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Photos by Katie Troyer

Pinecraft may well be Sarasota’s most unusual neighborhood. A winter retreat for thousands of Amish from Indiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania—plus their Mennonite cousins—it features famously tiny houses reminiscent of the long-vanished tourist camps of the 1920s and ’30s. They are plain and unadorned, sometimes severely so. No one in Pinecraft is house proud. It’s a sin—literally.

This doesn’t mean these homes come cheaply, though. Here’s an example, one of the few that are currently on the market: It’s at 1304 Gilbert Ave. Built in 1924, the house is 750 square feet, set on a 3,000-square-foot lot. It has two bedrooms. One is 9 feet by 8 feet; the other is a larger but awkward 15 feet by 7 feet. There is a small rental efficiency in the back yard that measures 10 feet by 10 feet. The home is covered with vinyl siding, and although neat as a pin, lacks any ornamentation or touches of personal style. There is no landscaping per se.

Anywhere else in town something like this would probably go for under $100,000. The Pinecraft price? They’re asking $190,000.

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The reason is simple, explains the listing agent, Tammy Mast of Michael Saunders & Company: “The Amish don’t drive cars. They have to be able to walk everywhere.” It’s the ultimate expression of real estate’s oldest law—location is everything. Indeed, the boundaries of Pinecraft are pretty much defined by how far an elderly Amish person can comfortably walk—perhaps a half mile. (Of course, many of the elderly Amish also travel by their three-wheel tricycles, by far the most popular form of transportation.)

The center of Pinecraft is the corner of Bahia Vista Street and Kaufman Avenue, where the post office is located, along with several small stores, an ice cream parlor and Yoder’s Restaurant and Market. At first glance it seems like nothing special. There is certainly nothing picturesque about the streetscape. Cars rush by on busy Bahia Vista, and you may notice a most-unAmish dance studio and a shop that sells golfing supplies.

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But during the season—December through March—Pinecraft is one of the busiest places in town. A dozen or so buses arrive every day, having made the overnight trip from the freezing Midwest. Meeting them and greeting friends and relatives is one of the day’s major activities, and the parking lot behind the Mennonite Tourist Church swarms with crowds of the Plain People in their distinctive dress.

Pinecraft Park is also a popular gathering place, with shuffleboard courts for the adults and basketball and volleyball for the kids. Other activities include taking the city bus to the beach and going to garage sales and auctions.

“The Amish love auctions,” says Mast, and indeed, much of the real estate in Pinecraft is sold that way. She recalls a listing she had that wouldn’t sell no matter what they did. It was finally put up for auction—and went immediately at the price she had it listed for.

Bahia Vista divides Pinecraft into two sections.

The southern is the oldest and the most untouched by time. It began life as one of Sarasota’s first tourist camps and still has the look of tiny cottages on miniscule—40-by-40-foot—lots. The straight, narrow streets are named after some of the old families—Tice, Miller, Graber.

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On the north side of Bahia Vista, things spread out a little—but just a little. Here the lots are larger and the homes bigger and newer and more suburban in style. The northernmost street, Hacienda, is clearly the Park Avenue of Pinecraft. Giant oaks tower over substantial homes, including one brand-new beauty with a circular drive and professional landscaping that anyone would be proud to own, even if they’re not supposed to be.

Can anyone live in Pinecraft? Of course, though why pay a premium price unless you have a connection to the community? Still, some characters slip in. Years ago a murderer on the run was tracked down to one of those tiny rental apartments, where he was hoping to blend in with his Amish neighbors.

Land values in Pinecraft are very stable, reports Dave Beachy, a realtor who specializes in the area. “During the downturn there were only two short sales,” he says. One reason: Most transactions are cash. That, and the location factor. “People will actually pay more if they don’t have to cross Bahia Vista on foot,” he says.

Pinecraft is slowly expanding, though its growth is still within walking distance of the post office. Phillippi Creek forms a natural boundary to the west, but members of the community are buying homes in the Gerhardt Street area. And there is even some new construction where Forest Lakes meets Pinecraft, to the south. Yes, the Amish tourists still come each winter, but Pinecraft itself is acquiring a more substantial look, a quaint place with a past that’s looking toward a larger future.

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