A Venice icon


When Tom and Jeanne McDonagh first glimpsed their dream house, it was from their boat as they were cruising Roberts Bay 18 years ago on Memorial Day weekend.

venice1“I will never forget it,” said Jeanne McDonagh, “We saw this soaring expanse of glass, a house both modern and yet tropical, and I thought to myself ‘if only’ as we floated by. Then we found out it was for sale and that was it, our piece of paradise.”

The McDonaghs appreciated that the Venice property, on El Dorado Drive on the island of Venice, was big enough for their boat and had a dock, the floorplan was open and airy and the house was full of natural light, with views were everything they wanted.

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“When we got inside and saw the art deco styling and custom details, that was the icing on the cake,” said Jeanne. “Our home in Michigan was art deco, and our cabinets in the kitchen were birdseye maple with black appliances just like this one. It seemed just like home already.”

The McDonaghs loved the waterside location so much that they bought lot next door and built a home for Jeanne’s mother that she enjoyed for 10 years.

The McDonaghs’ home was built in 1991 by artistic builder John Dempsey of Manchester, England. There have been intervening owners, and all of them have loved and kept the unique ironwork (profiles of a man and woman who kiss when the front gates come together), the jade green ornamental ash wood trim inside the house, the marble floors and the kitchen, which is mostly black, with black granite counters.

The McDonaghs say it’s a house that you either love or hate, no middle ground. Realtors Terry Herschberger and Paula Zynda of Premier Sotheby’s International Realty agree, and so did the builder. The four-story home on the water is being offered at $1.85 million.

The house has four bedrooms and four and a half baths, cathedral ceilings, gas fireplace, an elevator, heated swimming pool and deep water dock. There are four zones of air conditioning.

The current owners added 3-M window shields and enlarged the boat dock. They furnished the home in a palette of black, white, gray and shades of jade to match the extensive trim. They already had art deco sculptures and wall art to bring from Michigan.

The visionary who built the large house (3,704 square feet inside and 7,500 square feet overall), was a successful contractor in England when he came to the Nokomis/Venice area to repeat his success in America. Dempsey designed and built this house, but the architect of record is Dan Ionescu.

Dempsey knew he was building a controversial home right from the start when he combined modern architecture with art deco styling and tropical design references.

He said at the time, in a newspaper article, that half the people who came through it would hate it and the other half would want to own it. Dempsey put his first American project on the market for $1.18 million.

His emotional and artistic investment in the project is evident. Dempsey went to Italy to personally pick out the marble for the floors. He installed floating staircases so that each level of the home can be seen from the one above it. The master bath has built-in maple dressers, an oversized (for the time) bathtub has French fixtures and German fittings. The bath and dressing area have their own balcony shaded by palms. There’s a balcony off the master bedroom, too, and a treetop sun deck reached by a spiral staircase.

“We often take our morning coffee and the newspaper and climb up there,” said Jeanne McDonagh. “There’s nothing like the view, and between 4 and 5 in the afternoon, the dolphins show up.”

The McDonaghs have lived in their dream home for 18 years, a record for them. Their previous was five years. They wouldn’t be listing the house now except that Tom McDonagh has decided he wants land, lots of land, in Texas.

“It took convincing, believe me” said his wife. “But I went with him to the hill country around Austin and I could see why that part of the country appeals to Tom. There are beautiful and expansive views, privacy, peace and solitude.

“We’ve identified several places there that would be ideal, and I guess we truly are moving. We won’t keep the boat, either. Before we moved to Florida, we flew planes. Then it was the boat. I can’t really see myself riding horses in Texas, but you never know. Our moves always have an element of adventure to them.”

The McDonaghs think the next owners of the iconic John Dempsey house will also need to have a spirit of artistic adventure to go along with their check book. This house has never been for everybody.



723 El Dorado Drive, Venice.

3,704 square foot inside. 7,500 square feet overall.

Waterfront, swimming pool, boat dock.


Terry Herschberger, 941-468-8439.

Paula Zynda, 941-266-1850.


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: November 23, 2014
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