“It was a jungle out there.”
That was the description of a piece of neglected beachfront property on Manasota Key in the Venice Gondolier on July 8, 2000.
Thick palmetto and native oaks dripping with Spanish moss nearly hid the circa 1906 main house built by Swedish immigrant Carl G. Johanson, plus a garage, a beach house, pump house, two cisterns and the Whitney house, which was built in 1941 by Dr. Alfred R. Whitney.
He was a naval architect who had been a guest at the site when it was used as a beach retreat.
Today, even the cisterns have been restored, and the Hermitage site has become a world-class artist retreat, and one of just two artist retreats in Florida.
Known as The Hermitage, the retreat has surpassed even the wildest dreams of the late Ruth Swayze, a writer, and her daughter, artist Carol Swayze; former Sarasota Arts Council executive director and Hermitage co-founder Patricia Caswell; plus the late Syd Adler who contributed heavily to the project in its formative years.
The Swayzes lived at the Hermitage from 1975 to 1986.
That the county had purchased the property in 1988 was important in saving the site. Caswell is credited with the idea of turning the site into an artists’ retreat.
Sept. 14 and 21, there will be free historic tours of the Hermitage. This week’s tour will be at 10 a.m. Friday. Next week’s tour will be at 6 p.m. Friday, offering a possible sunset bonus if the weather cooperates. Reservations are required and only available through email at email@example.com.
What you will see are restored structures ranging from those old cisterns to fine beach cottages that are still standing after more than 100 years of existence right along the beach on Manasota Key. The Whitney house was engineered by Whitney to construction standards that surpass those of today, including heavy duty hurricane roof straps, vertical rods in the building, and “internal diagonal surface working with external horizontal siding to provide structural stability.
The home’s garage has been repurposed as a studio for one visual artist.
Each tour begins with a video overview of the historic property, which is one of the oldest sites in Sarasota County to have been fully restored while also being repurposed.
“We’ll share engaging stories of the colorful characters and artists who’ve stayed there,” Hermitage executive director Bruce Rogers said.
Rogers, too, has played a key role in the development of The Hermitage. In 2004, he left his position as associate artistic director of the Asolo Theatre Company to become the director of the Hermitage. He came to the Asolo from Princeton University’s McCarter Theatre where he was the resident playwright.
While at the Asolo, he initially served as its literary manager and later founded Kaleidescope, a musical theater program for people with developmental disabilities. In partnership with Children’s Haven and Adult Community Services, the program is similar to the Loveland Follies partnership between Venice Theatre and Loveland Center in Venice.
At the Hermitage, Rogers has been instrumental in developing relationships that led to the formation of a board that selects mid-level artists in the fields of theater, music and art from around the world to come to the site for six weeks in order to work on a special project.
The artists’ only responsibility is to pay for the honor of being selected by doing something that will enrich this area in some manner. Most will do a talk or a concert.
Two small works by Robertson were auctioned for the benefit of the Hermitage while he was there with his wife. His greatest legacy in Sarasota may be a work for which he was commissioned, “The Open Gateway,” an 18-foot high work of steel that stands in front of the Fruitville Library.
The work features three large open books with cut-out text, The $53,250-work was commissioned by the Sarasota County Art in Public Places Program.
The historic site is making history on its own
In the ensuing years, poets and playwrights have conducted public readings; artists have displayed their work on site and in other county places and talked about their projects; and musicians have presented concerts at the Hermitage beach as well as at other locales within Sarasota County.
Playwright Romulus Linney, a 2009 resident, did a presentation on theater on the main stage at Venice Theatre with its director Murray Chase.
Each summer, five secondary teachers in the visual and performing arts are selected from throughout the state to work on their own special projects for two weeks at the site.
All of these varied but talented Hermitage artists touch thousands of Gulf Coast community residents with unique and inspiring programs each year.
Hermitage programs are supported, in part, by philanthropist Gerri Aaron; by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts; by Sarasota County Tourist Development Tax Revenues; and by the Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs, the Florida Council of Arts and Culture and the State of Florida (Section 286.25 Florida Statutes). (This paragraph appears on virtually every release from the historic site.)
Rogers and a tiny staff plus an active board of directors spearheaded a variety of fundraisers, including an annual lobster dinner, and one-by-one as the money came in, oversaw the restoration of each of the buildings. Many of the gifts came in exchange for naming opportunities such as a $25,000 donation to fund an artist suite in one of the buildings, $20,000 to restore a cistern, $5,000 to furnish a room in the Whitney house, $25,000 for the sun deck and $100,000 to restore the pump house. These prices are from the list of suggested named gift opportunities composed in 2000
Extensive funding also has come from the Venice Foundation (now the Gulf Coast Community Foundation), the Earhart Family Foundation in Venice and countless individuals.
Funding made restoration possible, but never easy.
First on the restoration list was the cottage in which Ruth Swayze lived. While there, she became more and more determined to see the property saved because it was such a unique site. Her intial efforts to involve the county and area residents to protect the site from beach erosion were crucial to protecting the site.
Set back from the beach the farthest, despite its age, it was selected for its size and layout. With two upstairs bedrooms, living room, dining room and kitchen, it could accommodate two artists early on, provide office space for the director as well as meeting space for board members at the dining room table.
When handicap ramps were installed to the front door, the flooring in the house had to be reinforced before they were strong enough to accommodate people in wheelchairs within the house. That was yet another problem that needed to be solved as the multi-year project evolved.
While the restoration is basically complete, there always will be ongoing expenses for administrative costs, upkeep, utilities, food supplies, insurance and the cost of artists’ supplies for day-to-day operation.
Parking space for the house is on the north side along Manasota Beach Road where it remains today.
The Whitney House and beach cottage presented the additional challenges of being forward of the Gulf Beach setback, separated only from the water by sand and seagrass. Because of Whitney’s background as a naval architect, his former house was in better condition.
In designing his house, Whitney considered such things as the angle of the siding and similar details that have helped the house to survive all these years. The beach house was probably in the worst shape by the time it was restored, with a major donation from the Tom Dignam family,
Because it’s an historical site, the historical integrity of the buildings had to be maintained while building codes were met, County Historical Resources General Manager Dave Baber said back in July 2000. That remains true.
Like Historic Spanish Point in Osprey, the Hermitage site also was home to the Calusa Indians thousands of years ago. A shell midden lies between the main house and the Whitney house. More recent inhabitants include the Johanson family who lived there from 1907 to 1916.
It was then empty for a few years until the 1930s when it became The Sea Island Sanctuary, a nudist resort.
The property then changed hands several times until the county purchased the site.
At the time, Caswell was the executive director of the Sarasota County Arts Council, the organization that ultimately leased the property from the county in 2000 to begin the transformation to what it has become. Caswell, a co-founder and program director, has conducted many tours of the site during its evolution.
“If these tours sell out, we plan to add more,” she said. “It’s our delight to share this heritage with as many people as possible.”
With the completion of all the buildings as live work space/habitats, many artists can be accommodated at the same time. The site is considered as possibly the last existing example of pioneer beachfront homesteading on Florida’s Gulf of Mexico.
“Artists from around the world draw inspiration from this special location,” Rodgers said. “These unique structures have survived more than 100 years despite Mother Nature’s harshest tests.
In addition, the Hermitage awards and administers the prestigious Greenfield Prize, an annual $30,000 commission for a new work of art, rotating among visual art, music and drama. The Hermitage also partners with the Aspen Music Festival and School to award the annual Hermitage Prize to a composition student during the Festival.
For more information about The Hermitage Artist Retreat, call 941-475-2098, Ext. 5, or visit the website at www.HermitageArtistRetreat.org.
To register for one of the tours send an email request to: Reservations@hermitageartistretreat.org.
Additional parking is just to the north, on the east side of the street, in a public lot that serves Manasota Beach.