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Whether it’s walking into a dusty estate sale or swooning over Bravo’s Million Dollar Listings, I love peeking into other people’s homes. It’s not only the chance to see the interiors up close; it’s imagining the lives that were lived here. Where did the little old lady who lived in this Bradenton bungalow wear that beaded cashmere sweater hanging in her closet? And who do those L.A. socialites entertain around that cliff-top infinity pool?

In this “Dream Homes” issue, we offer our own tantalizing view of some of our city’s exceptional houses, including our 20 most expensive homes. Sarasota has a lot to entice home voyeurs like me, from charming cottages and Ringling-era mansions to sleek Sarasota School of Architecture landmarks. We’ve become a popular destination for architecture lovers, with tours like those offered at next month’s Sarasota ModWeekend.

But along with vintage classics, we’re becoming known for another kind of home: spectacular waterfront mansions. Several decades ago, they began replacing the low-key homes that once lined our shores, and today they are ubiquitous. They’re being built, or torn down and rebuilt, by a new wave of ultra-wealthy entrepreneurs and CEOs, often as a second—or third, or fourth—home.

We wondered about these homes, many hidden by gates and lush landscaping, and the people who own them. Where did they come from, and what drew them here? How involved will they become in the community?

Editors Susan Burns and Cooper Levey-Baker took on the challenge of tracking down and talking to the owners of the 20 top-appraised homes in Sarasota County. And it was indeed a challenge. Twenty years ago, we did a similar story, and when we unearthed that issue, we had to laugh. “We called or sent letters to every owner,” we’d written, back in those pre-Internet and email days. And almost all of the owners, we’d blithely continued, had not only contacted us but were “warm, friendly and eager to talk.”

Times change. In today’s world of celebrity scrutiny and insatiable social media, privacy may be the most valuable commodity of all. Some of the owners were hidden behind corporations, and many of those Susan and Cooper managed to reach were guarded, to say the least. One, the head of a global manufacturing company, was willing to talk about his house, but when Cooper asked if we could photograph him and his wife, he laughed and said, “When pigs fly!”

But Susan and Cooper prevailed, eventually identifying every owner and interviewing many of them. In some ways, they fit the classic Sarasota profile. They’re all baby boomers or older, and they all came here from somewhere else. About half live here full-time, while the rest come for family vacations.

But while Sarasota has historically attracted high achievers, this group sets a new standard. They include the former head of the Iams pet food company, sold to Proctor & Gamble for $2.3 billion; a biotech executive once ranked by Forbes as America’s third-highest-paid female CEO; the owner of the ASK-GARY hotline; owners of a Canadian wholesale food company with 250 locations; one of Britain’s wealthiest couples; and a former and sitting member of the U.S. Congress. Some are enriching our community, supporting arts and social causes, while others stay under the local radar.

Their homes reflect their success. They range from $8.4 million to $16.9 million in appraised value (their market value might be considerably higher), and they’re huge, with the largest offering 21,000 square feet of living space. Every home is on the water, and with features such as movie theaters, hand-painted ceilings, multiple swimming pools and as many as 13 bathrooms, most define magnificent excess.

These 20 homes, and the enormously wealthy people who own them, may be extreme examples, but they represent the tip of the iceberg. People who could live anywhere are choosing to come to Sarasota, raising our international profile and changing, in ways we can’t yet foresee, the nature of our city. Yet it’s worth noting that most come here for the same reasons the rest of us did: the beaches, the beauty, the arts and the sense of community. The owner of a palatial Longboat beach home told Susan her family loves the quiet summers and small-town friendliness. “We can’t imagine living anywhere else,” she said.

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