As a small child on shopping trips to town with his farmer dad, a young Wilbert Hamstra was more likely to lobby for treats like bits of lumber and nails than ice cream and candy. “I just always wanted to be a builder,” says the founder of the half-century old real estate development powerhouse, The Hamstra Group. “I built birdhouses and rabbit houses and by the time I was just out of high school I built my uncle’s house. I just wanted to build nice things.” And so he has. From shopping centers and schools to churches and cow barns, decades later that love of the build still burns brightly. “I just like to dream up things and build them.”
Growing up on a dairy, corn and soybean farm in a tiny Wheatfield, Indiana (where he still lives) was probably the greatest stroke of luck for a boy mesmerized by construction. Fortunately, he says nostalgically, there were endless projects that needed to be built on the farm. It wasn’t long before the neighbors noticed his youthful obsession and skill. Although making money seemed to interest young Hamstra much less than the projects themselves, the business was so successful that as a ninth grader, Wilbert hired his school mate (who he continued to work with until his retirement) to keep up with the demand for picnic tables, cattle troughs, windows and chicken houses. There was no time or necessity for college, says this self-made man. Humble by nature, he knew he had technical things to learn about construction so this clear-headed, self-assured boy simply signed up for a correspondence course, ran his business and kept up his high school grades.
The young man’s enterprise grew exponentially over the years ultimately with projects across the continent and across the ocean, but Hamstra says he just never wanted to move from Indiana. His love of the place where his Dutch immigrant grandparents settled is palpable. “It’s my home. We are four generations here now,” he says proudly. And he feels strongly about giving back to the community but like most modest men, he speaks about those projects (most recently a new library and a non-profit retirement home) reluctantly. “There are just things that need to be done so I do them.”
Hamstra’s fascination with construction and architecture has only grown over the years. Now that most of the company’s business is in the hands of the younger members of the family, he can take time to get back to what he loves the most…dreaming up houses and ushering them into the world like some cross between Merlin and midwife. “Everything I build, I build as if it is for myself”, he says, “I just want to do my best work.” Of late he has turned himself to beautiful, detailed vacation retreats that almost grow out of the warm earth of places like St Barts, Florida, Northern Michigan and Chicago. “Now the villas are my passion!” he says. “It is not about money at all. It is about a desire to build beautiful things.”
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A voracious reader, Hamstra studies every architecture magazine he can get his hands on, but it is the legendary South Florida developer Addison Mizner who most inspires him. Architecturally Hamstra’s villas are rooted in Mizner’s 1920’s style. While updating Mizner’s Spanish Colonial and Mediterranean designs, Hamstra focuses, like Mizner, on elegant and decorative details. In Hamstra’s case that means particularly in the woodwork.
Hamstra-built villas have sold to celebrities and captains of industry, but the one he has kept for his family is Vista Point Estate in Naples Florida. He found the location some time ago, spent one and a half years building to “perfection” and it is Vista Point Estate where the Hamstra clan tries to spend as much time as possible.
The charm, he says, of the large site, is that, though it is in the middle of the block, the landscaping provides total privacy. Landscaping is his second most compelling interest so working with a landscape architect, Hamstra built 2 ponds, a grand fountain and other water features, designed to establish a calming sound bed to muffle any street noise. One of his favorite places, his “hideout”, on the property is a stone deck that is surrounded by bougainvillea, frangipani and orchids. “I go there to read and to not be disturbed”, says the grandfather and great grandfather of “a big tribe” of noisy kids.
The four bedroom, six bathroom house has a home theater, granite kitchen and stone and marble throughout the bath and powder rooms, but is most interesting for its craftsmanship and attention to detail. The stone columns that hug the dining area are a riff on the Palm Beach palatial style of Addison Mizner and wood panels grace the walls. The wow quotient in Hamstra’s villas is the masterful woodcraft. One place that is most evident in the meeting points of the ceilings and walls and floors and walls. Each corner is cleverly (and time consumingly) rounded. Hamstra says he seeks out the most talented craftspeople and then oversees each element of the construction himself. But, he says with humility, he knows what he doesn’t know and unhesitatingly turns to masters in their craft. “I get ideas in my head, the vision for something I want to build and sometimes you just need someone to guide you.”
Hamstra says he always looks for remarkable sites and builds around the views. Nowhere is that more evident, he says then the view from Vista Point Estate’s view of Naples Bay where the blue bay can be seen through a pathway of palm trees. “The path to nowhere, I call it”, he says. “I could stay there all day.”
Of course, this master builder can’t sit still all day. He has so much more to imagine, so many houses to build and, of course, so many people to help, he says. “I feel like God gave me this vision and it’s my job to use it.”
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