By Linda Carson ABC7 My Suncoast News September 25, 2017
SARASOTA, FL (WWSB) The house at 613 Venice Avenue in downtown Venice takes your breath away.
Current owners, Curt and Tommye Whittaker invited us in for a tour.
This is only the second time the public has been allowed in. The only other group to tour the home was the Venice Garden Club.
We start out in the large, beautiful dining room. The Whittakers have furnished it as closely as possible to the way it was furnished originally. Then we continue down the large, long front hall way. Owner Tommye Whittaker says, “There are 16 doors on the front level of the home, all to create cross ventilation for the hot months. You come in the front door, then go straight out the back door of the hall way and you step down into a lovely court yard, filled with flowers and a fountain.”
And as we continue down the front hall, Tommye says “There are two more rooms off this hall. There is the living room and a library. There is also an elevator that was installed when the house was first built and still works today.
The house was built in 1927 by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers
Tommye says, “This house was supposed to be for a Union Vice President. But the stock market crash happened, and this house stood empty for 3 years.”
Fitzhugh William Haensel and his wife Florence were the first owners. They bought it in 1930. Although the Haensel’s also had a home in New York City, they spent the winter months in Venice. They used the house to do a of of entertaining. The Haensel’s also traveled abroad extensively. Tommye says, “As a young man Haensel was a renowned soprano. He sang overseas a lot, mostly in Italy. And later, as he grew up and his voice changed, he became a very successful booking agent in New York City. His clients were people like Isadora Duncan and Caruso.
Tommye’s husband, Curt Whittaker, says “In his late 40’s Haensel and his partners founded Columbia Concerts Corporation to use for Broadway Productions. He and that group got into radio and began to do productions and at the end of the day it turned into The Columbia Broadcasting System, CBS.”
Although the family only used the house as a winter residence, they had a staff of four. .
Tommye says, “They had two year round live-in maids, the ladies wore French uniforms, they also had a chauffer / butler and they had a house boy.”
Tommye found amazing old pictures of the house in the attic. The house is large, over 5500 feet. 1200 of that is hallways, making it perfect for entertaining. It has may interesting features. For instance everyone always admires the fire places. Tommye says, “The fire places are actually poured concert. There is no granite, or marble, like you would find in finer homes of that day. It is actually concrete and cement.” She says, the wrought iron work, used for doors and hand rails is also very beautiful. And strangely, the floors are tile, done by Venice Tile Works, which was very active in Venice from 1925 to 1946. Venice Tile Works used the house as sort of a model home to show off their work. Every floor is different tile work. So a prospective customer looking for tile could go in, look at the various floors and pick the one he wanted. And a secret about the beautiful curving mahogany stair cases. Only their hand rail is Mahogany. The rest of the stair case is painted to look like mahogany. There were 4 bedrooms and a sleeping porches upstairs. Now there are 3 bedrooms and the sleeping porch has been turned into a bathroom and laundry room.
The Whittakers are only the 4th owners of the house. Curt says, “After the Haensels died, they left the home to Florence’s nephew. He immediately sold it to a Dr. Sorenson. After that Rich and Jennifer Lorick bought the house, and they worked diligently to bring it back to it’s original beauty. For example, when they tore up the kitchen floor because it was damaged. They searched out matching tile at a defunct Burger King, and bought all the floor tiles the store had to repair the kitchen floor.”
But despite its historical significance, and the fact that it’s on the Registry of Historic Places, legally the house could still be torn down. Tommye says there is no law against it in Venice. However, the Whittakers are passionate about preserving and protecting it. They consider themselves stewards of the house, and they say they will never sell it to anyone in the future who won’t preserve it.
Tommye says, “If we don’t protect our history, just like a Polaroid picture, it will fade away.”
[photos courtesy of Florida Memory Project and ABC7]