Old Florida is getting harder and harder to find. There’s even disagreement as to exactly what it is. But, as Ron Merriman puts it, “You know it when you see it.”
Ron and his wife, Patsy, were looking for it one day in 1999. Seeking an escape from Ohio winters, the couple had been searching the streets in southern Sarasota, south of Stickney Point and close to the bay. The area was just what they were looking for — pleasant, unpretentious and affordable, but still, nothing they saw quite had the Old Florida-feel on which they had their hearts set. Then, at the southern-most end of Vamo Road, they turned down a little dead-end street called Vamo Drive and they knew they had found it.
Just about everybody who discovers Vamo Drive feels the same way. Seeing it for the first time, the visitor is immediately transported back in time to a Florida without McMansions, overbuilt lots and over-designed landscaping, to a Florida where life revolved around sitting on the porch, fishing, cooking dinner, tending the garden and maybe listening to the radio — if the reception was good enough.
The houses on Vamo Drive — there are 15 or so — were all built in the early-1920s, and they are a quirky bunch. Over the years additions have been built, second stories added, pools and pool cages attached. The owners, rather than architects, have designed most of the additions, and the result is like those New England farmhouses that seem to grow organically over the generations. Likewise, the landscaping can be pretty individualistic. Vamo Drive has escaped the tyranny of perfect design, and the result is a charm that money can’t buy.
The Merrimans talked to Norma Martin, a Realtor and Vamo Drive resident. (At 97, she’s still going strong, still living on Vamo Drive and currently has the distinction of being Sarasota’s oldest Realtor.) Unfortunately, there was nothing on the market at the time. The Merrimans were considering buying a lot nearby and building, when Martin came up with a suggestion. Could they wait awhile? The house right across the street might be coming on the market soon. With the perfect sense of timing that life sometimes hands us, the Merrimans could, and did, wait, for it seems that life had another adventure waiting for them.
Ron and Patsy Merriman are southwest Ohio through and through. A graduate of Miami University, Ron’s first love has always been building — he still cherishes the toy saw he got from his grandmother when he was 4 years old — and he worked for many years as a contractor, licensed electrician and plumber. His specialty was constructing grain silos, which, as he remembers, was hard on the fingers and toes during freezing winter weather.
Then, in 1999, just as they were scouting their new Florida home, their son Dwight had a favor to ask. An Internet entrepreneur (he co-founded DoubleClick and Gilt, among other companies) he and his wife, Jodi, had just purchased an 1837 brownstone in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and Dwight wanted his dad to serve as contractor during the extensive renovations they had planned.
“He knew he could trust me,” Ron Merriman says. So, the Merrimans were off to New York City.
The 18 months the Merrimans spent living in the middle of Greenwich Village and supervising the renovation of their son’s house provided an adventure they’d never forget.
“We saw things we’d never seen before,” Patsy Merriman recalls with a smile. The colorful neighborhood was about as far away from small-town Ohio as you could get, but the Merrimans came away with a new appreciation of diversity and alternate lifestyles. They also came away with good remodeling ideas for their new home in Florida.
The trick to renovating an older home from a specific period is knowing what to save, what to replace and what to restore. The Vamo Drive house is a good example of how to navigate this tricky mix. The kitchen, for instance, was hardly touched. It has older — though not original — wooden cabinets and tile countertops. Even though it’s hardly the latest thing, the room has a homey character and comfort level on which that would be hard to improve.
The closets — not so much. Homes from the 1920s are notorious for containing tiny closets, so Ron Merriman designed and built new ones. He studied the way closets were built back in those days and adapted the design to a larger scale, with storage space that goes all the way up to the nine-and-a-half-foot ceilings.
But, it’s the master bath that contains the real surprise. It seems that while work was in progress on the Manhattan townhouse, a large slab of inch-thick, tempered glass was delivered, to become part of a glass floor. But the piece was sized wrong. Rather than return it, Ron Merriman had it shipped to Florida, where it now provides a dramatic, back-lit glowing wall of glass in the shower — a glamorous link to the Merriman’s New York sojourn.
The home still has many original features. The windows and doors are intact (there are more than 200 panes of glass in the house) plus yellow pine floors, a fireplace flanked by candle-light fixtures, a back porch and patio, a large garage and on the more than a half-acre of land, one of Sarasota’s most spectacular oak trees. From the screened front porch you can see the sunlight gleaming on the Bay. And at the end of the block is a boat ramp, with some of the best kayaking in the area.
After a dozen years on Vamo Drive, the Merrimans are getting ready for another adventure. They want to spend more time with their children — in addition to Dwight there’s Jeani and Jason — and four (soon to be five) — grandchildren. They have put the home on the market and are looking for a place where they can just turn the key and be gone for months at a time. And, so, at 88 years of age, the house will soon have a new owner to enjoy this unique slice of Old Florida living.
1711 Vamo Drive is priced at $439,000. For information, call Debra Robinson, of ReMax Alliance, at 928-2745.
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