Back in 1926, just as John Ringling was developing St. Armands Key as the epitome of Florida glamour, he — along with architect Dwight Baum — built three houses to function as model homes. The Spanish-style residences were designed to lure potential buyers to the charms of the elaborate community-to-be, ringed by canals and anchored by a circle of fashionable shops and restaurants.
The dream turned out a little different. Boom turned to bust, then to boom again. But now, almost 100 years later, no one can deny that St. Armands has become what its builders originally intended: one of the premier neighborhoods in Florida.
And what of the model homes? Have they vanished, replaced by much larger and more elaborate mansions? Surprisingly, two of them are still there, still sitting next to each other on South Washington Drive. And the one owned by Jeff and Joyce Hart has become a jewel box of Sarasota style and history.
It’s been in the family since 1968. That’s when Hart’s parents bought it and moved to escape the cold Ohio winters. Joyce, a graduate of Sarasota High, spent her teenage years in the house. Her old bedroom, on the ground floor, is now a sophisticated den/media room that forms a suite with the adjoining master bedroom.
Joyce attended Ringling College of Art and Design, studying interior design, and she met fellow Ringling alum Jeff Hart. They began a partnership in life and later, business, working together at Robb & Stucky until the furniture retailer closed in 2009. They then established their own design business, J. Hart Interior Design. Married since 1975, they have a daughter, Jessica, born in 1982.
In 1996 Joyce’s mother decided she wanted a simpler lifestyle, so the Harts bought the house from her and constructed a guest apartment over the garage so that she could remain close. The couple assumed their prized collection of French art deco furniture would look wonderful in the old house. They were wrong. “Art Deco didn’t work,” Jeff recalls.
After some soul searching and a great deal of research, they came up with a new approach: Palm Beach in the 1920s. “It’s Mediterranean, but with a French influence,” Jeff explains. The result is an elegant Palm Beach palazzo, small in scale but big on glamour.
The home still retains its original layout, with very minor changes to improve circulation and add closets (the lack of which is always the bane of 1920’s houses.) The Harts added a pool, updated the kitchen and bathrooms and replaced most of the windows, which, over the years, had been switched out to jalousies.
But the original wood and tile floors are still there, plus the beams that support the vaulted ceiling in the living room. The tiles that surround the fireplace are the same ones found in the Cà d’Zan (also designed by Baum) and the French doors that open from the dining room to a walled patio have never been replaced. All this takes effort, but as Joyce explains, “It’s a good thing that I’m the daughter of a painting contractor. I scrape and repaint every other year.”
The couple furnished their home with finds from all over the world. In the foyer is a cabinet they stumbled across in a Parisian flea market and shipped home via Cunard Lines. In the master bedroom furniture that has been in Jeff’s family for generations blends comfortably with newer pieces. There’s even a Victorian pier mirror, a gift from a client who was planning to throw it out.
With their many ties to Sarasota’s art and design community, the Harts have been collecting paintings for years. Most are by local artists. An exquisite Syd Solomon, from his “Shoreline” series, hangs in the foyer, and a portrait of Jessica Hart by John Dineen adds warmth to the living room. Some of the smaller paintings peek out at you from unexpected places — nestled on little stools under a sideboard or tucked away in odd corners. One, in the bar, is hidden in such a way that it can only be seen reflected in a mirror.
The Hart home is not large, but it has an intriguing layout. Large rooms flow into small rooms, and there are patios and garden spaces everywhere. A tiny sunroom overlooks the pool, which is sheltered from the street by high Palm Beach-style hedges. The third bedroom is located on the second floor, the only room up there, with furniture and window treatments done in a crisp black and white toile. There are even some intriguing pieces of Sarasota history to be discovered. The wooden gates that lead down a tiled path to the back garden come from John Ringling Towers and are instantly recognizable to old-time Sarasotans.
These days the Harts are busier than ever. Sometimes they work jointly on a project, sometimes separately. Joyce, who admits to being the more traditional of the two, is excited about a garden house on St. Armands she is currently decorating, and Jeff, with a more contemporary aesthetic, has his hands full with a slew of remodeling projects. “People are always interested in location,” he says. “There are a lot of 30-year-old homes and villas in great locations that need bringing up to date.”
When not working, Jeff and Joyce love to entertain. They are both cooks, with Joyce giving her husband the edge. “I specialize in French country cooking, cassoulets and such,” she says, “but Jeff can cook anything.” Their formal dining room, light and airy, is the scene of many dinner parties for eight, with friends they’ve made from all walks of life during their decades in Sarasota.
And invariably, their home makes any evening memorable. China and silverware glow in the candlelight, and a soft breeze from the Gulf wafts in through the open French doors. It’s a scene that would make John Ringling proud — his vision for St. Armands, better than ever after all these years.
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