This is where it all started. Even more than the Cá d’ Zan, the Austin House is the birthplace of the modern Sarasota lifestyle. This is where the arts were established as the driving force in local culture, where money and politics collided with creativity, and where the town’s love of entertainment blossomed into the razzle-dazzle that continues to this day. Bette Davis slept here. So did Dame Edith Sitwell, Prince Rainer, and Gypsy Rose Lee — although, one hopes, not all together or at the same time.
A. Everett Austin — known to everyone as “Chick” — was the first director of the Ringling Museum, from 1947 to 1956. He remains a legend in the art world. During his previous job at the Wadsworth Antheneum in Hartford, Conn., he was celebrated as the man who introduced modern art to America. His vision embraced all the arts —music, film, theater, architecture — and he worked hard to ensure that both museums under his care became the crown jewels of their communities. His personal style was the epitome of sophistication. He had a penchant for impeccable tailoring and Rolls Royces. The home he designed in Hartford, part Baroque, part Bauhaus, is now a museum.
His home in Sarasota, scarcely less remarkable though much less well known, is now on the market. And its current owner Jerry Chaplain turns out to have been the perfect heir to the Austin legacy.
The house was originally built in 1925, in the Mediterranean Revival style of the time. It belonged to the Whitfield family, one of several homes they owned in the area now called Whitfield Estates. Designed by Thomas Monk, architect of Sarasota High, it was a large home for the era—five bedrooms, a small guest cottage, and a large garden set on the western side, with nothing between it and the bay.
The first thing Austin did was eliminate three of the bedrooms and turn that space into two spectacular rooms — a 40-foot ballroom for his famous parties and an adjoining porch done in the Chinese Chippendale style, with green fret work framing a view of the gardens. Both of these rooms remain virtually intact.
When Chaplain gives visitors a tour, he is proud to point out the many original details that date back to Austin. The living room is lined with Scalamandre fabric and the anteroom to the ballroom contains 18th-century Italian hand painted wallpaper, originally from the Asolo Theatre, which Austin brought over from Italy and had installed on the grounds of the museum. (The earliest Asolo rehearsals and play-readings took place out in the garden.)
But, perhaps the most remarkable artifact is not original to the house, though the story it tells perfectly reflects the house’s glamorous appeal. Upstairs in the guest bedroom is a portrait in oil of a graceful female nude, who, upon closer examination, turns out to be Bette Davis. She and Austin were great friends. He even gave her second husband, painter William Grant Sherry, a one-man show at the Ringling. But what her husband perhaps did not know was that Davis’ attraction to Sarasota was due to more than her friendship with Austin. She was here to visit her long-time lover, Stanley Woodward, a well-known painter and a professor at Ringling College. Chaplain purchased the portrait — along with a cache of love letters — from Woodward’s daughter, who was very glad to be rid of them.
It takes a certain kind of person to take on the responsibility of such a remarkable home, but Jerry Chaplain is more than up to it. A private art dealer originally from Indiana, he bought the home in 1997 and has lavished time and attention, not to mention money, on this all-consuming project.
He kept the look of the major rooms intact, but modernized the kitchen with an eye toward large-scale entertaining. Most of the major changes have been outside. Chaplain added a pool — a lap pool that doubles as an ornamental reflecting pool, complete with a classical sculpture punctuating the axis. Beyond the pool is a patch of green lawn lined with more statues and, at the very farthest point, a Chinese temple set over a koi pond filled with 36 fish, all of which have names and some of which are up to 3 feet in length.
“Every thing you see is set up for a surprise,” Chaplain says. “You turn a corner and there is something totally unexpected.”
There is so much to see in fact, that only when you look up do you see the biggest surprise of all — a tri-level tree house set in a seven-story banyan tree. Climb the winding stairs to the top and you see a spectacular view of the neighborhood, with the bay a short distance away.
Chaplain spent years decorating the house in a formal, antique-filled style appropriate to its elegant architecture. Then, in May, he sold the home’s entire contents to a single dealer. Since then, he’s been busy refurnishing it in a witty blend of eclectic styles, part outsider art and found objects, part mid-century modern, part industrial, plus a unifying underlay of baroque. Art work is everywhere. A full size ceramic cow (by Longboat Key artist Joan Feder) grazes in the ballroom, and in the library, two friezes of frisky maidens (by Siesta Key painter Viktorija Bulava) face each other from opposite sides of the room. In fact, virtually every object in the house has been found locally, many from Crissy Galleries, Sarasota Architectural Salvage and Elliot Bernstein’s famous Sunday afternoon auctions.
“I’ve done everything I can possibly do,” Chaplain says of the home, with a wistful tone in his voice. Now he’s moving on. He’s purchased a home on a lake in his native Indiana and is already at work designing and remodeling. Thus, the famous Austin House will soon have a new owner and a new life with — hopefully — its magnificent past still intact.
227 Delmar Ave. is listed at $885,000. For more information contact Dyrk Dahl of Coldwell Banker at 941-320-7373.