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Photos: James F. Wilson

Lake Davis Drive is one of those established downtown Orlando, Fla., neighborhoods that hark back to the city’s roots, before Walt and Mickey and Shamu the killer whale set up their circus south of town.

Encircling one of the small lakes that dot the city’s core, the narrow, tree-lined street features a comfortable diversity of home styles and sizes, the latest being an imposing, 8,500-square-foot residence that replaced a pair of modest bungalows on a three-lot site: The New American Home 2011.

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Photos: James F. Wilson

While such a large home may seem out of step with the current economy, sustainable building sentiment, and popular McMansion backlash, the classically designed manse built by Continental Homes & Interiors of Winter Park, Fla., is a reminder that there is still a market for large custom homes designed and built with a buyer on board. For the first time in its 28-year history, The New American Home, a show home co-produced by Builder and NCHI—The Leading Suppliers of NAHB in the host city of the annual International Builders’ Show, had a homeowner attached from the get-go. That meant no for-sale sign out front and no follow-up article about when it sold (and for how much less than its list price), but it also presented its share of challenges ranging from communication to product selection, and, ultimately, the size and interior design of the house.

“The economic conditions in Central Florida made building a high-end spec house highly impractical, if not financially impossible,” says Bill Nolan, the 2011 TNAH task force vice chairman, recalling the 2010 version in Las Vegas that was halted due to lack of financing. “Having a buyer eliminated that risk and resulted in a house that demonstrates the idiosyncratic nature of the current housing industry.”

The mere fact that the 2011 house was built on contract is not the only difference between it and a luxury spec home. It is also, simply, a beautiful house, a perfectly proportioned classic manor of historical reference that is about as architecturally akin to a cookie-cutter, gable-garbled McMansion as an apple is to a scissor truss.

“It is reminiscent of custom Florida homes in Palm Beach, Miami, and Sarasota from the 1920s,” says Chris Donnelly, the architect of record from nearby Beverly Hills, Fla., who shares credit with designer Michael Curtis of The Studio in Alexandria, Va. He points to roof forms, niches, cornices, columns, and openings that provide historically accurate details, with some of them also contributing to the home’s energy performance and indoor comfort.

But despite a floor plan that matched the home’s exterior in size, scale, and overall aesthetic (note the 24-foot ceiling in the great room just inside the front door on page 3), the interior finishes replace heavy formality with simple forms and light details to please the contemporary sensitivities of the owners and reflect prevailing lifestyle tastes across the country. “I decided that rather than reuse the old wheel, I would put a new spin on it and create a new classical,” says Kate Clarke, the builder’s in-house interior designer.

That approach was a departure from what builder Keith Clarke, her husband, has been providing to upscale Central Florida home buyers since the mid-1990s, but it somehow suited the process he and the project team undertook to deliver the house. “It’s a different overall style for Orlando, very urban-looking,” he says, comparing it more to homes in the D.C. area than The City Beautiful. “But it’s in an eclectic neighborhood, and the neighbors have embraced it,” adding yet another thread to the fabric along Lake Davis.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Orlando, FL, Los Angeles, CA.