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Villa Serena Inn:An Old Gem Gets Polished

Villa Serena Inn:
An Old Gem Gets Polished

by: Sarah Fish

Bradenton has had its fair share of famous people visiting, from Babe Ruth to Al Capone and even Elvis is said to have left a building or two here in the ‘friendliest city’. At the Villa Serena, they’ve hosted nearly all of them. The historic Manatee County landmark has been a permanent fixture as the area’s oldest surviving inn and the only original inn from the Sarasota area’s glamorous Roaring Twenties. And it’s
made a comeback nearly a century later.

On sprawling grounds of almost an acre and a half, not much has changed since the Villa first opened its doors to the public in 1926. Banyan and live oak trees shade the classically antiquated atmosphere in a beautiful park-like setting. Native palms add the ambience that preserve the “Old Florida” charm.

The Mediterranean-revival-style Villa Serena was designed by renowned architect Clare Hosmer. Hosmer arrived in Sarasota during the Land Boom of the early 1920s. He joined the surge in architects moving to the area who were eager to lend a hand in developing Florida’s Gulf Coast for wealthy northern transplants.

The style of architecture Hosmer implemented on the Villa is seen throughout many of the other local buildings he designed. Most of them are either on the National List of Historic Places or designated locally as historic sites. Most notable is the Bitz home on Bay Shore Blvd.

The American Legion War Memorial at Five Points is also a Hosmer work, as is the Lemon Bay Women’s Club, which Hosmer codesigned in the Prairie School architectural style made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright. Built amongst several designs of one of the area’s top architects, The Villa Serena was destined to
be legendary.

Called the Italian Palace at the time it was built due to its elaborate furnishings, Villa Serena was renovated in 2019 and still features much of the original characteristics that make it so unique. According to owner Steve Levin, who in 2014 purchased the property “almost as a whim,” the Villa was at the time, crumbling and in disrepair.

Levin moved to the Sarasota area a year before he bought the 7014 Willow Street property where the Villa stood, nearly forgotten. A serendipitous moment brought Levin to the Villa one day while out searching for other properties for a friend. He noticed a for sale sign in front of the dilapidated structure from across the street and within 24 hours he was under contract.

I thought it would be a very easy project,” he recalled. But Levin is no stranger to the hard work that comes with renovating and preserving such important relics. And the Villa turned into a $1,500,000 labor of love.

“For some reason I am fond of old (1920s old) properties,” he said.

Proof lies within other historic structures Levin has had a hand in resurrecting. Back in his native New Hampshire, he spent over a decade renovating the old Colonial Theater in the tiny town of Keene after purchasing it in the 1980s.

“Asbestos, no heat or AC, roof leaks were a few of the problems we encountered,” Levin said of the Colonial Theater. “We rehabbed the building and reintroduced live entertainment after a 43-year hiatus.” He later sold the property to a community-based group who has been running and expanding its vision since 1993. Here in Bradenton, he began the renovation and preservation of former Bradenton Mayor Winthrop Curry’s home at 224 18th Street West before selling it with hopes the new owners will honor its history the way in which he had.

“Point Pleasant is a most interesting place from an historical perspective as is the Curry family,” Levin said, his love of history quite palpable. A change in charter at the Manatee Historical Society eliminated the possibility of working with a local conservation organization to preserve the building, so Levin decided to focus his efforts on the Villa.

How Suite It Is

In September of 2000, the inn was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation Levin accepted happily when he purchased it, having a background in conservation. Though it honors tradition, the Villa has transformed into something for the future generations of movers and shakers.

In the inn’s heyday, champion golfer Bobby Jones, baseball legends Babe Ruth
and Dizzy Dean, and many others stayed comfortably in the same rooms that
the public can reserve now for their own enjoyment.

Each of the inn’s 12 luxury suites are equipped with a full galley kitchen and
breakfast nook, private bedroom, and sitting rooms that feature the building’s
original oak floors, all fully decked out with modern conveniences. Four of
the rooms are approved for transient tenants while the remaining eight are
reserved for full-time residents. The ADA-approved suite was previously two
old horse stalls before being transformed into a luxury rental. The building
did not have adequate space for an elevator, so resourcefulness made way for

Levin added a cavernous 1,000-square-foot carriage house catering hall that
complements the main structure and can host 100 guests. Inspired by his love
of music and travel, Levin sees this space as a location for future performances
by local musicians and is available for private events.

An outside space has been adorned with seven new pergolas and areas to
host open-air functions beneath the towering shade trees. Levin also recently
purchased a food trailer to provide a catering space capable of accommodating
any third-party vendors when dining is required.

What may be the most impressive new addition to the historic grounds is
the implementation of the FarmBot, a mechanical garden which grows and
harvests food through use of computers and robotics rather than human
labor. Aside from its assembly, it’s a hands-free operation.

Arts and Classes

“We support the arts,” the Villa’s website proudly exclaims in a video reel. And
they mean it. Strolling the grounds of the inn is like exploring an art museum.
Wildly painted lions perched atop steps greet guests at an entrance, a creation
from the imagination of painter Sandy Barry, who also organizes the Villa’s art
classes and day-to-day operations.

Seeking to engage with other artists within the community, Barry decided to
host the Art Instructor’s Brunch, celebrating the reuniting of creative minds
after the lifting of lockdowns, and promising, “more good times ahead.”
Together Barry and the creative collective decided to implement a multitude
of classes and events.

Now, you can learn watercolor techniques from nationally recognized
watercolorist Anne Abgott, who is honored with two prestigious accolades.
You can learn mixed media from artist Liz Cole or take quilting classes with
fiber artist Dawn Gerardot.

Taught by talented professional artists from the surrounding area, socially
distanced in-person art classes began, though the uncertainty of Covid has
proven to be a challenge getting started.

“We had a lot planned that we had to cancel,” Barry said of music and creative
events impacted by Covid. “But we’ve adapted.”

The state-of-the art classroom facilities can accommodate 12 students where they can see in detail, on two wide screens, the exact moves the instructor is teaching at the front of the room. The experience is as immersive as one can get amid continued social distancing due to the rolling pandemic.

Barry carefully curated the instructors locally based on their talents and their variety of mediums. Currently there are nearly a dozen local artists and even more of their works integrated into the atmosphere, including the furniture decorating the vibrant foyer by artist Melinda Maugans. Mosaic artist Anita Smith’s whimsical and intricate work can be found throughout the property alongside sculptures by metal artist Debbie Marucci. Painter Jeanne Vasquez is also showcased throughout.

During the early days of the pandemic, mural artist Matt McCallister adapted his trade by using driveways as concrete and asphalt canvases for birthdays and other at-home socially distant celebrations that took place during lockdowns. As restrictions loosened, he was hired to make a mural come to life on the side
of the historic inn in March of 2020. He will have two more murals completed on the side of the Serena by the time this article goes to print.

“Creating art on this particular building was an honor because this is on the list of national historic places,” McAllister said in an interview with Spectrum News. “Adding my own touch into something that’s as old and historic as this was probably one of my favorite canvases so far.”

McAllister’s first Villa mural overlooks the inn’s luscious swimming pool and depicts an equally tropical scene of vibrantly colored flowers and birds, styled much like a postcard from the inn’s younger years.

“We’re experimenting,” Levin said about the revitalization, though his vision for the Villa Serena seems quite purposeful. Everywhere you turn, there’s something to bring you back in time and forget about the heaviness and hustle bustle happening just beyond the inn’s property lines.

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