The story of Betsy Sublette’s restoration of her Laurel Park bungalow is one of old-fashioned friendship. It chronicles her true-grit determination to prove by example that historic homes should be saved rather than leveled. And it recounts a love story as enduring as the 1924 Craftsman-style cottage itself.
Everything about Sublette’s tale is storybook except the ending. Bruce Tassinare, a realtor and the love of her life, died at age 54—soon after the home renovation they had planned together began. That was in January 2005, six months after he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. One month before his death, Sublette broke ground for the addition to her Oak Street bungalow.
"I was devastated; I couldn’t think," recalls Sublette, a realtor with SKY Sotheby’s International Realty. "It takes a lot for me to get emotional, but when I walked into places like Home Depot or the Plumbing Gallery, I’d start to cry. Bruce and I had remodeled several houses before, and we made every decision together; standing in those stores reminded me of him."
The pair had been inseparable for 10 years. "He lived around the corner in his own 1920s bungalow, but we spent all of our time together," Sublette says. They grocery-shopped together; picked out cars, antiques, art and even eyeglasses together. Tassinare and Sublette shared a vegan lifestyle and a passion for the ‘50s, swapping home furnishings, old records and junkyard finds.
Fortunately, the couple also shared a coterie of devoted friends, a six-degrees-of-separation group linked by shared artistic purpose and commitment to architectural preservation. In the spirit of an early American barn-raising, they rallied around Sublette to help her finish the house.
Sublette had bought what is officially known as the Ella Dula Westermann Tenant House in June 2004 with the intention of adding on a master suite, laundry room and modern kitchen. "I was concerned because the house was already historically designated, and I didn’t know what the restrictions would be," she recalls.
On the recommendation of Pat Ball of Ball Construction, she consulted architect Chris Wenzel before closing. "Pat and Judy Ball are very involved with the historical society, and Chris is now president of the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation," Sublette explains.
Lorrie Muldowney, historic preservation specialist with Sarasota County’s historic preservation board, joined Wenzel on his first walk-though. "I told them that people were warning me how difficult the various review boards made it to do anything to these homes," Sublette recalls. "But Lorrie assured me, ‘That’s how it might have been years ago. Now we’d rather work with people than make it so impossible that they tear the [historic] houses down.’"
Wenzel drafted plans for an addition that would increase the home from 900 to 1,500 square feet, and for a separate two-story, 550-foot guest studio and garage. She and Tassinare went over the plans together, but he was gravely ill by the time the review process began. "Chris came with me to every board meeting; he helped me every step of the way," Sublette says. "Lorrie and Pat Ball were there for me through the city and county approvals as well."
Ball’s construction company was retained with one caveat: "I told Pat that I specifically wanted to have Ed Norman as the contractor on my job full time," she says. "Ed’s been a friend for 20 years. He did the renovations on my Citrus Street house, and when I lived in Myakka, he worked on my house there."
Another friend, Billue Guignard of Metro Cabinet Company, says Norman also happens to be a talented craftsman. "Betsy has fantastic taste and she put together a terrific team," Guignard explains. Indeed. Guignard is a graduate of the Ringling School of Art and Design, and the kitchen she created is as flawless as Wenzel’s architectural design and Norman’s craftsmanship.
The kitchen is a tribute to Tassinare and Sublette’s passion for the ‘50s. The light-up clock they found together in St. Petersburg was moved from his house to hers after he died. Her carnival chalkware lines a wall next to a ‘50s table and chairs. Before the renovation, the tiny kitchen ended at the right-hand edge of the window above Sublette’s 1954 O’Keefe and Merritt stove. Now the room, still replete with character and charm, is modern in size and function.
Sublette retained the original yellow painted glass cabinets, which now display her colorful Fiestaware collection. A drop-down ironing board’s cabinet has been refitted as a spice rack. Sublette chose tin ceiling tiles for her backsplash ("Ed had to cut each one by hand; today they’re sold ready-made," she explains). Norman also restored the back wall’s original window, but the termite-eaten wall had to be replaced.
Sublette recalls questioning Guignard’s choice of honey cherry for the modified-Shaker style kitchen cabinets. "I thought it would be too dark," she says. "But Billue said, ‘Trust me: this is going to be awesome.’ That was right after Bruce died, and I shut down and let her take over."
While her friends took responsibility for design and construction, Sublette threw herself into creating a garden. "The garden was therapy. I just had to keep myself busy every minute," she says. "The idea for the design just came to me: I decided that I would make paths where I wanted them and the rest would be filled in with plants.
"Ed’s girlfriend, Nancy Paul, is the horticulturalist at Spanish Point," Sublette explains. "She was a lifesaver. She helped me with the trees and big plants; we shopped at wholesale nurseries and planted together. When it came to picking smaller plants, the annuals and perennials, I was getting back to being able to do things on my own."
Nancy Paul distracted Sublette further with a salvaged treasure, a sink from Spanish Point’s White Cottage. It now commands center stage in the guest suite’s bathroom. The suite is filled with countless mementos: the bedroom furniture of Tassinare’s boyhood; ‘50s-style lampshades the pair sourced and designed together; an original, custom Haywood Wakefield sofa; and paintings by local artist David Utz. "Believe it or not, we dated when I was 19 and he was 20-something, and we’re still friends," Sublette says. "One of the paintings was done specifically for the guesthouse. Isn’t that cool?"
Treasures from other dear friends are scattered throughout the home. Tassinare introduced Sublette to now-best-friend Michele Mancini shortly after he sold Mancini her Ohio Place home. Mancini’s original fruit crate labels hang beside Tassinare’s kitchen wall clock, and her former company, Full Swing Textiles, provided the ‘50s-inspired barkcloth fabric used to upholster Sublette’s living room furniture and dining room chairs.
A custom credenza in the living room was purchased from friends Heather and Don Chappell. "I always told them I wanted that piece. They called Bruce and me when they were moving, because they knew we were nut cases about ‘50s furniture," Sublette explains.
Walk by the house today, and you’d be hard-pressed to see the structural changes Sublette commissioned. The addition is seamlessly integrated into the original architecture, and the backyard guest suite appears to have been built back in 1924. The colors Tassinare selected for the home’s exterior ("He was the king of color," Sublette says) recall happy days. Some things are worth preserving.