A new influx of baby boomers is moving to Sarasota and they’re not all choosing the pampered luxury of gated communities. Some of the more sophisticated, artistic newcomers find that Gillespie Park, long known as downtown’s problematic stepchild, is a much better fit. It has an unbeatable location, charming, mostly vintage homes and the most diverse population base in Sarasota — white, black, Hispanic, young, old, gay, straight — all living in relative harmony.
When Charles Morris took early retirement from his job in Chicago and, along with his partner Dan Thomas, decided to move to Sarasota, the couple first tried Indian Beach, near the Ringling Museum. But they found it too quiet. “We missed the sense of being in an urban area,” Charles explains. After an extensive search with Realtor Mike Bruno, they discovered a home in Gillespie Park that fit their needs perfectly.
The home is one of a handful built in the neighborhood during the real estate boom, when developers had grandiose schemes of turning Gillespie Park into an area of upscale townhomes. The recession put an end to all that but several such homes remained, too upscale for the neighborhood (the Morris-Thomas house was originally priced at $629,000) and virtually unsellable.
But by the time the men found the house, it had been through various bankruptcies and foreclosures and was much better priced. What the men got for their money was an almost new Mediterranean style home on a narrow, 33-foot-wide lot, with a premium location directly on the east side of the park — yes, there really is a park in Gillespie Park, and it’s one of the prettiest in the city, with a pond, tennis courts, playgrounds, and a basketball court.
The house had been vacant for a while but remained in excellent condition, thanks to high quality construction and high-end interior finishes. With a combination of sweat equity and working with various contractors, the men set to work customizing it to their needs. The front entrance was relocated to the side, the two small guest bedrooms were combined into one, and most important, the parking slab in the rear was replaced with a two-story garage with a studio above, and an interior caged courtyard with a swimming pool. The result is a space that manages to be both hip and urban, yet a tropical paradise, all at the same time.
If the two men fit so well into the Gillespie Park lifestyle, it’s because they know the drill. In Chicago they lived in Lakewood Balmoral, on the north side of the city near the lake. It’s a similar sort of place, with older homes that have been lovingly renovated and a strong sense of community involvement.
Home in Chicago was a three-story Victorian that they bought 20 years ago, and remodeled so well that it was sold in four days — at the height of the recession — and for more that the asking price. The new owner even bought most of their furniture. That’s fine with Charles. When it comes to Victorian, he says, “Been there, done that.”
The Gillespie Park home is much more contemporary. The interior suggests a newer, upscale Florida house, with well-proportioned rooms, a state-of-the-art kitchen and high-end finishes. The furniture is modern, at least downstairs. In the living room, a pair of Barcelona chairs face a squared-off sofa from Living Walls, with a gas-burning fireplace and a large, abstract painting serving as the focal point. The former entrance has been converted to a private porch overlooking the park, making a pleasant place to watch the joggers and dog walkers go by.
Facing the pool courtyard is a dining room/family room, the TV concealed in a large storage unit from IKEA. The couple’s collection of pottery and other ceramic pieces decorate the walls. The pool has a cascading water feature that’s pleasant in the evenings when the owners leave the doors open to enjoy the breeze. The studio over the garage currently serves as Dan’s office — he works as an IT consultant for Capital One Finance — but it has a bath and kitchen and could serve a variety of possible uses.
Upstairs in the main house the décor changes, going back in time with a few choice antiques to remind the couple of their Chicago days. A clunky Jacuzzi-style tub in the master bath was switched out for a more dramatic stand-alone version. And what looks like custom built-in dressers are actually IKEA finds as well. “Amazingly, they fit perfectly,” Charles says. “We just added the granite tops.”
Another lesson the men learned from Chicago was the importance of community involvement in a neighborhood like Gillespie Park. Charles serves as secretary of the Gillespie Park Neighborhood Association, and the group has a pro-active attitude toward improving the community. Its members work with the city on a variety of issues, including landscaping and traffic control. A recent project got students from the nearby Sarasota School of Arts and Sciences involved in a competition painting benches in the park, the result being a lively new look.
Gillespie Park is definitely turning a corner. More and more of its 1920s bungalows and 1950s ranches are being renovated. There is new construction again. A large house in the modern style is going up at the south end of the park, and more are being planned. And with its perfect location — it is the northern edge of downtown, with Sarasota’s best restaurants and cultural activities just a sort stroll away — the future is unlimited. “It’s really happening,” says Charles. “Gillespie Park is a gem waiting to be polished.”