A Sarasota home that's fit for a celery king


Another home laden with local history has come onto the market — the residence built in 1937 by T.J. (Thomas Jefferson) Bell and his wife, Marguerite, on Bay Point Drive south of downtown Sarasota. Held in the same family since that time, the property is now on the market at $2.3 million.




bay2The sellers are Tom Bell and his wife, Cheryl. Tom Bell is a grandson of T.J. and Marguerite, and has lived in the family home since 1990. He created the landscaping for the property, added a swimming pool and updated the kitchen, but preserved most of the vintage elements of the spacious, white Florida bungalow.

Some of those features are the original terra cotta hexagonal floor tiles in the family room (once a sleeping porch), the living-room fireplace, oak floors, beadboard ceilings in some of the rooms, dining room built-ins, fir trim and doors, and a huge master bath that was creatively updated by T.J. and Marguerite in the 1950s.

“My grandfather once told me that a bathroom renovation, with the big mosaic tile mural over the pink bathtub, cost more than what he paid to have the whole house built, which was about $10,000,” said Tom Bell.

“My dad, Arthur, and his three brothers grew up in this house, and I remember coming here all my life to see my grandparents for family gatherings. It’s a hard decision to sell, but I retired recently from a career as a lawyer, and Cheryl and I want to travel. We plan to downsize to a small house that needs minimal upkeep, but we would like to stay in this neighborhood or near it because Bay Point is really special.”

T.J. Bell and his brother, John, who were known as the celery kings of Florida, came to Sarasota in 1925 from Sanford at the request of the Bertha Palmer family.

T.J was the president of Bell Bros. Celery, which packed and marketed all vegetables grown on Palmer Farms. Bell Road is named for their seed farm in that part of Fruitville. The brothers built and operated the Palmer Farm Growers Cooperative Packing House.

To a great extent, through their efforts, agriculture was once the leading industry in Sarasota County. At one time, the Bell brothers were the No. 1 employers in the area, paying 500 workers. The brothers operated two of the largest celery wash houses in the nation and packed 25 carloads a day.

Additionally, they had celery operations in Island Grove, near Gainesville.

Contributing to the success of Bell Bros. Celery, was the fact that T.J. invented machinery to wash celery and held patents on many things that led to increased production, such as a celery-cutting device.

For relaxation, T.J. and Marguerite Bell used to fish in Hudson Bayou, and T.J. owned one of the first Chris-Craft boats in Sarasota. That led to his buying property in the Hudson Bayou neighborhood of Bay Point.

“Basically, my grandfather wanted a place to park his brand new boat,” said Tom Bell. “Hudson Bayou is deep water, and it’s a protected harbor, so it was perfect for his prized boat.

“About a year later, he built the house and that’s where he and my grandmother raised four sons. One of them, Arthur, was my father. He was a lawyer, too. Marguerite lived in the house until she died in 1990. My grandfather died nine years before.”

Tom Bell grew up on Hillview Street in a house where the Pacific Rim restaurant now stands. “What is the Southside Deli used to be the fire station,” he recalled. “That was the place I first saw television. My sister and I also lived on Irving Street, and on Blue Heron Drive in a Ralph Zimmerman-designed modern home. My mother’s ashes are scattered on that property.

“But the house on Bay Point Drive was always the place the whole family would gather, and even after my grandfather retired, he was inventing things. When he was 92, he was working on windmill technology and wanted to put one in the backyard at Bay Point. He was a farmer with a seventh-grade education, but he was amazingly smart and a great businessman. After he sold the celery business in 1945, he went into development and real estate.”

Historian Jeff LaHurd agrees. “T.J. Bell was president and chairman of the board of Citizens Bank, which opened in 1950,” said LaHurd. “It was known as ‘The Bank of Friendly Service,’ and had the first drive-in and walk-up windows in Sarasota. It also was the first business to offer electronically operated doors, which we take for granted today.”

The house that T.J. and Marguerite Bell built in 1937 was upscale in its time, but the present owners suspect that today’s buyers might be more interested in the neighborhood and the waterside setting than the structure itself. Tom Bell is realistic about the prospects for the roomy white bungalow that is full of family history.

“Someone could buy the house and just live in it,” he said, “but that’s not likely. The house could easily be updated and enlarged up and out. But, given the way these kinds of purchases turn out today, it is also possible that someone will buy the property for the land, the neighborhood and the harbor.

“I see boaters being interested in this property, but maybe not in the existing house. And maybe that’s OK, because when my grandfather and grandmother looked at this site in 1936, what they saw was a wonderful place to keep their boat.”

The listing agent is Jane Rees of Michael Saunders & Co.


Marsha Fottler

Marsha Fottler has been a newspaper and magazine lifestyle, food and design writer since 1968 first in Boston and in Florida since 1970. She contributes to regional and national publications and she is co-publisher and editor of a monthly online magazine that celebrates the pleasures of the table called Flavors & More. (941) 371-8593.
Last modified: April 5, 2014
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