Urban History

By staff July 1, 2006

The first thing to know about the house Ernie and Loretta Ritz built is that it is a trompe l'oeil masterpiece of un-Americanized Mediterranean style. The second thing to know is that it's located above Bacco's restaurant on Lemon Avenue in Sarasota, directly across from Whole Foods Market.

Amid the dust of downtown renovation and without benefit of water views, the home's unassuming exterior masks the architectural confection that waits within. But once inside, visitors are transported to a time and place as alluring as a soft-focus Merchant Ivory film set-one where mahogany-toned Venetian blinds are drawn during the heat of day, and filtered light reveals richly pigmented fabrics, storytelling tapestries and the patina of time-worn antiques.

A former builder, developer, restaurateur and bar owner, Ritz worked with architect Ron Sivitz (then with Tichenor Group Architecture, now CEO of Sivitz Innovative Designs) to recreate the authentic ambiance and detailing found in city homes throughout Italy. The result is a townhouse that exudes Old World character and charm while providing every requisite 21st-century amenity.

The home has an iron-gated elevator, a top-floor spa and outdoor kitchen, commercial-grade gourmet appliances, bathrooms en suite for guest and master bedrooms, terraces off most rooms, wood ceilings and floors, and marble throughout. While it looks as if it might have been shipped piece by piece from Italy, the home proffers the cachet-but none of the downsides-so typical in overseas counterparts. (Peeling plaster, inefficient floor plans, inadequate plumbing and poor air conditioning come to mind.)

Instead, the Ritz abode is at once a tribute to the couple's love of Mediterranean architecture and their loyalty to downtown Sarasota. Ernie Ritz, who is president of the Main Street Merchants Association and on the board of the Downtown Partnership, is staunchly committed to the city's growth and passionate about its historic preservation. He is responsible for an alliance between those groups and retailers from Towles Court, Palm Avenue, Burns Court and the Rosemary District.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the Ritzes chose to live downtown a decade before it became chic. Their love affair with the city began in 1987, when Ritz built the structure on Lemon and Main that now houses Mattison's City Grille. A year later, the couple decided to run the restaurant themselves-a gutsy first venture they named Main Street Depot.

In 1992 the couple acquired the nearby circa-1926 Russell building and converted the first floor to a bar they called Grand Central Station. "After we demo'ed the interiors completely, we decided that the upstairs floor, which had not been used much since 1954, would be a convenient place to live," says Ernie.

The pair soon added the Gator Club on Main Street to their downtown stable of businesses. By then, Ritz says, living in the city had become more than just a lifestyle preference. "When we were operating Main Street Depot, Grand Central Station and the Gator Club, living right down the street from all three businesses was really an asset," he recalls.

Although the couple has since retired from the restaurant and club scene, their professional and personal lives became further intertwined when they decided to build on an empty lot adjacent to the Russell building, on the corner of Lemon Avenue and First Street. "We originally intended to rent out the entire building," Ritz says. "Then Loretta and I decided to sublet our existing home and live on the top three floors of the new building."

Ritz's architect remembers the Sarasota Historic Review Committee as his biggest challenge. "They said the original drawings for the exteriors were too Mediterranean," Sivitz says. Although the new structure and the historically significant Russell building were separated by a small addition completed long before this project began, the review committee considered the new building part of the original. They wanted less Mediterranean and more early-Sarasota, so mullions and other details were changed to win the board's approval.

Inside the building, however, Sivitz had free rein. "The concept for the interiors started out as Mediterranean, but evolved to a little more Italian, a little Baroque; actually it's a pretty good mixture," he says. "I did the layout and space planning, but Ernie handled the construction himself. The staircase, kitchen and interior detailing are amazing, and he did a spectacular job with the fireplace."

Ritz credits his wife with the fireplace idea. "Loretta found an ad in Architectural Digest for a company on the East Coast that does two-story fireplaces," he says, so they flew the designer in. "She took measurements for the fireplace and all the coordinating moldings, and from that point on everything was done long distance."

Rivaling the fireplace as the home's most striking feature is a custom fresco that crowns the archway between living and dining room. Although painted in Italy by artists retained by Design O'Fresco of Sarasota, the subject matter was selected by the homeowners. "We each spent time at the library going through various art books until we found the reference we liked best for the mural," Loretta Ritz explains. "When we compared notes, we found we had each selected the same painting."

That painting, The Toilette of Venus by Francois Boucher, was originally commissioned by Madame de Pompadour for a country chateau and completed in 1751. Other favorite artworks may be familiar to patrons of the Ritzes' bars. The four angel sculptures in the living room and hall, as well as two signed statues displayed in living room niches were all originally purchased for Grand Central Station. An oil painting that now commands center stage on a dining room wall is a memento from the Gator Club.

While the art brings a sense of place and family history to the new home, none of the pieces rivals the sentimental value of the couple's cherished dining room table. Made from a 150-year-old mahogany tree that graced the property on which their house now stands, the 12-foot table is a prized possession, symbolic of its owners' passion for downtown and its history.

"I had the tree cut so the wood could be planked, sent it to an old sawmill in Myakka and shipped the planks to a furniture maker in Tennessee," Ritz says. The table was crafted under the direction of Sarasota antiques dealer Adam Holiday, who also stained and finished it.

"Before we broke ground for the house, I told my kids we'd eat off that tree some day," he recalls. Indeed, the table and its story will define the Ritz family's dedication to downtown Sarasota for generations to come.

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