Sometimes, when Cathie Zurich-Wus is watering the plants and flowers that surround the 105-year-old cottage she shares with her husband, Michael Wus, people driving by stop to chat and take pictures. It’s easy to fall under the spell of the place, with its gingerbread detailing and the outdoor rooms and gardens that surround it.
“Once,” Cathie recalls, “a car full of Ringling College students slowed down to take a good look and yelled, ‘This is the coolest house in town!’”
But the picturesque exterior is just half the story. Only when you enter the house itself is the spell really cast. You’re suddenly in another world, filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of artifacts lovingly collected and artfully arranged. Your first reaction is a sort of delighted shock that such a place could actually exist.
Then doubt creeps in.
“Could I — could anyone — actually live this way?” you wonder.
But, as you spend more time examining everything, you start to fall under the spell of the unique atmosphere, dimly lit by a dozen lamps and straight out of a Dickens novel.
Into the cottage’s six rather small rooms, Cathie and Michael have assembled a collection of dolls, teddy bears, toys, china, statues, souvenirs and paintings — their own Old Curiosity Shop, which they not only love, but also live in. The age-old question that faces every collector — how do I display my stuff? They display everything.
In the living room alone, you notice an art student’s copy of the Mona Lisa — facing left instead of right. Next to it is a fine old-European painting of a young boy. It hangs above a mantel Christie embellished with whimsical motifs and is flanked by two astonishing Rococo armchairs, found on Craigslist for $40. Every shelf, every corner, every cabinet displays everything that will fit.
The other question that faces every collector is, “How do I keep everything dusted?” and, here, Michael and Cathie have also met the challenge.
“We do the dusting together,” Cathie explains. “Every two weeks or so. It’s good exercise.”
And they often watch a DVD of “Arsenic and Old Lace” while they do it. The 1944 movie about two eccentric old ladies who live in a Victorian house and, incidentally, murder people and keep the bodies in the basement, provides the perfect backdrop when it comes time to tidy up their collection of nostalgia and whimsy.
It was the house, itself, that started everything. Built in 1908 by a Mr. Healy (no one is sure of his first name), it borders Pierson Parker Creek in the Bayou Oaks neighborhood of North Sarasota. This is one of the most picturesque areas of town, with giant oaks providing a cover of perpetual shade. The plants seem to grow a little bigger and wilder than anywhere else in town.
Mr. Healy worked for the circus; he was the chief tentmaker for Ringling Bros., in charge of making and keeping in good repair the Big Top. At the rear of the house, shading the back porch, there are some canvas awnings he made back in the 1920s that are still functioning.
Michael and Cathie discovered the house in 1995. It had been used as a rental and was showing its age, with an ancient bathroom and kitchen that hadn’t been updated in decades. Demolition seemed the most likely probability. But the couple couldn’t let that happen. They bought the home and set about remodeling.
The goal was to make the place comfortable and livable but certainly not modern. Another bathroom was added, along with air conditioning; the back porch was converted to an art studio for Cathie’s projects (she specializes in creating community art pieces, such as Tidewell’s famous clowns and similar projects in Clearwater and Fort Myers). Most of the original details remain, including the old-fashioned cast iron kitchen sink.
“Everybody helped us,” Cathie recalls of the months spent renovating. “Mothers, sisters, friends.”
“The collecting began when I learned about eBay,” Cathie says. Back in the mid-’90s, eBay was just starting out, a much more informal and freewheeling place than the more corporate version it has become. Antique dolls were the first items she looked for, but teddy bears soon joined the list, followed by a host of other categories. Michael, who works as an electronic technician on corporate jets, found himself more drawn to old clocks and radios.
“I love the old technology stuff,” he says.
What keeps the collections from overwhelming the house is the way they are displayed. Objects are grouped thematically and stylistically, so that they all relate in some way. The whole becomes greater than the parts. It is, in fact, the way all these pieces of folk art blend together that turns the house into a living, breathing piece of art.
It’s fashionable today to design and decorate in such a way as to bring in the outside. Cathie and Michael have done exactly the opposite. They’ve kept the outside out. But that doesn’t mean their acre or so of land is any less important in their lives. In fact, it’s become the emotional center of the way they live. It’s a certified wildlife preserve, meaning they have committed to providing a safe haven for all the wild creatures that still manage to live and even thrive in the middle of Sarasota.
Everybody’s welcome, and everybody shows up — families of raccoons and possums, owls, red rabbits, hummingbirds, butterflies, even black snakes. They find water, plants they like to eat and even emergency medical care. Cathie and Michael make friends with as many as they can, and many of their own pets — three dogs, three cats and two birds — started out as strays.
With not a single place left to put another thing, Cathie and Michael feel their collecting days are behind them. The focus of their lives is changing.
“Our stuff in the house is pleasant in creating our environment,” Cathie says. “But we could give it all away tomorrow and it would matter not.”
Leading a socially conscious life, helping people and animals — that’s what really important to Cathie and Michael now, and the tentmaker’s house provides the perfect setting.