Restoring Herron House in Venice


Ursula Kohl and Peter Bartos are accustomed to taking well-located old buildings, refurbishing them and then adding a modern element, perhaps a luxury apartment on the roof.

PHOTO GALLERY: See more photos of the Herron House restoration

The Herron House, designed by architect Victor Lundy in 1957 to critical acclaim, has been restored by Ursula Kohl and Peter Bartos, Austrian real estate investors who own multiple properties within Sarasota County. Staff photo / Harold Bubil

The Herron House, designed by architect Victor Lundy in 1957 to critical acclaim, has been restored by Ursula Kohl and Peter Bartos, Austrian real estate investors who own multiple properties within Sarasota County. Staff photo / Harold Bubil

But that’s back home in Vienna, Austria, where old means 1857. In Venice, Florida, old means 1957, the construction date of an iconic house that has fulfilled their ideal of living in Sarasota County.

It is the Herron House, a true classic of midcentury modernism that displays the soaring artistry of architect Victor Lundy. All curves and circles, the house is known for its defining feature: wavy posts and beams that in one fluid motion shade the patios on the east and west side of the central pavilion and enclose the core of the structure. The cruciform interior includes bedrooms and bathrooms at each corner, a great room and a kitchen in 3,200 square feet.

When new, the house was featured in Life, Time and Look magazines and received an award in a national competition from the American Institute of Architects. It was built for the late real estate developer Sam Herron, who also hired Lundy to design the motel at Warm Mineral Springs.
Kohl and Bartos, through their Florida corporation, Vienna & Naples Inc., bought the house in December 2008 and undertook a nearly complete restoration. It is one of several projects involving 10 properties they own in Sarasota County. Tampa architect John Howey is working with them on several.

In Vienna, their real estate redevelopment company is called Thurn & Bauer. Its goal is to create spaces that improve the lives of their occupants.

<!---->Kohl said they discovered the Herron House after profiting handsomely from a 1997 home sale in Naples, returning to Austria, and then realizing they missed Florida and wanted to return.

In looking for a new Florida home, Kohl’s main criteria was that it had to be in a Gulf Coast city with no barrier island. “I really enjoyed that Naples was a city on the Gulf,” said Kohl. <!---->They thought about repurchasing their former Naples house, but by then, the home they sold for $450,000 was worth $2 million.

While shopping on Miami Avenue in Venice — no barrier island — in spring 1999, she met a Realtor who had her office in an antiques store. She gave Ursula two addresses and told her, “Don’t ask, just buy the houses.”

They had just come on the market and were steals at $140,000 and $160,000. “We fixed them up a little and sold them in the fall for double the price,” said Kohl.

While walking her dog, Kohl discovered the Herron House.

“The first minute I saw it, I fell in love with it,” she said. “And Peter, too. We never thought we could ever afford a house like this. This was the time when the real estate prices were really high. It would have been $1.5 million.

“Years later, 2008, Peter was checking the MLS from Vienna, and there was the house, available for $980,000. Peter called Lueanne Wood, the listing agent, and she said, yes it is available, but we could not come for six weeks. It was still available; we offered $675,000, and we got it. It was on the way down, and the owner knew it.”

“Our concern was that it was sitting in the middle of two lots,” said Bartos. “Everybody else has been looking at two lots, and was not interested in (keeping) the house. So we felt an obligation to save the house somehow, because $680,000 is still a lot of money. But everybody else wanted to tear it down.”

At 615 Alhambra Road south of downtown Venice, the house had had the same owner since 1990, when it sold for $265,000.

“Imagine how the neighbors must have talked about the house, this UFO,” said Kohl, when it was new. “It is most beautiful from the outside at night. It is unreal.”

“I love it,” said John Howey, who did not consult on the restoration. “With the house lights on, it is very beautiful. It is bird-like, with the cantilevers going out like short wings.”

“It is a wonderful sculptural form that is very typical of Lundy’s work,” said Bradenton-based author and architect Joe King, “with curves and dynamic spaces and sculptural use of materials and technologies.”-->

Almost immediately after buying it, the new owners began their restoration, which included removing layers of paint from the wood ceiling. “It took months to get rid of this paint,” she said. Almost as bad, the rounded hallway paneling was covered in wallpaper, now gone.

They replaced the kitchen with new cabinetry and appliances, “but tried to do it in a way Lundy would have done it.”<!-- They did not consult with the architect, now 90 and living in Texas, instead working with a local firm they did not wish to identify.-->

A kidney-shaped pool, not original, was replaced with a rectangular one. They resisted the urging of friends to build a curved pool that would mimic the shape of the house.

Bartos, who doesn’t admit to being a perfectionist but will admit to obsessing over details, is awaiting the final step of the restoration — the December installation of replacement beams on the edges exposed to the weather. Because of improper drainage, the original massive beams, made of Lundy’s signature glued and laminated strips of lumber known as “Glulam,” rotted and were replaced in the 1980s with steel beams that were enclosed with plywood and faux-painted to look like the originals. To make matters worse, the paint is peeling. He is working with engineer Stan Tignor on the replacements.

How will they keep the new ones from rotting? Maintenance, for one thing. Downspouts, for another. Downspouts were inelegantly installed on the exterior of the beams after the steel replacements were mounted. Bartos moved the downspouts to the backside of the beams so they cannot be seen. Rainwater enters through openings in the roof.

“It will be quite a project,” Bartos said of the replacement, “but it is necessary for it to be back to the original.”

“It is a perfect house for people like us, who like space, being separate but together,” said Kohl. “But at night, if you turn on a light, it goes all over the house.”

The Herron House is just one of Kohl and Bartos’ many local projects. They are renovating a house on Polk Drive on St. Armands Key in Sarasota, with Howey as architect.

“We like him very much,” Kohl said of Howey, who will create the design while Kohl and Bartos’ staff architects in Vienna will do the blueprints. “We are very close to him.”

Also on St. Armands, they own the Cooney House, retired Sarasota architect Tim Seibert’s award-winning midcentury modern. They restored it and have it listed at $850,000 through Martie Lieberman of Coldwell Banker.

The couple also is renovating a beachfront house on Manasota Key to remove a clumsy addition. “After we are done with the house, it will look a little bit like Sarasota modern.”

Back in Venice, they plan to build a house, also designed by Howey, next door to the Herron House, and they are renovating a house on Laguna Drive.

“It is a little bit art deco, and it is OK from the outside, but is badly working inside,” said Kohl. “We will make it ‘Sarasota Modern, 2015.’ I hope it will work.”

They also have renovated a small office building in Venice, where they have offices for Vienna & Naples Inc.

From mountain to sea Growing up in Austria, Ursula Kohl always wanted to get out of the Alps. “I have always hated the mountains,” she said. “I have always loved the sea.”

Bartos, meanwhile, wanted to breathe free air, no matter the altitude. He was born in Czechoslovakia to a Communist father and a dissident mother. She fled with her son to Austria when the Soviet Union invaded reform-minded Prague in 1968.

Ursula married young, to a wealthy man. When they divorced, she turned down alimony because she wanted to earn her own money, and went into real estate as a career. This led to investments in properties. Through Thurn & Bauer, now managed by her 35-year-old daughter, she and Bartos take old buildings — dating from 1850 to 1930 — and bring them back to life, renovating vacant flats and adding modern elements, including rooftop apartments, which they sell along with the flats. Apartments that are occupied often stay in the same family for generations and can’t be redone until they are vacated.

They also buy warehouses and convert them into lofts.

“If we transform a house or a house or a flat, it should be nice for people to live in,” said Kohl. “It should be inspiring and lift their spirit up and not depress them. I like open spaces. I always create some green in the narrowest space, so that you have a nice view everywhere.

“Back home, everything looks like Bauhaus when we are finished,” she said. “We only use gray and white, and everything is clean and looks somehow modern. I don’t like to work with colors. I like to put furnishings and paintings in it — this should be the color.”

Last modified: June 2, 2013
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