He was forward thinking, artistically daring, powerfully creative and ideally credentialed for the job of director of the art museum that John Ringling left to the people of Florida. In his mid-40s, A. Everett "Chick" Austin came from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., to become the first director of the Ringling Museum in 1946 and remained in that post until he died of lung cancer in 1957.
His tenure was not especially long in the museum world, and his contract was for seven and a half months a year so he could run his playhouse back in Connecticut during the summer. But his achievements were substantial, and included bringing the Asolo Theatre from Italy to the museum and bringing the museum's collection of baroque art to the attention of the nation, sometimes with the help of his Hollywood friends, such as Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury and Celeste Holm.
But Austin also relentlessly championed modern art and was known for being over-the-top flamboyant in his pursuit of the avant garde; he didn't do things quietly or halfway. When he bought a 1925 Mediterranean Revival home, built by Thomas Monk, Whitfield Estates' original contractor, just north of the Ringing Museum, it had five bedrooms and four and a half baths. (FOR A GALLERY OF IMAGES, CLICK HERE.)
One of the first things Austin did was to turn the three downstairs bedrooms into a lavish ballroom that measures 40 by 20 feet.
Ornate French doors open from the living room to reveal Doric columns and a fireplace that are only two breathtaking features in this glittering party space, which has an accompanying glass porch to the side of the ballroom.
The servant quarters behind the house became the home of Austin's assistant/companion Jim Hellyar, who traveled with Austin and helped him with theatrical projects in Sarasota and in Hartford, Conn. Although, Austin's wife, Helen, came to visit Sarasota several times for galas, neither she nor the two Austin children ever lived in the Sarasota house. The family lived in Los Angeles and in Hartford.
The current owner of the Austin house, Jerry Chaplain, is an art and antiques collector. He bought the home in 1997 and has spent years preserving the parts of the decor that were Austin's contributions, such as the Dutch blue and white antique Delft tile surround in the master bedroom, trompe l'oeil niches throughout the house, oak floors, the hand-painted Scalamandre wallpaper in the ballroom and the turquoise wall and lattice color in the Chinese Chippendale glassed-in porch.
Chaplain also added three big and glamorous chandeliers to the ballroom — two 1909 Tiffany palm tree-patterned ones and another, larger one that dates from 1941 and once hung in the Peruvian embassy. They certainly fit the baroque style and size of the space.
But Chaplain is ready to move on and the Chick Austin home, at 227 Delmar St., on the market for $885,000 through Dyrk Dahl and Ben Bates of Coldwell Banker.
During his tenure in the house, Chaplain reconfigured the kitchen, making it more convenient for entertaining and opening it to vistas of the backyard. The en-suite upstairs bathrooms had already been updated in the 1970s but retain some of their original features, such as the tile floor and walls in one of them.
Although he's been rigorous in respecting and preserving the Delmar Street house (it's on the National Register of Historic Places), Chaplain feels his greatest contribution to curating Austin's vision, while adding to the importance of the home, is the series of impressive garden rooms that he has designed and installed over the past decade. The house sits on three and a half lots, the biggest single-home parcel in Whitfield from the original bayfront tract that was owned by Alfred Ringling (1862-1919), brother of John and Charles. Chaplain has turned the grounds into an enchanting park with garden rooms representing different eras and different styles of landscape design, with suitable garden art and water features to match.
Besides the self-cleaning, cageless swimming pool, there are two large koi ponds (one in an Asian setting with an accompanying pagoda and one outside the kitchen window) and fountains throughout the park. The curving walkways are constructed so that when you're in one garden room, you do not see the others.
Most of the garden is to the west side of the house, which used to have a view of Sarasota Bay before it was obstructed by another home built in 1974. Now the house and the park are a world unto themselves, although Chaplain often leaves the graceful iron gates to the park open so that neighbors can stroll through, sit and enjoy the serenity or bring their children to play. Over the years, Chaplain has opened the house to many public home tours and he's happy to tell the stories of the three most recent occupants of the home: Chick Austin, Mr. and Mrs. John Couch and himself. Chaplain was married in the garden, adding to the many events that have taken place on the property.
"Chick Austin put his stamp on this house, and it's the one that remains the most significant because of who he was," said Chaplain. "But the Couch couple — he was president of the Chinese National Power Company — lived here the longest, and after they died, their son, who was a geologist, inherited it. The family lived here for a total of 40 years. The parents were private people, art collectors and had the funds to do the things they wanted to personalize the home, such as adding magnificent stained-glass windows. The wife had a security phobia. I found locks on the inside of some of the closet doors. She thought of them as safe rooms."
Chaplain knew he wanted the house while the Couch couple still owned it. "I lived in the neighborhood and walked by this place for 18 years, and it was always a mystery to me because I couldn't really see the house for all the trees," he said. "When the house came onto the market and I saw the inside, it was filled with fabulous authentic 19th-century Chinese furniture. They had maintained the house beautifully, but the yard was a complete jungle. It was just the challenge I was looking for."
For the real estate staging of the house, Chaplain has been inspired by Chick Austin's passion for modern art and modern furniture.
"I've brought in some art and furniture from about 1960 to the present, including a B&B Italia leather living room set that belonged to the actor Charles Bronson. I think Chick would have liked that. And above the bed in the upstairs guest bedroom is a 1937 nude painting by Stanley Woodward of Bette Davis that was done in the artist's Siesta Key studio."
Chaplain believes that Chick Austin saw his Sarasota house as a party palace. "He entertained here all the time, had play rehearsals in the garden, and was always looking for ways to embellish the house in a dramatic, but formal way," said Chaplain.
"He treated the house a lot like a stage set. Chick Austin was definitely brilliant at set design, and, of course, he had a professional eye for art."
Dyrk Dahl, one of the Realtors listing the house, believes that Europeans, young professionals or an art-loving local couple will probably buy the house.
"Children never lived here," said Dahl who resides in the area and is president of the homeowners' association. "The house has two spacious upstairs en-suite bedrooms and a library and it could, with adjustments, accommodate a family, but I don't think that's who will ultimately own it. Someone who appreciates the history of the house and the marvelous way it is set up for entertaining, both inside and out, will want it. There's really nothing else like it." As for Jerry Chaplain, who has curated the home for 16 years, he's packing up to move to Indiana. "There's nothing left for me to do in the garden," he said. "Designing and installing the gardens have been my major contribution to the property, and now I'm looking for another challenge. I own two big houses on Raccoon Lake west of Indianapolis. That land is going to be my next landscape project.
"I'm leaving this house and the gardens behind for new owners to preserve its past and contribute something to its future.
"And they'll need to take care of the koi."