Sarasota Old-Style

By staff March 1, 2005

Recent real estate headlines have been all about the big, glossy new master-planned communities east of the interstate and the boom in high-end condominiums in downtown Sarasota. But there's a whole world of Sarasota neighborhoods that over the years have quietly evolved into havens of warmth and personality. That's where you tend to find old Sarasota-the families who've lived here for generations and who've shaped the region's character. These aren't instant developments; you'll find no marketing slogans or fancy sales brochures in these great neighborhoods, just pretty streets full of family and civic history. Here are five of our favorites.

Making history on the Island of Venice

O.K., the Island of Venice actually did start with a marketing campaign, albeit one started in 1925 by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), a railroad union based in Cleveland, Ohio. That's when union officials snapped up 55,000 acres of south Sarasota County land and hired renowned Boston architect and planner John Nolen to create a resort city that would lure well-off winter residents from the cold Midwest. BLE realtors courted potential buyers with everything from lobster-and-candelabra picnics on the beach to hunting expeditions in the wilds of eastern Sarasota County, and it worked-by the late 1920s, Venice had a winter population of several thousand.

From the start, Nolen pictured a walkable, human-scaled small city, with distinct neighborhoods all within strolling distance of a few-blocks-long shopping district along Venice Avenue. Wide landscaped boulevards and homes built around playgrounds or parks were central to Nolen's vision for this planned city, which was one of the nation's first. Venezia Park, bounded roughly by Harbor Drive to the west and Nokomis Avenue to the east, was to be the upscale neighborhood. An actual pocket park, Venezia Park became quickly surrounded by lovely one- and two-story Mediterranean-vernacular homes built of hollow clay tile with red barrel clay tile roofs. Because city leaders wisely held onto Nolen's original zoning, 80 years later, on Venice Avenue and to the south, not much has changed.

These original residences, now surrounded by lush foliage, wear oval plaques declaring them to be "contributing houses" to the Venezia Park Historic District. Because Venezia Park is part of the Historic Venice Architectural Control District, an architectural review board must approve any aesthetic changes to its homes. "They've been especially strict about paint color lately," says Dorothy Korwek, former city councilwoman and now director of historical resources for the City of Venice. Over the years, some of the original homes were razed, but the homes that replaced them have been constructed in similar size and scale. This is not a neighborhood of grand mansions, although Nolen did not leave those out of his master plan; he placed those right on broad Venice Avenue as it promenades toward the beach. The 1920s-era mansion that sprawls across five lots at the corner of Venice Avenue and Park Boulevard was on the market last winter for $4 million.

"Venezia Park has always been very fortunate," says Korwek. "The original owners always maintained their homes, and the new residents respect them."

After the stock market crash of 1929, development stalled on the Island of Venice. From a winter population of several thousand, by 1930 the year-round population plummeted to just a few hundred. Remarkably, in the 20 years that followed, only a hundred new structures were built. Only after World War II, when many soldiers who'd been introduced to Venice when they trained at the air base here returned to start new lives, did building began again in earnest.

The wall of mid-rise condos that rose on the beach along Tarpon Center Drive in the 1970s is the only aberration to Nolen's original plan. (He had envisioned the entire beachfront as publicly owned.) Pointing to Tarpon Center Drive, residents have shown fierce opposition in recent years to any developers who've proposed amending height restrictions anywhere else on the island. They're justifiably proud of their heritage. Big green and gold banners around town declare "Welcome to Historic Venice."

"Citizens here are really concerned about the look of this town," says Korwek. "They don't want it to turn into, you should pardon the expression, another Sarasota."

Psst.heard about Bayview Heights?

Bayview Heights is the neighborhood time nearly forgot, and longtime residents want to keep it that way. You don't have to close your eyes and imagine what this wonderful old West of the Trail neighborhood tucked between Cherokee Park and McClellan Park looked like 40 years ago-it still looks that way: broad gracious streets with names like Harmony Lane and Pleasant Place lead to the bay and are lined by an eclectic array of homes from the '40s, '50s and '60s on lots filled with banyans, palms and oaks.

Reid and Adelaide Farrell moved to Bayview Heights in 1957, to a stucco house on the corner of Bayview Drive and Pleasant Place with a big staghorn fern by the front door and a driveway so sloped you're wise to use your emergency brake. Adelaide's mother lived immediately behind them for many years, and Reid's brother and sister-in-law lived two blocks away.

The neighborhood long ago was an orange grove, and the Farrells' property was originally the site of the barn. Adelaide Farrell says a big Washingtonian palm in their yard once served as a sentinel for sailors coming in and out of Sarasota Bay. Cunliff Lane, the northern boundary, was Sarasota's first main street; the city's first post office is now a neighbor's garage. The Farrells' next-door neighbors, Tony and Mary Wildrick, occupy the oldest house in Sarasota County, a rambling antebellum Florida farmhouse that legend goes was headquarters for a rumrunners' operation during Prohibition. At one time, Saturday Evening Post writer Lucy Ford owned the house, and later Sarasota School of Architecture architect Bill Zimmerman and his wife lived there. V.T. Hamlin, the creator of the comic strip, Alley Oop, lived in the big red brick house across the street and later moved two houses down, where he drew his nationally syndicated comic strip for 30 years.

Bayview Heights' wide streets (Bayview Drive is, at 70 feet wide, a true boulevard; the side streets are 40 feet wide) contribute to the neighborhood's gracious air. The streets were all originally brick, but were covered with asphalt in 1924 when the subdivision was platted, except a one-block stretch of Colony Terrace from Bayview Drive to Cunliff Lane. "One of our neighbors had it put in the permanent record at City Hall that they can't pave over Colony Terrace," says Reid Farrell. In the mornings, between 7 and 8 a.m., he says the streets are so thick with walkers, 20 or 30 of them, "you almost have to dodge them."

Yet so few outsiders know about Bayview Heights that "we jokingly call it the lost subdivision," Farrell says. Still, the 21st century has begun. A house on the corner of Bayview Drive and Colony Terrace was sold at the end of 2004 and a glossy full-color billboard heralds the arrival of a 4,600-square-foot Mediterranean home "available Spring 2005."

Commercial realtor John Harshman, who lived on the corner of Mulberry and Bayview Drive for 10 years, moved to the little yellow bayfront house on Cardinal Place in 1995, tore it down and built a lovely but unostentatious two-story home in its place in 2002. Harshman, like his neighbors, is eager to preserve Bayview Heights' privacy. "It's quiet and no one knows about it, so we don't like the press," says Harshman, "but don't say that because it doesn't sound good. Say, 'We like the peaceful anonymity of the area' instead."

100 Years of Solitude in Sanderling

History of a more recent nature is the key to Sanderling Club's enormous appeal. First developed almost 60 years ago as a winter retreat, this tranquil south Siesta Key Gulf-front neighborhood offers quiet, winding roads and big homes with shell drives obscured by tropical foliage. All roads lead to the Gulf, where the centerpiece is the wonderful Sanderling Beach Club, whose wooden beach cabanas were designed in 1952 by architect Paul Rudolph. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, these tiny white cabanas have curved rooftops that resemble waves, or seagulls in flight, and louvered wooden walls that slide open to frame a breathtaking expanse of sea.

The lucky people who buy in Sanderling find a ready-made social life that revolves around the beach club; besides potluck socials and parties, there's a tennis tournament each April and a monthly book club. (February's assignment: 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)

Always a haven for low-key wealth, Sanderling's laid-back allure is perhaps best summed up in a piece resident William W. Hallenbeck wrote 20 years ago to commemorate the community's 40th anniversary: "It has to be kept in mind that the houses built [between 1946 and 1958, the community's formative years] were basically three-month beach houses which were furnished with wicker and had bathroom doors on the beach," Hallenbeck wrote. "Essentially, it was a private, low-keyed lifestyle of congenial people with similar backgrounds and tastes who went barefoot and liked it."

Many of these original clapboard beach houses have been demolished, of course, to make way for bigger residences, especially along the Gulf. But Med Rev has yet to infiltrate the community-two of the largest new homes were designed by modernist architect Guy Peterson-and because stringent neighborhood association rules dictate that homes must be hidden from the street with landscaping, even the largest new residences are tempered by a riot of sea grapes, palms, oaks, banyans, crotons and cycads. "We have the same plants as other neighborhoods, just a lot more of them," says Jane Sweeney, who has lived here with her husband, Dan, since 1998 in a 1950 Florida vernacular home on Heron Lagoon. "At night it's very quiet, you can see the stars, and it's dark and mysterious."

Coldwell Banker Real Estate realtor Betsy de Manio calls it Sarasota's most exclusive address. "You really get what Florida is all about in Sanderling," she says. "It's quintessential old-style Sarasota for people who value privacy, seclusion and a natural environment." Property values reflect this exclusivity; of the four properties for sale last winter the least expensive was listed at $3.35 million and the highest at $8.5 million.

Sweeney stopped to greet a neighbor as she walked her dog, Pearl, down Sanderling Road on a recent winter morning. "Every time I walk down here, I feel like I've gone back in time to the 1960s," the neighbor told her.

"It has changed and it hasn't," said Sweeney, looking around with satisfaction. "It's changed for the better, I think."

Leave it to Old Forest Lakes

If Ward, June, Wally and the Beav moved to Sarasota, chances are they'd put down roots in Old Forest Lakes.

This great family neighborhood boasts the best of all worlds: oversized lots of at least an acre, many of them perched on two idyllic ponds that meander through the subdivision, and a convenient in-town location just east of Beneva between Webber Street and Bee Ridge Road. Most homes were built in the 1950s and '60s. There's been a good amount of remodeling, but not many teardowns, and even those have been replaced with homes that fit the neighborhood's scale.

"There couldn't be a safer neighborhood," says Johanna Wilkes, the teenage daughter of Van Wezel executive director John Wilkes and his wife, Patty. "All the little boys go fishing in the pond and there are lots of neighborhood parties-Christmas and the Fourth of July, and on Halloween, there's a hayride." A group of neighborhood women gathers regularly for lunch and tea. Everybody knows the schedule of the train that a couple of times a week motors down the railroad track marking Old Forest Lakes' eastern boundary; the engineer throws lollipops to the youngsters. Former neighborhood association president Dr. Chuck Nixon, who has since moved away, had a longtime habit of throwing on his cowboy hat and rubber boots and bicycling daily to inspect the neighborhood, says Patty; once he found a rattlesnake and gathered up the neighborhood kids to help dissect it.

Judy Bronstein lived in Old Forest Lakes for 12 years, starting in 1976. She raised seven children in a custom-built split-level built in 1954 on two acres on the lake. "There were a lot of kids in the neighborhood, lots of bike riding and fishing, the lake had bass and turtles, and our neighbors had a big trampoline," she says. "It was wonderful."

Old Forest Lakes has a good mix of families and empty-nesters, and a lot of native Sarasotans live here. Several physicians live here, too, perhaps because it's halfway between Sarasota Memorial and Doctors Hospital. Because of the neighborhood's rediscovered cachet, there hasn't been much real estate activity recently, says Nancy Falkenstein of Re/Max Properties; one big house with lots of lake frontage was listed at $1.25 million, then withdrawn from the market last year, and the lakefront home under contract at 3526 E. Forest Lakes Drive was listed early this year at $690,000.

"People tend to stay put," says Patty Wilkes. "There's nothing pretentious to me about this neighborhood, and that's why we love it."

Back to nature at Gator Creek

Jeff and Jackie Russell and their three boys live on more than 14 acres of cabbage palm- and oak-shrouded land in countrified Gator Creek. Jeff is an attorney with Abel Band and Jackie breeds horses; on a recent crisp winter weekday morning, six were grazing placidly under a canopy of oaks behind the barn.

Fourteen miles east of downtown Sarasota, Gator Creek is the quintessential country gentlemen's community: homes on five-acre-plus lots are decidedly upscale but not showy; residents demonstrate the can-do, everybody-chip-in-and-help neighborliness that develops when the nearest grocery store is several miles away. When the underbrush gets overgrown on the bridle trail that rims the community, volunteers willingly whack it away. The occasional horse that gets loose on the golf course is cheerfully retrieved. Wildlife is bountiful-bald eagles, bobcats, foxes, hawks and the numerous 'gators for which the neighborhood is named. A pair of deer dance alongside Jackie's car as she shows off the neighborhood's many charms to a visitor.

A fair number of veterinarians live here, as do physicians, attorneys and the occasional artist and motivational speaker. It's rumored that the former female golf champion of Spain bought here with hopes of playing the outstanding and very private Gator Creek golf course. It was not to be-Gator Creek is one of the remaining two dozen or so all-male golf clubs in the country-and she promptly sold.

With just three vacant home sites remaining out of 66 (and these will be developed in the near future), Gator Creek properties tend to be snapped up as soon as they hit the market. Late last December one property was for sale, for $1.9 million. On her car tour, Jackie points out a home whose former owners decided to "downsize" to Saddle Creek; there aren't many Sarasota neighborhoods for which Saddle Creek is considered a smaller property.

Fifteen years ago, Gator Creek was really in the middle of nowhere. Now in the world of newer, more antiseptic developments with clean, curbed streets and homogenous -styled homes that surround it, Gator Creek is the real deal.

"When we moved here, I felt like we won the lottery," says Jackie. "What makes it so is the quality of our neighbors. If you want privacy, no one will bother you. If you want to get involved, you're welcomed with open arms."

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