Down at Willow Oaks

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In 1970, Kay DeFrances and her husband, Larry, had been married just two years and were living in Tallahassee. The young bride never dreamed that her future was about to be forever altered by a historic old Sarasota house. But that’s just what happened when that year, Larry’s father, Reno DeFrances, died, and Larry inherited […]


In 1970, Kay DeFrances and her husband, Larry, had been married just two years and were living in Tallahassee. The young bride never dreamed that her future was about to be forever altered by a historic old Sarasota house. But that’s just what happened when that year, Larry’s father, Reno DeFrances, died, and Larry inherited 22 acres on Little Sarasota Bay complete with a cypress structure called Willow Oaks Lodge.

George Metheny of St. Paul, Minn., built the house in 1894 when south Sarasota was virtually unsettled and named it Willow Oaks, possibly because of trees that dotted the land, although today only live oaks, palms, fruit and pecan trees cover the site. Two generations of the Metheny family lived there, developing a citrus grove and then going into the seawall and dredging business.

In the ’30s, Willow Oaks was purchased by a Mr. Fentriss, who expanded the living room and added a bay window. He also replaced the downstairs pine floors with magnolia. In 1950, Reno DeFrances acquired the property. He and his wife divorced soon after, when their son, Larry, was four, and the wife and Larry moved "to town"-Willow Oaks, in a neighborhood now called Buccaneer Bay, about a mile south of the Stickney Point Bridge, seemed like "the middle of nowhere" in those days, says Kay DeFrances. But Larry spent weekends and summers at Willow Oaks, taking the two-lane Tamiami Trail from Sarasota.

When she was a teen-ager, says DeFrances, Larry often took her to the house. "The first time he asked me on a swim date, I realized the date actually meant cleaning the pool," she remembers. The big-30 by 60-feet-pool was fed by an artesian well. "Periodically it had to be drained, doused with chlorine and swept with big brooms," Kay says. "I remember thinking, ‘some date.’"

Reno DeFrances turned the house into Willow Oaks Lodge, converting the bedrooms and the enclosed porch into a vacation destination for Northerners who came to fish. He also built tiny cabins on the property, sometimes getting pretty ingenious-once he ripped out the original kitchen of the main house and attached it to a chicken coop that he then retrofitted into a vacation cottage. Since he always ate his meals in restaurants, Reno didn’t miss his kitchen. "The lodge was rustic," says Kay DeFrances. "But this part of the country was pretty rustic in the ’50s. Reno’s concept was to put vacationers on the water in a natural and private setting. And it’s still very Old Florida out here."

When Larry, who was an attorney, inherited Willow Oaks Lodge, he and Kay decided to move back to Sarasota and keep the house. They reserved the dwelling and about four acres for themselves. The remaining acreage went to a developer who built Buccaneer Bay. The young couple wanted to return the homestead to a single-family dwelling, so they removed all the odd structures from the property, restored the kitchen, took down interior partitions, added a family room, put in central air and rehabilitated the plumbing, electricity and woodwork. The restored house, which includes both an attic and a basement, has about 3,000 square feet of space.

During the renovation, Kay and Larry learned a lot about the house’s history. For instance, they unearthed hundreds of liquor bottles from the crawl space. It seems Willow Oaks had a brief incarnation as an alcohol treatment center. "Judging from those bottles, it couldn’t have been terribly successful," De Frances says. She and Larry also found the original windows, which had been removed when Mr. Fentriss added the bay window. Now they are in the master bedroom.

Larry DeFrances died in 1992. With their two sons grown, friends wondered if Kay would sell the house. Instead she enlisted her sister, interior designer Gwendolyn Sears, to help her freshen up the furnishings and update some of the rooms. Together they searched antique shops and garage sales for just the right period pieces. The dining room table (original to the house) was treated to newly upholstered chairs and to a vintage chandelier the sisters found in Tampa. The porch pendant lights are from the now- demolished Dixie Grand Hotel in Pensacola. The women say the house is a work in progress and they are in no hurry to finish. And De Frances says that although the house requires constant maintenance and care, "There’s nothing like the charm, comfort and welcome of a house full of history."

Entertaining is also a two-sister project; and while they refuse to call their efforts "parties" but use "get-togethers" instead, they’re often somewhat grand in scale.

"The second Thanksgiving after Larry died, I wanted to have the people around me who had been so wonderful," remembers Kay. "So Gwen and I decided on a sunset Thanksgiving meal because the fall sunsets are so beautiful. We ended up renting a tent and putting it in the middle of the yard, and we started asking friends and relatives. It ended up there were 35 of us at that meal."

The sisters also organize a big Fourth of July gathering using both the house and grounds. "We started with nine people about a dozen years ago," Kay says. "And we watched the Siesta Key fireworks from our water’s edge. We had such a good time, we decided to repeat the party the following year. Now we’re apt to have up to 100 people some years. Everyone brings a covered dish and a lawn chair. Gwen and I pile the food on a long table in front of the kitchen window, and folks eat inside, outside, on the porch, wherever. The house and yard merge for one long informal night. This is the way I love to see the property used."

Watching the sunset every night from a special little spot near the barbecue grill in her back yard is a ritual with Kay, and the tradition often includes Gwen and their best friend Ralph Smith, the Herald-Tribune political cartoonist, who lives nearby. "Sometimes, we’re out there with a drink for just 15 minutes as watch the sun go down; other times we’ll stretch it into an hour while we talk about our day," says Kay. "We laugh a lot, we listen to one another; and we never judge anything that’s said or give advice. It’s the most therapeutic thing I do for myself all day, and I would never miss that few minutes of relaxation and friendship. I know Gwen and Ralph feel the same."

Some visitors ask about the two reclining stone lions that flank the stairs leading to the front porch. "Reno was in the cast concrete business for a while and he was also a member of the Lions Club," explains his daughter-in-law. "He made one pair of lions for the club and another pair for Willow Oaks Lodge. We found the molds under the house. I see the lions as Reno’s personal signature. Everyone who’s lived here contributes something. Old Mr. Fentriss’ portrait is in the attic."

OLD-HOME TRUTHS

* Find unconventional storage space, because you’ll never have enough closets. "I have an armoire that I call my garage," says De Frances.

Get used to strange noises. De Frances often hears peeping from a nest of birds in one of her chimneys and "downright weird" moans from the air handler in the basement.

* Understand that you will turn into a handyperson because nothing in an old house is standard, and most workmen don’t want the bother.

o An old house will absorb all the money you can throw at it.