In 1907, Swedish immigrant Carl Johansen purchased a parcel of land from Giles Chapman and set about building a homestead for himself, wife Anna, his mother, and his three youngest children. Johansen and wife and mother had immigrated to Central Florida in the late 19th Century with a total of 13 children, most of whom had grown by the time they settled in Englewood where Johansen operated a sawmill. The Johansens rafted the lumber across Lemon Bay to what was then known as Pine Ridge.
The Johansen family lived in the house until about 1916 when they moved yet again. After they left, the house sat vacant for nearly 15 years after which it went through several owners. But it was in the 1930s when it acquired its most notorious (to this day) reputation when it was operated as a business known as “The Sea Island Sanctuary.” A 1936 brochure for the Sanctuary touts the “azure waters,” and the “balmy breeze of the trade winds.” The brochure continues on to state;
“The isolation of our location permits the practice of nudism 24 hours a day if desired; also one may stroll nude for miles along the shores of the gulf. We have the friendship of the authorities and the good will of the community. What more could be desired of a nudist resort? This coupled with the excellent food, plenty of warm sunshine and congenial companionship, is the ultimate.”
While apparently no one knows with authority how or when the Hermitage got its name, a penciled note on a surviving brochure notes that the Florida Sea Island Sanctuary was at the “ole” Hermitage, indicating that the property was so called even then. With monthly membership rates of $45 (in 1936 dollars), the business failed and in 1937, Louise Plummer bought the property and added a guesthouse in 1942.
It was in the early 1940s that Alfred Whitney, a bachelor of reportedly an imperious nature, built a retreat for himself adjacent to the Hermitage property. It included a house with the reputation of being “hurricane proof,” a water collection system that ran from his roof into two cisterns, a small shed with pumping equipment that sent the collected water under pressure back to the house, and a garage. At that time in the early 1940s, the Hermitage was serving food, and Mr. Whitney was known to take the majority of his meals there. In 1947, Otto Thurston Alexander bought the Hermitage and the adjoining Whitney property and combined the two parcels.
From 1975 to 1986 writer Ruth Swayze and artist daughter Carroll leased the Hermitage and spearheaded a community effort to save the Hermitage buildings from beach erosion. Without the efforts of these two ladies, we would not have the beautiful buildings we have today. In 1986, Ryder Home & Groves purchased the property and then sold it to Sarasota County Parks and Recreation in 1988. Originally, the County had purchased the property for an added parking lot for the public beach and had planned to destroy the buildings, but the historic nature of the buildings prevented that plan from going forward.
The 1990s was notable for an earnest campaign by a dedicated community of Englewood-area people went to work to find a useful purpose for the buildings and to restore them to their “Old Florida” rustic elegance. These people included Ruth and Carroll Swayze, Diana Harris, Ms. Sydney Crampton, David Baber of the Sarasota History Center, and others who felt these buildings needed a new purpose.
In 1999, the Sarasota County Arts Council led by its director Patricia Caswell, and with extensive community involvement, created a Comprehensive Community Cultural Plan. Among the items in the wide-ranging plan was the identified need to serve individual artists. Simultaneously, Syd Adler, community activist, art collector, and philanthropist, expressed his personal desire to work with the Arts Council to aid individual visual artists.
Ms. Caswell (who had a 20+ year association with the Hermitage property and the Swayze family) conceived the idea of saving the buildings for use as an artist retreat. The Sarasota County Arts Council assumed leadership to raise the funds, negotiate the lease with the County, and recruit the community leadership for the organization to move the project from a “notion” to a reality. Mr. Adler assumed the chairmanship of the Arts Council’s Hermitage Artist Retreat Committee. Together they set about raising friends and funds to make the artist retreat a reality. They worked together with Sarasota architect Bob Town to renovate the historic buildings.
The County Commissioners of Sarasota County at that time – Shannon Staub, Jon Thaxton, Paul Mercier, David R. Mills, and Nora Patterson – had the insight to seize on the idea and support it unanimously. The commission granted the Arts Council a long-term, $1/year lease on the property, and County Parks and Recreation Department was assigned the oversight responsibility, where it remains.
Generous grants were secured from the State of Florida Division of Historical Resources and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice. Pioneer donors who were among the first to believe in the project include Babs Taliaferro-Potter, Gerri Aaron, and Jo Kixmiller, whose lead gifts added momentum to the campaign. The Dignam family led by Tom and Annette continue a deep involvement as well as their daughter Leslie Edwards who has served as board president and continues to serve on the Hermitage Board of Trustees. The Caitlin Fund of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County and the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation played a large role in the restoration of the Whitney buildings as well as the restoration of the Tom Dignam Beach Cottage. Sadly, our beloved Syd passed away in November 2004, but we continue to be led by the vision he and Patricia shared. In 2005, Bruce Rodgers, former associate artistic director of the Asolo Theatre Company, assumed the post of executive director. Subsequently the County purchased the Palm House just south the historic Hermitage property. It houses a gallery space and two performance spaces as well as offices.
The Hermitage exists today as perhaps the last existing example of pioneer beachfront homesteading on Florida’s Gulf of Mexico. It exists because it found its true purpose. It is a special place and many people throughout its history have recognized its unique qualities. The artists of all disciplines who get to experience the Hermitage tap into its energy and it becomes the catalyst for their creativity. Great art is created here. It is the art of our day by the artists of our age inspired by our ecological beachfront treasures and by this architectural history.
That the Hermitage House, its beach cottage, and the adjacent Whitney property survived both Mother Nature and real estate development is a testament to the will of the Englewood community who would not let its history die and be lost to future generations. Thanks to writer/historian Diana Harris who shared her collection of stories and photos with us in our effort to tell the Hermitage story.