A famous author and his family’s home on Venice beach are two more keys to the lure and lore of Venice and its place in the history of Florida.
The author was Walter Farley whose series of 20 books about a black stallion captivated America in the 1940s and 1950s. In those years, children loved that horse and so did their parents. All these years later, the books remain available for sale to yet another generation of avid readers, in many cases the great-grandchildren of Farley’s initial audience.
People were proud to have an author of such stature in what then was a small town with barely 1,000 residents. Many residents even found their names used in the books.
Former Gondolier Sun editor Sam Dillon often spoke of being included in one of the books as “a bad guy.” Those who still remember Dillon recall him as anything but a bad guy.
While Farley liked to travel, and for a time maintained a home in southeastern Pennsylvania, Venice is where he and his wife Rosemary raised their two daughters and two sons in a 2,985-square-foot house at the beach.
Never “remuddled,” -to quote a term that was often used in the periodical of the National Trust for Historic Preservation some years ago, the house may be one of this city’s best and largest examples of Sarasota School of Architecture design.
Most of the original Farley property was sold in recent years, yet the home’s remaining 1.85 acres remain as one of the city’s largest home sites. It definitely is one of the largest beachfront parcels on the island of Venice.
Matching the author’s stature in his field is the stature of Sarasota School of Architecture icons Ralph Twitchell and Jack West who designed a two-bedroom, two-bath home in 1953. In 1956, Twitchell designed a two-bedroom, two-bath addition to complete what is today a four-bedroom, four-bath house, the Farley’s daughter Alice said while giving a tour of the property to this reporter. That year, a separate studio, also the work of Twitchell, was added to the east of the house for use as the writer’s studio.
The fireplace, which was originally designed by Paul Rudolph for a contest for the Revere Quality House, brings a third famous mid-century name to the home which has floor-to-ceiling glass, 8-foot doors, wood jalousies, huge built-in closets and plenty of storage and workspace. Farley’s studio addition remains filled with his books and files used for research. There is even an old, now somewhat rusty, wall-mounted pencil sharpener, no doubt well-used by the author.
Today, as when the Farleys were in residence, gopher tortoises still scurry past the windows. (Despite their reputation for being slow, gopher tortoises actually can quickly retreat into their underground lairs.) Birds nest in the site’s many trees. These are just some of the native creatures that still populate this property.
“I would play outside for hours — in the creek, at the beach and in the woods,” Alice said recently at the house where she and her siblings were raised. “My sister (Pam) had an Arabian in back and used to ride it on the beach. Dad wrote ‘The Horse on the Beach’ about that horse.”
Rosemary Farley, an artist, and former fashion model, who had attended New York University, took the lead in working with the architects on the home’s design, Alice said. Mrs. Farley had a sense of grace and subscribed to the theory “to leave nature alone.” Today that natural style is often referred to as “Florida friendly.” Both parents embraced the style.
Walter Farley attended Erasmus Hall in New York and then Columbia University.
The Farleys had a farm in southeastern Pennsylvania, Alice said, but because her father could write anywhere, Venice ultimately became their primary home. To find furniture appropriate to the home’s design, they traveled to Denmark, Alice said.
“I was 10 at the time,” she said.
The home remains furnished as it did when the parents were alive. A round table in the living room is covered with a tile mosaic carefully placed there by her mother, Alice added.
Like many authors, Farley worked in advertising at first.
“He was disciplined,” Alice said. “He also was a bit of a gambler and loved to travel.
“My mom was a sailor. They were early members of the Venice Yacht Club where they raced their sailboat,” Alice said of her mother, who also was an artist.
Alice is a dancer/choreographer who has performed all around the globe. The Alice Farley Dance Theater uses original choreography to inspire love of wildlife and promote conservation efforts, in effect carrying on her father’s story-telling talent.
Pam is deceased. Steve was the third child and Tim was the youngest.
Walter Farley’s “Black Stallion” series was translated into many languages which were sold all over the world. Although Farley was an avid world traveler, he chose to live and work in Venice. It was here in the studio behind the house where he wrote what are considered by many the finest horse stories of all time. There, too, his son Steven penned a “prequel” and some sequels to his father’s stories.
Having decided it was time to sell the family homestead, the three surviving children have listed the property for sale with Marty Lieberman of Premier Sotheby International Realty in Sarasota.
Located within the Gulf Shores subdivision, at 110 Sunset Drive at the corner of Gulf, the house can barely be seen from the beach and not at all from the road.
It is just exactly as it was when the Farleys were alive, Alice said.
Lieberman specializes in the mid-century modern style, for which the Sarasota School of Architecture became famous. Twitchell and Rudolph were two of that genre’s most prolific architects. Very few mid-century homes were built in Venice because of the John Nolen plan, which called for Northern Italian design within the 1,200 acre area covered by Nolen’s plan.
Because Venice’s population in 1950 remained at only one-fourth of what it had been in the 1926-29 era when the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers were promoting the Nolen-planned community, city fathers of the 1950s allowed mid-century modern and California ranch-style homes to be built. As the Farley home was not in the Nolen plan area, it did not need a variance but may well have inspired builders and buyers of the day who wanted to build within the planned area.
The main house sits directly on the beach, beyond where one can build today. The family hopes any buyer will appreciate the home’s history and preserve it. If one were to tear it down, any replacement would have to be built farther back from the water and adhere to today’s building requirements. Depending on the buyer’s desire, that can be a double-edged sword — or not.
Lieberman said there are incentives in place for those who want to update the home yet maintain its architectural integrity.
“Will this property attract a buyer who will save it?” Liberman said. “I can tell you that I have heard from the most sophisticated of my buyers about this one, some of them house collectors (usually by architect) and there is an offer on the table right now from a preservationist interested in saving the house and the Farley historic legacy.”
If the house were saved and put on the National Register for Historic Houses, the owners might qualify for lower cost flood insurance and other benefits. Benefits could extend into what changes could be made to the footprint of a house so close to the waterline.
“The Farley family would like to see the house restored if at all possible,” Lieberman said. “There have been a number of buyers from the U.S. and Canada who are looking for beachfront lots in Venice and Casey Key. Some of these buyers have visited 3 or 4 times already and either express interest in saving the building that is closest to the beach, using the 50 percent rule — and the others don’t see the house at all, they are looking to build their dream house on the beach, which can be done on this lot as well. The family requests I only show it to qualified buyers.
“Finally, this property still has what I consider to be the sophisticated Sarasota School of Architecture property, it wasn’t about flashy, and showing everything you have from the street ... it was tucked away behind nature and designed to be lived inside and outside, without hard barriers ... you were in it, felt and enjoyed the air from it, and were in rhythm with nature. They woke up to it, responded to its fury and beauty, and were thrilled by all the animals, birds, turtles they shared space with.”
The asking price is $2.4 million. To see the home, qualified buyers should call Lieberman at 941-724-1118 to make an appointment.