No other home in Sarasota has been the subject of as many romantic legends as the famous “midget house,” which stands with its next-door sibling on Sarasota Avenue, just north of Jungle Gardens. Many old-timers swear that John Ringling built the homes for his circus stars, the diminutive Doll family (not true).
Or, that there was a gorilla cage in the backyard (no, it was a well house). Or, that a ghost has been sighted descending one of the signature pecky-cypress staircases (definitely true — if you’re a cat.)
In reality, the two are the town’s prime examples of the storybook style of architecture, which dates back to the 1920s and ’30s, and which drew as its inspiration the iconic illustrations of artists, such as N.C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish. The goal was to design a house that looked like the setting of a fairy tale come to life. One can easily imagine Goldilocks peeking through the window at three bowls of porridge, or Hansel and Gretel setting out on their journey into the woods. Now, as the homes near their centennial, they still retain their power to enchant.
The current owner of 4237 Sarasota Ave., Anita Bartholomew, felt the enchantment the moment she saw her home-to-be. She was a newcomer to Sarasota, happily ensconced on Siesta Key, but she fell in love with the cottage when she was looking for investment property in 1999. She bought the house, which hadn’t been lived in for a year.
“It was in really, really bad shape, but I didn’t know it,” she remembers. “It took a lot of work and a lot of money.”
But, the hard work was well worth it. The cottage proved such an inspiration that Bartholomew, a writer and editor for Reader’s Digest International,” began to imagine a story about her storybook cottage. The result is her novel, “The Midget’s House,” a tale that mixes history, circus lore, ghosts and the supernatural. (It’s available at the Ringling Museum gift shop, plus Amazon and Kindle.) And, although the tale may be fiction, the house that inspired it is real enough.
First-time visitors are always afraid they are going to bump their heads on the ceiling of Bartholomew’s house. It really does seem like midgets lived here and that everything is about half the size of what it should be. Actually, it is a cleverly contrived series of optical illusions that create this effect. The interior is normal size, if cozy, and an addition to the rear, probably done in the 1970s, adds a large dinning room/family room that gives the home light and space.
But original details are everywhere. The living room, which Bartholomew uses as a library and office, has a wall of bookcases, wood floors, a beamed ceiling and a gas fireplace. The kitchen has been modernized but retains its window seat, with a bay window of lead glass. At one time, the garage was converted to a bedroom, with a high-vaulted ceiling of unpainted wood that suggests the interior of a rustic tower.
The stairway, enclosed in the square-shaped turret on the north side of the house, is perhaps the most evocative feature of the midget house. Entirely clad in cypress, it angles its way up to the second floor, with glowing panels of slag glass letting in a milky glow. Traces of ancient paint — red, green and blue — are still visible in the grooves of the wood. Bartholomew has noticed this technique used in other older homes in the neighborhood.
The second floor remains virtually untouched. Two bedrooms, both painted a light cream with green trim, feature a wealth of original built-ins — closets, cupboards, vanities, drawers and cabinets. Each has three different exposures, a big plus in the days before air conditioning. The upstairs bathroom (there is another attached to the downstairs bedroom) is completely original, with black and yellow tile in the early Art Deco style.
“If I had to imagine my dream home, this would be it,” Bartholomew says.
And she has lavished time and effort on getting all the details just right. The furniture and décor have been culled from local antique stores, estate sales and the Woman’s Exchange. And, although she has not altered the home’s footprint, she has added details to enhance the period atmosphere — glass doorknobs, wainscoting and bathroom fixtures, many acquired from Van Dyke’s, an online source for old-house restorers.
Aside from the cracked pipes and the termite damage, there was one other undesirable remnant from the past — the ghost Murphy the cat saw on the turret stairway.
“He was frozen, staring at something,” Bartholomew recalls. “Then, he jumped straight up in the air, like a Jack-in-the-box.”
As a writer who knows the power of imagination, Bartholomew called in a feng shui expert, who solved the problem to Murphy and Bartholomew’s satisfaction.
Bartholomew is moving to Oregon to be closer to her son, a musician, and the home is currently on the market. Though she and other local historians have done extensive research, much still remains a mystery about the place. The architect’s name is known (H. S. Sprague), as is that of the builder (Paul Bergmann, who also built the Powel Crosley Estate) but exactly when the house was built and for whom, and whether it is original or a remodel of an earlier structure — all are questions that have been lost to history.
Maybe it’s better that way. For such a sunny, cheerful little home, it retains a powerful hold on the imagination. It’s a storybook home with a million stories attached to it. As Bartholomew and Murphy have learned, that may be more important than the truth.
4237 Sarasota Ave., in Indian Beach, is listed for sale at $314,900. For more information, call Annette Bentley of Michael Saunders at 941-374-0318.