A grand old house is destroyed.
WE DROVE OFF U.S. 41, THROUGH THE stone pillars and down the vine-choked lane that led to the bay, noting how the predatory Florida weeds had made it almost impassable. We were prepared for a scene of destruction, but we didn't expect such silence, such utter desolation. The Acacias, the stately old mansion that I'd spent much of my youth in and whose history stretched back more than a century, had always seemed so immense and indestructible. But it had disappeared without a trace. In its place was a huge, sandy crater. The giant, bearded oaks, their branches bowed in homage to days past, appeared to be the only mourners. Besides the ghosts.
The ghosts went back to the 1840s, when the William Whitakers, the first white settlers in the area, chose the bayfront property known as Yellow Bluffs (near today's 12th Street) for their log cabin. In 1910, the Benjamin Honores of Sarasota erected their winter home and showplace on the site. Built of gray stone, the two-and-a-half-story, antebellum-style mansion offered serene views of the bay and acres of magnificent grounds, including an orange grove, an ancient Indian mound and wood-frame servants' quarters. It was named the Acacias, after the gracious, shady acacia trees that flourished there.
For several years four generations of the Honore family lived there. Mrs. Frederick Dent Grant, whose father-in-law was Ulysses S. Grant, joined them after her husband died; and the Acacias became a haven for her daughter and son-in-law, Prince and Princess Cantacuzene, who sought refuge after the Russian Revolution in 1917.
In ensuing years, the Cantacuzenes came only intermittently, although some local residents remember attending card parties and other events during the winter season. By 1939, the home had been vacant for years and had fallen into a state of sad disrepair. That's when my father, Burleigh Brooks, bought it. He restored it bit by loving bit, and from 1940 to 1953 it was our family home.
Standing before that sandy crater, I remembered when the house was filled with guests, when uniformed men sat beside us at the long dining room table, when toasts were made amid the sound of laughter and clinking glasses. The light from the big crystal chandelier overhead illuminated the white damask tablecloth and the fine china and silver. Someone was always making beautiful music at the polished ebony grand piano nearby, and voices rose with excitement and raillery at the Saturday night poker games. Oriental carpets in glowing jewel tones covered the planked floors, and fine old paintings and tapestries lined the walls.
When we retired to the cool, wrap-around screened-in porch with its comfortable reed furniture, we could hear the wind whispering in the trees and the waves lapping against the seawall.
Late at night, my two sisters, Jinx and Dodie, and I would sit on our beds in our rooms upstairs, talking and laughing. I recalled Dodie's wedding in April, 1945, we bridesmaids descending the stairway, the bride following, her long train sweeping the stairs. Flowers banked the fireplace, and the groom, Capt. Ken Gustafson, pilot and war hero, stood in full uniform, waiting for his bride. The rush of memories was so intense, the images so real, I felt I had to physically brush them away.
My father sold the house in 1953. He retained a small piece of the property and built a little home there. When I returned to Sarasota for good in 1965, I lived there, next door to the stately mansion that had cast such enchantment over my childhood.
New owners sold off more of the property, including the Indian mounds, which were razed and replaced with a condominium. By 1976, the estate was a shadow of its former self, and the home and contents were sold at public auction. I watched the people tramping through the once-gracious rooms, tearing fixtures from the walls and ceilings, carrying out furniture and accessories. The man who bought the house soon sold it to an out-of-town developer. Then for a long time it stood empty, prey to transients and vandals who prowled the littered rooms, scrabbling through the debris. They took it all, the bannister, the doorknobs, even the toilets and the sinks.
Meanwhile, the developers laid out a grandiose plan to turn the site into a 13-story condominium complex. But first they wanted to tear down the house, and they vigorously lobbied local officials for permission to proceed, insisting the house had neither historical significance nor architectural charm. In vain did Hal Darbee, then-president of the Sarasota Historical Society, protest, "It's Sarasota's single most important house historically, considering the Indian mounds there, the Whitaker site, the family history of the Honores and the Cantacuzenes." A few other history buffs also expressed outrage, but most of Sarasota had yet to recognize the importance of historical sites and the terrible irreversibility of their destruction.
On Aug. 19, 1981, the Sarasota City Planning Board recommended approval of rezoning the Acacias tract. On Sept. 21, 1981, the Sarasota County Commission concurred. Representatives of the developer visited me and warned that unless I sold to them now, before condos rose all around me, my little piece of property would be worthless. I gave in.
In spite of last-ditch efforts by a few historians and preservationists, the city building department issued a demolition permit. On April 28, 1983, we stood on the sidelines while bulldozers reduced the Acacias to a pile of rubble.
Nothing ever rose to replace it. Instead, the site has languished for more than a decade, although recently another generation of owners has announced plans for another ambitious new development there.
When the Acacias fell, the town lost an important link to generations of settlers, from the early pioneers to the prominent Honore family. Less important to Sarasota, but everything to me, it was also the home of my childhood, my haven and getaway as an adult. My mother's ashes were scattered in the bay there, as she had requested. When the estate was destroyed, part of me was destroyed, too.
As a small town, Sarasota has had only a few grand structures that endured for significant periods of our history. Unbelievably, we have destroyed nearly all of them. The Venetian-inspired Mira Mar Hotel complex and gardens, built in 1923 and a beacon for stylish visitors during the exuberant boom period, was stripped of its soul and gutted in December 1982. The Atlantic Coast Line passenger depot, built in 1925, was the point of arrival and departure for generations of residents and visitors, as well as a structure of great architectural charm. It was torn down in 1986 for another real estate development that never materialized. Today a sea of weeds marks the site. And the decorative Lido Casino, built in 1940 and the beloved playground of thousands of Sarasotans, was torn down in 1969.
Even today, when we're all more aware of our need for tangible connections with our past and preservationists have more power and legal tools than ever before, saving Sarasota landmarks is an uphill struggle. Witness the many who have worked to keep the John Ringling Towers from the wrecking ball, and how far they still are from success.
I hope their story has a happier ending. As for the Acacias, every time I drive by I feel the presence of those ghosts -- the spirits of my family and all those who came before, from the early white settlers to the Indians whose graves were disturbed. I know this: whatever is eventually erected will stand on haunted ground.
Brooksie Bergen is author of "Sarasota, Times Past" (available at most area bookstores) and a frequent contributor to SARASOTA.