Tired of the traffic? Leery of all the new high-rises? Can’t face another chic restaurant? While some people in Sarasota are energized by all the growth and changes, others are sad to see the small-town atmosphere—along with the wide-open spaces—disappear.
But there’s still a place that has retained its old-fashioned charm. It’s dripping with authenticity, and it’s just 20 minutes away.
It’s called Bradenton.
True, Bradenton is poised for growth, with thousands of new homes being permitted near IMG Academy and the village of Cortez. And downtown Bradenton is in the midst of a revitalization effort that includes the new Riverwalk park and the expansion of cultural facilities and special events.
Jeff Plunkett and Johnette Isham, who moved to Bradenton from Sarasota several years ago when she became director of Realize Bradenton, a nonprofit that promotes the growth of downtown, bristle at nostalgic descriptions of their new hometown.
“Don’t confuse small-town feel with old-fashioned,” Plunkett says. “Bradenton is very forward-looking, with an urban vibe.”
“Old-fashioned charm has never been on our radar,” Isham agrees.
Well, it’s been on mine. My favorite vacation is a road trip through the small towns of Alabama and Georgia, and I recognize a kindred spirit when I look around Bradenton. The First Baptist Church is a dead ringer for the First Baptist Church in the little East Texas town I was born in. And any Southerner will recognize the county courthouse, a classic down to the unfortunate presence of a Confederate war memorial—although it’s discreetly tucked away in a corner.
Sarasota is a resort. Bradenton goes to work every day. There are many small industries and one enormous one—Tropicana. Everyone in Bradenton knows someone who works there. It also provides, free of charge, the sweet and pungent odor of burning oranges. At first I thought it was a drawback, some sort of odor pollution. Now I love it. When the wind blows just right, the whole town smells like cheap perfume.
Can a real Sarasotan live there happily? You bet. True, the restaurants are limited and so is the shopping. There’s no ballet or opera. But guess what? All that stuff is 20 minutes away. Asolo Rep is closer to more places in Bradenton than in Sarasota. And Bradenton has an enormous variety of housing stock, from cute vintage cottages to waterfront mansions—almost all priced lower than their Sarasota counterparts.
But where should you start searching? Let’s take a look at four great old Bradenton neighborhoods of serious interest for the lover of small-town flavor.
Bungalow lovers swoon as they drive though Wares Creek. This neighborhood just west of downtown has one of the region’s best collections of 1920s and ’30s cottages, often described as Sears Roebuck houses. Mixed in with newer but still vintage homes, they’re catnip for people who dream of finding an old home they can renovate and make their own, lack of closet space be damned.
Wares Creek has not fallen victim to the scourge of the teardown. Old homes are being remodeled, and there’s a flurry at the moment. I counted seven on one block alone. Why? “Because the houses are so damned cool,” says Patrick Roff, a city councilman and Wares Creek resident since 1988. “That’s why people come here.”
A nice unremodeled bungalow can still be had for under $200,000, and they usually sell in less than a month. Among current listings: an updated two-story home on a large lot at 524 25th St. W. It was built in 1915, and although the layout is a bit eccentric, it could be tweaked into something special.
You also might check out a 2,700-square-foot Prairie-style home at 904 22nd Ave. W. It has a classic front porch and period details: original oak floors, plaster walls, picture moldings, a sleeping porch and two fireplaces. It’s expensive for Wares Creek: $349,000.
Some of your neighbors will be involved in the arts. Jack Sullivan, for instance, moved here from California in 2010. He’s the publisher of Blues Music magazine, an influential voice in the music business. What attracted him was Bradenton’s own music presence. Buoyed by the success of the annual Bradenton Blues Festival since it was founded in 2012, the city has become something of a community for blues and rock musicians. “I have 15 friends, both musicians and people in the business, who’ve relocated here,” Sullivan says.
He found his home on Seventh Avenue West on Craigslist. It dates back to 1904. “The previous owners remodeled the house and they did a great job. It’s got soul,” Sullivan says. He runs his business from a cottage in back; the patio serves as the conference room.
When Councilman Roff moved here in 1988, Ware’s Creek was something of an eyesore. Renters lived in most of the houses, and the creek was a mud flat at low tide, full of old tires and dead trees. During storms it would often flood. It took years to achieve, but 38,000 cubic yards of muck have been dredged away and people now canoe and kayak on the creek. “And now we’re capable of handling a 100-year storm,” says Roff.
If you’re looking for a real bargain, check out Ballard Park, right across the creek. It’s shabby, true, but full of remodel-ready homes at rock-bottom prices.
Point Pleasant is the quintessential old Bradenton neighborhood. It packs an amazing amount of charm and personality into a small area: less than 100 homes, located on a peninsula that pokes into the Manatee River.
Aside from an enviable location—views in all directions out to the river and a five-minute walk to Old Main Street—the big attraction here is the beautiful old homes. Just about every style of the last 100 years is represented: Spanish, Cottage, Colonial, Craftsman (several spectacular examples), American Vernacular (a group on Third Street is said to be built by New England shipbuilders), not to mention some newer homes designed to look old. There’s also a great—if faded—example of the Sarasota School of Architecture, a major retirement community, several mid-rise condos and a couple of structures that can only be described as cheap apartment buildings. Somehow everything blends together beautifully.
Landmark homes do come on the market now and then. A particularly nice Craftsman from 1900 recently sold for $405,000. It had all the things you want in a Craftsman—hardwood floors, original built-ins, beveled glass windows—and it’s a spacious 2,400 square feet. A newer townhouse-style condo directly on the water is priced at $499,000. And right across the street are the famous old Point Pleasant Apartments. Several generations of area creatives were once starving artists here. One of our editors, Ilene Denton, and Wade Tatangelo, the Ticket editor at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, both lived in the penthouse—although not at the same time. The building has a classic 1920s design and looks like something out of a Raymond Chandler movie. Occasionally some of the atmospheric yet tiny apartments come on the market, often for under $100,000.
Point Pleasant is still a magnet for creative spirits. Realize Bradenton’s Isham and her husband live here. Mike and Jamie Carter, co-owners of the popular O’Bricks Restaurant on Old Main Street, have built two Craftsman-style homes in the neighborhood. Also in the ’hood: Jane Plitt, former head of the Manatee Library Foundation, who helped raise over $300,000 by bringing in authors Stephen King and John Grisham for a special event.
If there’s a fly in the Point Pleasant ointment, it’s the presence of Westminster Communities, an enormous retirement community that keeps expanding its campus by purchasing contiguous properties. One old house was razed for a parking lot. Westminster also just bought the beautiful old Spanish mansion where Moody Blues drummer Graeme Edge lived for years. The home’s future is still up in the air.
And yes, you read that right. Graeme Edge lived in Point Pleasant. In my book, no further recommendation is needed.
Not all of Bradenton’s old neighborhoods have a funky bohemian edge. The largest one of all—Riverview Boulevard—is where the town’s establishment lives and has lived for generations. And as an indication of Bradenton’s wealth, it’s impressive. Mansions on the water can sell for more than $3 million.
Riverview Boulevard is a little hard to define. Realtor Martha Marlar uses the term “Manatee River Region” and includes all the streets that follow along the waterfront, starting from downtown all the way out to 75th Street. The boulevard changes moods and atmosphere along the way, but it’s all good. It begins, improbably, with a group of stone houses from the ’30s and ’40s that suggest cottages in the Cotswolds. One on the water is on the market for $799,000.
As Riverview Boulevard heads west toward the beach, it leads to a group of neighborhoods full of gracious homes from the 1950s to the present that radiate glowing upper-middle-class prosperity. The lots are large, the lawns green, and many homes are on the water, either the Manatee River or one of the several bayous, inlets and canals that extend into the area.
“That makes it attractive for boaters,” says realtor Jody Schinn. She grew up in the area and currently lives in a home on Warner’s Bayou, with a dock in the back yard and access to the Manatee River and the Gulf of Mexico. “We have mostly professional local people. They’re remodeling, not tearing down. Particularly young couples. They like the vintage look,” she says.
Warner’s Bayou also boasts a rarity for this part of Florida—a hill. It’s a small rise, but enough to provide picture-perfect views over the boat basin. And check out Fontana Lane in Harbor Hills, a block-long slice of vintage homes under an enormous canopy of giant banyan trees that keep the street in perpetual shade.
A nice home can be had for around $400,000, with waterfront starting in the low millions. Marlar has a listing that epitomizes the area’s appeal. A midcentury modern with traditional overtones, it’s big (4,400 square feet) and roomy, with four bedrooms and three baths. It’s been expensively modernized and sits on three quarters of an acre, with 100 feet of waterfront on Warner’s Bayou. Yes, there’s a pool (heated) and a dock. It’s $1,150,000.
Marlar is seeing a new wave of buyers, boomers who retired to the keys but have changed their minds. “They’re fleeing the traffic and the five-bedroom, five-bath rental vacation homes on Anna Maria Island,” she says. “Now they want a close-knit residential community.” Among them are migrants from Sarasota. Marlar had a Sarasota client who had never been on Riverview Boulevard before he drove up, stopped at an open house, fell in love and bought the property. “He loves the quiet, laid-back life along the Manatee River,” she says.
And a number of affluent buyers are drawn by the presence of a prestigious private school, Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School, where tuition in the upper grades is $22,000 a year.
Prices along Riverview Boulevard drop as you head south and get closer to Manatee Avenue. In this area, the homes vary in appeal. Some are quite ordinary, but there is still a great selection of attractive older houses placed on roomy lots and shaded by ancient trees. Best of all, they’re north of Manatee Avenue, the equivalent of Sarasota’s “West of the Trail.” If you can find the right property, you’ll end up with a charming home with a prestigious address.
Palma Sola Park
Nowadays our congressmen tend to live in $10 million mansions on Longboat Key. But back in the old days they were more discreet. For years, Congressman Dan Miller and his wife, Glenda, lived in an old Spanish home in Palma Sola Park. It was the perfect neighborhood for an old-fashioned congressman—the embodiment of traditional values, prosperous without being ostentatious, and inclusive as well. Many of the homes are not that remarkable or expensive, but they are very well groomed. And you can be sure that every modest ranch from the 1970s has tacked a premium on to its price tag, just because of the address.
Palma Sola Park is one of the oldest communities in this part of Florida. It was settled just after the Civil War and originally contained a lumber mill and a general store (sorry, no liquor sold). In the 1920s it began a new life as one of the area’s first planned communities. Thomas Edison’s secretary built one of the original homes, and the palm trees that line the streets are said to have started life as seedlings from the Edison estate in Fort Myers.
The winding streets have exotic Spanish names—Estremadura, Portosueno, Montezuma—except for the oddly named Senrab Street, which turns out to be the developer’s name spelled backwards. Baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean lived here in the 1930s and was famous for keeping a goat to eat the grass in the front yard. Dean liked Bradenton so much he bought a gas station here, where he hung out with his buddies during the off-season. Hence the famous Gas House Gang, according to many baseball historians.
Showplace homes of all ages and varieties are found along Palma Sola Boulevard, and while the mansions on the water are impressive, what really gives Palma Sola its distinctive character are the unique homes that dot the inland streets. Many are quite affordable. I recently saw a cute and smartly updated midcentury modern for $250,000, and if you have half a million to spend you can get a premium property.
Perhaps the most unusual home in Palma Sola Park belongs to photographer Gary Sweetman and his wife Linda DiGabriele, managing director of Asolo Rep. It was built by a doctor as a finishing school for young ladies back in 1920s. When the Sweetmans bought the home in 1992, Gary says, the second floor still contained six dorm rooms, each with a sink, and a single bathroom down the hall.
“There’s a local legend about the house,” Sweetman says. The story goes that, back in 1927, Indians attacked the school and carried off two of the girls. They were rescued three days later in Fort Lonesome, a crossroads settlement out past Wimauma, in what the newspaper described as a “ruint” condition. Any truth here? It seems unlikely that Indians were attacking finishing schools as late as the 1920s. But it does show that Palma Sola Park has a vivid past extending back to Florida’s pioneer days, and that the neighborhood, still beautiful after almost 100 years, is full of legends and ghosts.