Oldest house in Vero becomes a landmark once more

Mayssa Shalhoub plans to study sustainability in college this fall, and that interest, along with her mother’s desire to preserve Vero’s heritage, has brought bright new life to the Gifford House, extending the 132-year-long story of the city’s oldest residence.

The large, two-story frame house at 9th Avenue and 20th Street has received a complete exterior renovation in recent months and now stands out as a notable Vero Beach landmark and striking example of early Florida architecture. Behind it sits another smaller frame house that has been renovated inside and out.

In 1888 Henry and Sarah Gifford built the main house as their family home on a 160-acre homestead that ran from the Indian River to where the Florida East Coast Railway tracks are today.

Several years later they erected the smaller, saltbox-style structure, which the Shalhoubs call the Mango house. It once housed the local post office and a mercantile, where settlers could pick up supplies, mail a letter or buy a train ticket, according to County Historian Ruth Stanbridge.

Stanbridge says both buildings were moved to their current location at 9th Avenue to make way for commercial development along Miracle Mile in the 1940s or 1950s.

And there they sat mostly unnoticed and used for a variety of purposes for decades until 2016, when Hala Madi-Shalhoub and her daughter Mayssa came across the two buildings while looking for a project they could work on together.

They wanted to take something old and breathe new life into it, to restore and repurpose something that represents this community and its beginnings.

All it took was one look at the interior wooden staircase with hand-carved balusters at the center of the Gifford house for mother and daughter to know this was the project they had been seeking.

“This is a labor of love for Mayssa, first and foremost, and then for the city,” says Madi-Shalhoub. “It was the love that I saw in her eyes when she saw the staircase that made me look into it a little further. I bought it the next day,”

“Instead of demolishing these old buildings, we’re putting life back into them,” says Mayssa.

They mother and daughter team weren’t aware of the history of the house when they first looked at it, according to Madi-Shalhoub. “I love renovating, and my daughter likes old houses [but] we didn’t know that it was the oldest house in Vero,” she says.

If you’ve passed by the corner where the houses stand, as thousands of people do each day, you’ve probably noticed things are looking a lot more colorful as the Shalhoubs coax the property back to its former glory. The Gifford house is now a beautiful blue color set off by the new white picket fence that surrounds the property. The “mango house” is a ripe yellow/orange.

Left to decay for years at the hands of the elements and squatters prior to 2016, both the two-story homes on the property had a long history of providing safe haven in earlier years. In addition to sheltering the first family of Vero, these lovely ladies have housed veterans and served as a women’s shelter and halfway house.

Madi-Shalhoub was initially drawn to the corner because she wanted to stop the spread of urban decay south of 20th Street. “I felt like this community needed someone to have faith in it. Maybe do something like this to show people that it can be done, so they take pride in their neighborhood instead of letting it get rundown.”

She and Mayssa concentrated first on exterior repairs and renovations. “The main goal was to preserve them,” says Madi-Shalhoub. “The shells were so rotted, I knew I had to concentrate on the outside – the roof and the windows – to keep out the air, wind, water and rodents.”

As Madi-Shalhoub got deeper into the project, she says, a lot of contractors she called in shook their heads, saying, “This is going to be a money pit. You’re better off demolishing and starting over.”

But to her way of thinking, “these are structures that deserve a second chance. They’re strong. They’ve got good bones. I don’t feel like demolishing them. I just didn’t have the heart to do it.”

“It’s evidently a very well-built house for it to last all these many years,” notes Stanbridge.

But a structure with such a long history takes time to bring back to its former glory. Phase I involved repairs to the foundation, wooden siding, windows and floors, along with installation of new metal roofs.

After the exterior work was completed, Madi-Shalhoub turned her attention to the smaller mango-colored house, taking it one little project at a time. The mother-daughter team ripped up floors, pulled out nails, cleared debris and oversaw carpentry repairs.

They did their best to keep everything intact. The house has been rewired and A/C has been installed, but the original Miami-Dade pine floors have been restored to gleaming shine. A retro-looking refrigerator that June Cleaver would have been proud to have in her kitchen adds a bit of charm.

The mother-daughter team also discovered several treasures, including an icebox that was cleaned up and mounted as a reminder of days gone by. Other favorites, Madi-Shalhoub said, are the “Harry Potter” cupboard under the stairs and a busy colony of bees that made themselves at home upstairs.

“The bees were safely relocated to Fellsmere, and we have honey that will last forever,” she adds.

On the first floor, a kitchen, dining area, living room and bathroom have been updated using distressed wood to maintain a sense of authenticity. Any changes that were made to the initial footprint were made in consideration of modern conveniences.

Through a door at the center of the house, a staircase opens into the loft-like master bedroom with a gambrel ceiling and windows on all sides that make the space feel larger than it is. Off to the side, a second doorway leads to another bedroom. This cozy little spot could be used as an office or a nursery where you could sit in the window seat and while away the day.

Once the Mango house was complete, Madi-Shalhoub and her daughter moved in to maintain social distancing from her husband, Dr. Hadi Shalhoub, and her son Jad Shalhoub, partners at Advanced Vascular Solutions.

“It’s tiny living, but everything you need is here,” Madi-Shalhoub says.

Now, she and Mayssa are anxious to get to work on the Gifford house interior. When complete, Madi-Shalhoub plans to live there before deciding what she wants to do with the house, using the Mango house as a guest retreat for her children when they visit.

She has considered turning the houses into a bed and breakfast and an Airbnb. “Maybe I’ll be the matron who lives upstairs in the Gifford house. Guests can stay in the Mango house and come over to the big house to eat.”

“These historic buildings represent our sense of place,” says Stanbridge. “Every community has that beginning where it started, and it is really important for people to know where everything began.”

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