On a street lined with spectacular homes, it’s the one that makes you look twice. A symmetrical facade of pure modern lines set against a perfectly composed grouping of ancient, gnarled oaks, with the afternoon sun glinting behind — and sometimes through — the house, the Nelson residence in Harbor Acres has a style that its more opulent neighbors can’t quite match.
Robert and Mollie Nelson built their home in 1998 and it was here that they lived for the next 15 years, until Robert died in May. Though it’s an entertainer’s dream, it was first and foremost a family home for their combined broods. “Perfect,” Mollie says, “for raising — and chasing — kids.” And there were a lot of them: four children, six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Now, with Mollie planning to move to smaller home nearby, the Sarasota landmark has come on the market for the first time.
When the Nelsons married 25 years ago, Robert gave Mollie a choice of living in Sarasota or her native Naples, where her family has roots that go back four generations. She chose Sarasota. “It had a perfect location, plus all the arts activities and educational opportunities for my daughter,” Mollie says. But the home, nevertheless, suggests the mansions of Naples’ famed Port Royal neighborhood, where modernist showplaces blend with homes in various historic styles.
The home’s true inspiration, though, is surprising. While on vacation in Bali, the Nelsons fell under the spell of Javanese architecture, where, as Mollie puts it, “you always felt like you were outside even though you were inside.” Although many Florida homes aim for this effect, few do it as successfully as the Nelson residence, where glass walls roll back so that the corners of certain rooms don’t need support columns. In two of the bedrooms, it’s hard to tell where the room ends and the spectacular terrace, overlooking the bay, begins.
But the visual look and architectural grammar of the house is pure Sarasota. When the Nelsons began their yearlong design process with architect Phil Skirball, they decided to pay tribute to the Sarasota School of Architecture, the local brand of modernism that has had such a worldwide influence.
“We felt it was important to celebrate our own town’s local heritage and talent,” Mollie says. Another more subtle influence: the Harbor Acres shoreline was home in pre-historic days to the Calusa Indians — there are still Indian midens on the property — and Robert and Mollie wanted to preserve the ancient, atmospheric feeling.
Drama and details
Robert Nelson was a radio and TV entrepreneur who pioneered many innovations during his distinguished career, including the development of “easy listening” radio. He is one of the founding fathers of the Sarasota media scene as the creator and original owner of WWSB, now the ABC affiliate Channel 7. Echoes of his life’s work fill the house, from the elaborate media room with its popcorn machine and billiard table to tiny details such as the framed snapshot of him in deep conversation with famed pianist and entertainer, Wladziu Valentino Liberace.
He and Mollie understood the importance of drama when it came to architecture, and the house, with its 18-foot ceilings, walls of glass and one of the most sensational views in town — encompassing the shorelines of Cherokee Park, North Siesta, Lido and Bird keys — has a theatrical air about it. Large groups are easily accommodated, and at a recent party for major donors to the Asolo Theater, actors from the company performed swordfights on the lower terrace.
The view is the first thing you see when you enter the home. It’s straight ahead, through the tall custom-made glass doors to the entry hall and into the living area and out to the terrace with the infinity-edge pool that appears to spill into the Bay. Clerestory windows, set under the high ceilings, are a prominent feature of the home and ensure the bright, even light that floods the interior. To the west are the breakfast room (Robert’s favorite room, Mollie recalls), the large Neff-designed kitchen and the dining room, again set on an axis that provides one continuous view from end-to-end. The public spaces make an excellent setting for the classic-modern furnishings by masters of the genre, such as Mies van der Rohe. The floors are travertine and the walls are art-gallery white. Indented black boarders frame many of the window-and-door openings, giving the space a crisp, tailored look,
The westernmost wing of the home contains three large guestrooms, each with a bath. The master suite is on the other side of the living area. You enter through a den/media room into a large bedroom that opens out to the pool. There is an elaborate master bath and an enormous master closet — perhaps 30 feet by 10 feet — that includes both a jewelry safe and a gun safe. It also contains a “secret door” that leads to another guest suite, tucked away by itself and perfect for extended stays by visiting friends and relatives.
Many large homes are designed with entertainment in mind, but not many with the attention to detail that characterizes the Nelson house. The lower level contains vast areas for catering set-ups, plus an elevator to get the food and supplies upstairs. Mollie and Robert have hosted many benefits for the area’s nonprofits over the years, but their biggest event was, appropriately enough, the ultimate TV entertainment blow out: a Super Bowl party for 350 guests.
The lower level also contains a drive-through garage with parking for 10 cars, several thousand square feet of storage, various hobby rooms, including a large one facing the bay for Mollie’s sewing. Outside, on an acre-and-a-half of land, are the famous oaks that frame the house in front, and in the back, a multi-level terrace surrounded by green lawns that run down to the water, where there is a small beach (yes, it can be used for swimming) and two docks, each with a boat lift. “A lot of people have jumped off those docks,” Mollie remembers with a laugh. “Some clothed — and some not.”
After the deaths of both her husband and her mother in the same year, Mollie feels it is time to move on. Leaving such an important part of her life behind is a bittersweet feeling. “Living here has been a blessing,” she says.
“I just hope whoever gets it continues the legacy.”
The house is listed by Kim Ogilvie, of Michael Saunders and Co., for $7.9 million. (The house next door, on a smaller lot, just sold for $7.5 million.)
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