Venice Heritage Inc. wants to build a display building to store “Old Betsy,” the city’s 1926 LaFrance fire engine on the Venice Cultural Campus. The hurricane-hardened structure would feature windows, sheltered by an arcade, where people could view the 94-year-old vehicle. [RENDERING PROVIDED BY BEECHWOOD BUILDERS]
Venice history buffs pitch a new home for ‘Old Betsy,’ the city’s 94-year-old fire engine
VENICE, FL: Earl Midlam wants to build a new home for Old Betsy, the 1926 LaFrance Fire Engine — which is older than the city of Venice itself and was once used to fight fires from Gulf Gate to Englewood.
Tuesday, Midlam — one of the main caretakers of the 94-year-old engine, who also drives it during parades — and Venice Public Works Director James Clinch, will bring a proposal to the Venice City Council for a display building to be constructed with private funding on the Venice Cultural Campus.
“We need to preserve it; it’s in mint condition right now, especially with the air conditioning,” Midlam said.
Air conditioning is one key feature of the proposed $310,000 hurricane-hardened structure that would be located on the campus, at the corner of Nassau Street and Milan Avenue — positioned in such a way that it doesn’t even impact the number of parking spaces on the site. Other features include glass garage doors and windows, so people can stop and look at Old Betsy when she’s not out on parade. The side windows along Nassau Street would be shaded by a covered arcade and include benches for people to sit.
A solar panel on the roof would provide power for the garage interior to be lit constantly. “People could go by there day and night; there will be a covered area and some benches where people can sit,” Midlam said. “This way it’s going to be lit up. “You'll be able to see it day and night.”
Venice Heritage Inc. already has an account established to which donors contribute to buy fuel, batteries and other supplies to keep Old Betsy running. (Midlam, a former Venice City Council member, proudly noted that Old Betsy hasn’t cost the city of Venice anything since 2011.)
Local philanthropist William H. Jervey Jr. already has pledged a dollar-for-dollar match up to $100,000 in donations to create a new home for Old Betsy. VHI technically needs to raise another $110,000 on top of that sum, though Midlam said that last $10,000 is a contingency fund. Tax deductible donations to the effort can be mailed to Venice Heritage Inc., P.O. Box 1190, Venice FL 34284-1190, with “Old Betsy’s New Home” noted on the check.
The Coalition wishes to recognize individuals and organizations that have made outstanding contributions to the preservation and understanding of Sarasota County’s prehistorical and historical resources. Besides honoring those who have devoted themselves to maintaining the integrity of our remaining architectural, archeological, and historical assets and educating the public to their importance, the Heritage Awards aim to raise the level of public support for governmental and citizen-based efforts to preserve our common past so future generations may learn from it.
All nomination materials must be submitted by email or regular mail by January 15, 2018. Awardees will be announced publicly in March, and the Awards Ceremony Luncheon will be held April 7, 2018 at the Venice Golf and Country Club.
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]