It’s a house that demands an explanation. There it is, set on a busy six-lane highway in Oneco, big and old and seemingly made of stone, with castle-like turrets and a white picket fence. It’s too cheerful-looking to be a haunted house, but you can’t help but wonder — what is it? An old library? A fire house? Does somebody really live there? Who?
The Helm-Nanney House, as it is officially known on the National Register of Historic Places, is just what you’re hoping it is — a beautiful relic of pioneer days, battered yet, somehow preserved over the years and now in the hands of a family who delights in taking care of it.
The home was built in 1908. Oneco was tiny but, still, an important part of Florida’s early citrus and nursery industry. (The world’s first pink-grapefruit was developed just down the road.) The Helm family, originally from Indiana, owned a grove and a nearby grocery store. They hired local contractor J.S. Maus to design their homestead in the then-popular Richardsonian Romanesque style. Characterized by arches, round towers and stone balustrades, the style was a turn-of-the-century staple across the country, particularly suited for public buildings and millionaires’ mansions.
Maus ordered all the materials for the home from Sears Roebuck and Co. The forms for the molded-concrete blocks were filled with sand from Siesta Key (even then thought to be the finest) and the still-intact woodwork, doors, windows sills and hardware came straight from the Sears catalog.
Walking through the home today, it’s easy to picture the way people lived 100 years ago. The ceilings are high — 10 feet in most rooms; the house still doesn’t have central air — and there is intricate woodwork everywhere. Although the house was subsequently divided into six apartments, current owners Margi and Pat Nanney were happy to discover that behind the 1930s and ’40s renovations, everything was still pretty much intact — even the original claw-foot bathtub, which they found buried in the backyard.
The ground floor consists of an entrance hall with a U-shaped stairway and a fireplace with an elaborate mantle and surround. Through a pair of Corinthian columns is the parlor, and beyond that a curved and enclosed porch (now used as storage). There’s also a dining room with a Franklin stove and a kitchen that’s half old, half new, complete with an old-fashioned wall phone.
Upstairs is a large sunny landing area with a bay window. “This is where the boys grew up,” Margi Nanney explains. Their current bedroom was still rented out as an apartment when the Nanneys moved in. There are two other bedrooms on this floor, plus the original bath. The third floor contains three more rooms, now used as headquarters for Margi Nanney’s extensive antiques collection. Her pride and joy is a wall display of artifacts from John Ringling Towers, the famous old hotel destroyed in 1998. “I was so upset that I didn’t drive by that spot for three years,” she recalls.
There’s also a balcony at the top of the west tower — the highest point in the area — from which you can look out over present-day Oneco. To the south are the remnants of the Helms’ citrus groves; to the north are low commercial buildings and the traffic rumbling by on one of Manatee County’s main east-west thoroughfares. It’s an eccentric place to call home.
The Nanneys bought the home in 1985 and it’s been their passion ever since, Margi Nanney in particular. Luckily, she’s had a variety of careers to prepare her for the challenge. A North Carolina native, she moved to Sarasota in fourth grade. Her first job after USF was as Cardinal Mooney High School’s first art teacher. Then, with her first husband, real-estate entrepreneur Jerry King, she was instrumental in the development of several Sarasota communities back in the 1970s and ’80s. “I remember choosing all the street names for Centergate.”
Along the way she also started her own advertising agency. Then, when a friend asked a small favor, everything changed. He wanted some lettering stenciled on the side of a race car, and, as Margi Nanney puts it, “I fell in love with the race track.” She and Jerry bought DeSoto Speedway in 1980 and with her at the helm it became, to quote its famous slogan, “the South’s fastest short track.” But Jerry’s interest was less than hers. They parted ways and Margi fell in love with — and married — driver Pat Nanney.
The Nanneys’ racing days have tapered off considerably. The track now belongs to someone else and Margi Nanney is currently the public information officer for the Manatee County Schools. But there is no doubt that cars and all things mechanical remain the focus of their family life. With most people, it’s the kitchen that’s the heart of the home. With the Nanneys, it’s the workshop out back. There, in 2,200 square feet of air-conditioned space, Pat Nanney and the boys — Mark and James, both now in college — repaired and rebuilt cars and trucks and the occasional motorcycle and ATV, while Margi Nanney has her own work station where she repairs lamps she finds at garage sales and online. Surveying this scene, with its wall of racing trophies and the 1970 Dodge truck her sons learned to drive on, Margi shakes her head. “Thank God, I had boys,” she says. “I’m such a tomboy at heart.”
Maybe so. But inside the home, with its Christmas decorations up — for the 104th year — Margi Nanney’s sentimental side took over. It’s filled with family photographs and treasures such as her mother’s old sofa and a pair of lamps said to be from Charles Ringling’s mansion. This year, as always, there’s a Christmas card with a picture of the family and even a corny poem. The house is often featured on the card, too, and why not? Along with their beagle, Chase, napping on the carpet, it’s a part of the family.
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