting the best construction value in the last 15 years. Builders are hungry.”

The city’s Septic Tank Replacement Program has helped by allow teardowns to rebuild on larger footprints.

“Septic tanks worked against larger homes,” he said. “Sewer opened up lots in a positive way for the construction industry.” For the size homes Lewis builds, the cost of sewer hookup is minimal compared to the benefits of extra space for architectural design.

Lewis’ predictions for the future are optimistic. His phone is ringing and his business is gaining momentum. Like the roller coaster, he believes he is climbing the next big hill. That part of the ride is a relief.

He summed it up by saying: “In my opinion, it’s the best time for homeowners to build.”

© 2010 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Related Stories

Comments » 4

jaguar writes:

Good luck to you Lewis.But baring in mind the recent problems that are still here for most of us.Put something by for a rainy day.Just in case.

SoMuchOlderThen writes:

Two questions for the expert architect:

1 ) Where is THE perfect, actual center of Marco Island? The place where the N to S and E to W axes meet at the EXACT middle ?

2) If I were at that point, how far down into the very core of the earth would I have to drill to cause the Island to spring a leak sufficient enough to cause it to sink back to the watery grave of Hell from which it came ?

justabreeze writes:

I'm pleased to read that you are doing well. Twenty five years ago you excelled at what you do and I am not surprised at your sucess today. Congrats to you !

ginbudjim writes:

Geez SoMuchOlderThen, please seek professional help for yourself.

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.

Features