Sarasota has had its share of larger-than-life characters over the years, and it seems that an awful lot of them have owned the white modernist mansion that catches everyone’s eye from the bridge to Longboat. Topped by a circular room with a 360-degree view, it’s been home to some of the town’s most colorful heroes and villains, and even a pop icon.
Phillip Hiss, the community leader and architectural designer who developed Lido Shores and the Sarasota School of Architecture, built the home. Famously avant garde when completed in 1955, the home was where Hiss and his wife, Shirley, raised their family and set the stage for Sarasota’s incarnation as an intellectual town with progressive ideas and a sophisticated visual style. When Hiss helped found New College back in 1960, he donated the home for use as the official residence of the college president.
The idea proved impractical, however, so the house was sold to the Count de Rohan, a French nobleman and film producer. The count glamorized the house, adding an elevator and its signature circular room. He sold it to another Frenchman, Francois Gardinier, a go-for-broke entreprenuer and wine baron who at one point owned U.S. Phosphoric and many of the old resorts on Longboat Key. Gardinier renovated the home to suit his lavish lifestyle; he added a 12-foot-by-12-foot walk-in safe complete with a bank vault door (to accommodate his $20 million art collection) plus a four-bedroom guesthouse.
And then came Dale Murray. Court papers from one of his many legal wranglings described his life as “a Greek tragedy.” Sarasota knew him in his heyday, when, as owner of Chris-Craft, the famous boat builder, he dazzled the town with his deals, private jets and political connections. At one point, he was building ultra-fast boats for the Colombian drug cartel while building even faster ones for the U.S. Coast Guard. This conflict of interest lead to a contract on his life, which accounts for the home’s extraordinary security system, installed with the help of the FBI.
But Chris-Craft went bankrupt during the BCCI banking scandal in the late 1980s, and the downward slide accelerated. Murray made the news one last time in 2002 when he was sentenced to prison for failing to support the illegitimate daughter he had with a topless dancer from Kentucky. His defense? He had run out of money.
The current owners, Ralph and Sherri Trine, sometimes marvel at the unique history of their home. They’re successful entrepreneurs, too, but grounded in a no-nonsense Midwestern work ethic. They have turned the legendary Westway house into a private family retreat of peaceful relaxation, reunions and vacations.
When the Trines bought the place in 2003, it badly needed updating and renovation. The bones of the house were excellent, with its modernist beginnings still in evidence. Designed on a grid of 13-foot sections, the rooms are well-proportioned and complement each other, with a classic simplicity of white walls and glass doors and windows, most facing an extraordinary view of New Pass.
The Trines installed a new kitchen and reconfigured the master suite, turning an adjoining bedroom into a spectacular bath overlooking the water. The three guest rooms in the main house are all exactly alike, a concept dating back to Gardinier’s ownership.
“He didn’t want any of his guests to feel slighted about getting the second — or third — best room,” Sherri Trine explains.
This has been a second home for the Trines. They run a family-owned manufacturing business in Indiana, where they are active in local philanthropy. They are so active, in fact, that Ralph’s alma mater, Tri-State University, in Angola, Ind., recently changed its name to Trine University.
“The house demanded elegance,” Sherri Trine says.
She furnished it in white and neutrals so as not to distract from the blues and greens that flood in from the outdoors. The furniture, mostly from Baker, is in a style that suggests French art deco. Decorative items — including the white marble fireplace mantel in the living room — that come from the couple’s frequent trips to China, complement it. They’ve been more than 30 times.
The circular room on the third floor still holds many memories of the house’s sixth owners, singer Bobby Vinton and his wife, Dolly. It was here that Vinton wrote and recorded music. He added the granite-topped bar and a bath, plus a sauna by the pool.
The house has provided a bridge between the Trines and the Vintons. The crooner serenaded Sherri Trine with a special version of “Happy Birthday” during one of his concerts, and, though now settled in another home on Manasota Key, he has been known to drop by and reminisce about his Lido Shore days.
The Trines are moving on, to a smaller place on Longboat. Like the previous owners, they are leaving some of their own special touches behind. They have placed six marble benches facing New Pass, each incised with the names of the colorful crew who previously owned the mansion.
Sherri Trine says she fell in love with the house the first time she entered through the wooden gates, which were once the doors to a Mexican Colonial church. A row of palm trees leads to the front door, which opens to the home’s grandest room, a two-story entrance hall with a spectacular Waterford chandelier. The enormous window facing the view is framed by a pair of draperies, a relic that dates back to the Vinton days.
And, yes — they’re blue velvet.
For more photos, click here.
1415 Westway Drive is listed at $8.5 million. For more information, call Reid Murphy of Developers Realty at 232-3304.
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