Joy Baker believed the seaside home had once been beautiful. It had stained glass windows, hand-painted ceramic tiles and a spiral iron staircase leading to a rooftop patio.
She pictured children building sandcastles on the beach outside it, as adults watched from the patio while sipping piña coladas.
Its name, Villa Am Meer, means “Villa on the Sea” in German.
It was built in 1935; high-rises and McMansions sprouted up around it in the decades since.
Eighteen years ago, Baker began vacationing on the Key every year with her family for a week in March.
She often walked the beach and dreamed of winning the lottery and moving into one of the palatial homes.
But, it was Villa Am Meer that captivated her.
“It was the only one left that was small and quaint,” Baker said. “It’s charming … I figured it must be a family place.”
In March 2010, she saw the home was surrounded by construction equipment. The property’s owners had granted the neighboring Islander Club condominium an easement during the construction of its two groins.
Baker thought the property had sold and would soon be demolished.
So, she ran back to her hotel room, grabbed her camera and returned, hoping to capture a snapshot of Longboat Key history.
“The problem is, photographing the house only caused me to fall more in love with it,” she wrote March 21, 2010, on her website, joybaker.com, in her first blog about the property. “I wanted to know more: who lived here; who played here; who slept here. What was life like on Longboat Key, before the condominiums, before the ‘CrackBerry,’ before the chaos of our 21st-century lives?”
Solving the mystery
Villa Am Meer’s rusty iron gates stand out between signs for the Islander Club to the north and Villa di Lancia to the south.
Behind them is thick vegetation and a private dirt road, leading to the houses that are invisible from Gulf of Mexico Drive.
“Everyone goes by it, but no one knew anything about it,” says Chet Pletzke, a Longboat Key Historical Society board member. “People really didn’t know that there’s a mystery.”
Baker, who has a journalism degree but owned an advertising agency at the time she launched her investigation, didn’t find anyone who knew about the property at the Longboat Library or Historical Society.
She never noticed the gates until she found the entrance while looking for the property’s address on Gulf of Mexico Drive.
She learned that the Northbrook, Ill.-based BBC Key LLC owned the home and that the phone number listed was disconnected.
But through Google, she unearthed a few basic details:
A German immigrant named Dr. Hermann Kohl built Villa Am Meer in 1935. He went on to invest what different accounts say was either $7,500 or $15,000 for a 49% stake in what would become Tropicana Products Inc. in the 1940s.
Baker discovered that Kohl immigrated in 1910 from the Prussian Empire in present-day Germany.
By 1920, Kohl and his wife, Hertha, had moved from Manhattan, N.Y., to East Orange, N.J.
From Baker’s research, it appears that Kohl, a druggist, partnered with the Winter Brothers of the Orange Brewery during Prohibition to create a carbonated drink sold and marketed like champagne called Jo-La Cola before founding Norda Inc., a beverage flavoring-and-additive company, in 1924.
He was indicted in 1930 on federal bootlegging charges, but charges were dropped after Prohibition ended in late 1933.
An August 2006 story stated that Kohl’s adopted daughter, Elena, married into the Benedict family, which is why the property also became known as the Benedict Estate.
In 2006, The Tampa-based Statewide Associates purchased the property for $18 million from Edward and Elena Benedict’s daughter, Elise Browne. The company planned to build 30 townhomes on it and renovate the original home into a community clubhouse.
The development would be called Villas Am Meer.
Retired Longboat Observer real-estate columnist Kent Chetlain provided additional history in a 2006 column after the $18 million sale.
Original John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art architect John H. Phillips probably designed Villa Am Meer.
The main home was ornate, with white lion statues flanking its entrance.
In 1993, the family sold the southern parcel of just under seven acres to the developers of the 38-unit Villa di Lancia. That part of the property once held tennis courts and a swimming pool.
Court records show that BBC Key LLC became the owner of the property in 2009, after it went into foreclosure three years after the $18 million sale.
But Baker’s curiosity went beyond property records.
She scoured U.S. Census records and obituaries in search of information about Elena Benedict.
Less than two weeks after Baker began blogging about Villa Am Meer, Elena Benedict’s granddaughter, Cristina, emailed Baker with more information.
Elena Benedict’s biological parents, Romeo and Mary Amaducci, were the Italian gardeners to the childless Kohls. The couple fell in love with Elena and adopted her.
But the granddaughter ended the email on a sad note:
Elena Benedict had died that week at 93.
Baker blogged about the property for seven months. Many of the stories she found didn’t come from archives and public records. They came from contact with family members and associates of the Kohls and Benedicts.
They told her about Christmases at Villa Am Meer with homemade ravioli and summer parties with friends, sangria, brie cheese and strawberries.
They also told her about the little carriage house.
“It had a tiny fish pond in front of it, and a wrought iron bridge you had to cross in order to get to the front door. The ‘real magic’ took place here, from what I’ve been told,” Baker wrote.
Baker will speak about Villa Am Meer March 7, to the Historical Society.
The Historical Society approached the family who currently lives in the home about the possibility of having the talk there. They declined.
The owner’s representative, Robert Manning, wrote in an email to the Longboat Observer the current residents often encounter trespassers and that issues have increased since Baker began blogging about the property.
“The current residents are a busy family of a firefighter husband and a mother active in the school activities of their three children and the intrusions on their life has been truly unseemly,” he wrote.
Baker hopes the public will respect the privacy of the current residents. She has tried to respect the privacy of everyone involved in the course of telling the story, including the Benedict family. She hasn’t written about anyone still living.
“I tried to go by the golden rule,” she said. “If this was my family, would I want somebody writing about me?”
In the course of telling Villa Am Meer’s story, Baker discovered more than just history.
She realized that writing and investigating were her true passions. So, in 2011, she sold her advertising agency and spent the next year as a freelance writer.
Last year, she took a position as communications director for Rice Memorial Hospital, in Willmar, Minn., although she continues to write and blog as a hobby.
Most recently she interviewed two lead witnesses in a 20-year-old child abduction cold case and wrote about it. She’s also been blogging about two brothers and their quest to find their biological mother.
But her blog contains a separate tab for the little house on Longboat Key and how it inspired her to find her voice as a writer.
“Villa Am Meer is where it all began,” it states. “I invite you to share the journey.”
Want to learn more?
Joy Baker will speak to the Longboat Key Historical Society about Villa Am Meer Thursday, March 7, at Christ Church of Longboat Key, Presbyterian, 6400 Gulf of Mexico Drive.
Check out her blog at joybaker.com/villa-am-meer.