Home & Garden

Step Inside a Lush Bahamian Hideaway

Two Miami architects bring their dreams to life with a sublime bungalow on Eleuthera


Melissa and Jacob Brillhart's Eleuthera home.

When the sun rises on Eleuthera, a hundred-mile sweep of rock and sand in the Bahamian archipelago, a primeval world awakens: Bahama mockingbirds warble from somewhere in the pines, pink rain lilies stretch open their petals, and in their 650-square-foot hut tucked into the sea grapes and silver buttonwood, Melissa and Jacob Brillhart and their five-year-old daughter, Simms, greet the day.

At first glance, the “Brillhut,” as friends have dubbed the house, is almost indistinguishable from the thicket of flora around it. But the chance of anyone getting close enough for a glimpse in the first place is slim.


The “Brillhut”; the Atlantic view.

“We’re off the beaten path,” Melissa says. “We sit at the end of a rocky road so remote, it feels like the end of the earth.” The road passes landmarks with storybook names such as Rainbow Bay, Smuggler’s Beach, and the Queen’s Baths before crossing the Glass Window Bridge as whitecaps crash into the rocks below. After a major storm, the narrow road is often impassable, but when the sky is clear and the weather fair, paradise awaits at its terminus.

Photo: William Abranowicz

A surfboard juts out of the Brillhart family 4Runner.

Building their own island Eden was long a dream for Jacob and Melissa; through their architecture firm, founded in 2007, they design tropical modern structures throughout Miami and beyond. Since grad school, Jacob has kept a copy of Blueprint for Paradise: How to Live on a Tropic Island by Ross Norgrove, a 1983 book that outlines the practical ins and outs of island living, from choosing the right location to installing wiring and plumbing. When the duo began a project for friends on Surfer’s Beach on Eleuthera, they knew they’d found their island.


The pine boardwalk leading to the beach.

“In the tropics, nature is number one, so above all, we wanted to figure out how to immerse ourselves in that,” Jacob says. When it came to building a place for themselves, “we wanted it to jibe with the local architecture.” Their shelter’s pitched roof, for instance, nods to the gabled cottages of Harbour Island, while the core framework stays true to the primitive definition of a hut. Jacob fabricated the structure—using both traditional post-and-beam and contemporary stick-frame construction—out of western red cedar in their Miami backyard, then flat-packed it and shipped it to the Bahamas, where he and a handful of local workers erected it over the course of ten days plus a few long weekends.


The outdoor bar; island bar essentials.

In the hands of the Brillharts, the primal blueprint—one downstairs living space below a two-bed sleeping quarters and bathroom—becomes undeniably current. “All of our work mixes the vernacular with the contemporary,” Jacob says. “If a structure is not of its time, it feels contrived.” They outfitted the resulting chicly minimalist, completely off-the-grid shelter with structurally insulated panels, hurricane-impact glass, a water collection system, solar panels, and an open layout that transforms cross breezes into makeshift air-conditioning. “That new technology mixed with classic architectural forms—that’s what makes it sing,” he says.

“When we originally designed the house, we envisioned putting glass on all sides, but the process took a while, and after living in essentially a screened porch, we realized how much we loved it,” Melissa says. Weather conditions and ocean spray, though, required a compromise; now walls of glass face the ocean and to the north, while screens veil the remaining sides. Hurricane-proof flaps lift and lower like butterfly doors at the tug of a hot-pink pulley, in an architectural feat the Swiss Family Robinson could only dream of.


Melissa and Jacob with his mother, Julie (far left); their daughter, Simms; and their dog, Birdie, in the kitchen; the living area.

Inside, Jacob handcrafted the fixtures and furniture, including kitchen cabinets and lounge chairs modeled on the designs of the twentieth-century Dutch master Hans J. Wegner. A few works of art around the hut are homemade, too: Jacob doubles as a painter, often slipping away on lazy days to sketch the island’s architecture. “When it comes to beauty, nature is unmatched,” he says. So they left most of the other decorating up to the environment. Upstairs, sunshine and moonlight float in through skylights above the sleeping area and cast shadows onto the muslin dividing curtain, while eye-level windows adorn the walls like picture frames.


The sleeping quarters; the view from the kitchen table.

Photo: William Abranowicz

Jacob’s sketchbooks.

Outside, a deck and walkway connect the hut to a service building with a powder room, an outdoor shower, a kitchenette, and a wine fridge. Farther down the vertebral boardwalk, a wooden deck, the Brillharts’ latest addition to the compound, extends over the rocky Atlantic shore. “We built it for yoga and cocktails,” Melissa says. “We have a firepit and chairs, and you can just sit there above the waves crashing.”


The outdoor shower; the deck at sunset, featuring iroko wood Adirondack chairs Jacob designed and built.

For the Brillharts, embracing that outdoor time is the whole point. “We love to garden,” Melissa says. “We’ve planted about forty different coconut palms and countless grasses to see what will thrive.” Often Jacob, Melissa, Simms, and their collie-spaniel mix, Birdie, paddleboard to nearby lagoons, boat to the pink beaches of Harbour Island, or navigate through the thatch palm and casuarina trees to the bay just west of their property. There, a staircase overgrown with vegetation—ruins of the long-abandoned Whale Point Club resort—descends onto a secret beach, a turtle sanctuary where conchs, giant starfish, squid, and bonefish flourish.

“Birdie honestly has the best time here out of anyone,” Melissa says. “The name Eleuthera comes from a word meaning freedom, and she epitomizes that. When you let her off her leash, she just flies down the beach.”

Photo: William Abranowicz

Julie and Simms on an adventure.