Some of the most coveted properties in Sarasota aren't showy, sprawling or rising 10 stories into the sky. Instead, they're a scattered collection of tiny beach cabanas, as simple and unassuming as can be. But you'll probably never see any of these hot properties advertised. Their value and their cachet just keep escalating, and the only way to get one is to know someone-often a relative who leaves it to you in his or her will.
Cabana communities have been a semi-secret part of this beach town's history for generations. They're private havens for families who want to store their sports gear near the shore, for couples who use them for informal entertaining, or for mainland folks who long to sneak away and read the Sunday paper to the sound of waves lapping the shore.
The word cabana is Spanish, meaning "hut." Some cabana owners pronounce the word "ca-bahn-ya," while others Americanize it. Either way, a cabana in Sarasota comes with an aura of exclusivity. To have a cabana requires patience, connections and a certain level of disposable income.
The 25 cabanas at the Sanderling Beach Club on Siesta Key have the most impressive pedigree. Built in 1952, they were designed by Sarasota School of Architecture icon Paul Rudolph. Their bent plywood rooflines are meant to resemble waves. Today these cabanas are on the National Historic Register, and recently they were repainted their original blue color.
These cabanas can only be procured by residents of the Sanderling Beach Club neighborhood and those lucky few holding an associate membership. The Gulf-side community has about 100 properties and there is a waiting list for cabanas, which are leased rather than sold. The current rate is about $1,800 annually.
Hank and Sally Haer moved into their Sanderling home in 1986 and acquired their cabana four years later. "Hank plays tennis twice a week, and after the games, the men will meet at the cabana for a beer," says Sally. "We play cards or board games down there and we have cookouts and beach parties. When our kids and grandkids visit from Long Island and Georgia, the place is in constant use. They adore it. The cabana has a concrete floor and I've let the children paint fish on it."
Sanderling cabanas are rustic; no bathrooms, no built-in kitchen. Sally Haer doesn't even like the idea of installing running water in them, although some Sanderling cabanas have it. "Hank put in some cabinets for storage, but otherwise we've kept it natural and plain," she says.
Betsy Mitchell grew up enjoying her grandmother's concrete cabana at Sun and Surf Colony on Lido Beach. She brought her own two children there to play and participate in seasonal planned events for cabana families, such as the annual Easter egg hunt and hat parade.
"Cabanas are what we had before sunscreen," Mitchell says. "My grandmother, Marjorie Van Antwerp, was one of the original investors, along with Bill Adams Sr., who got the group together in 1947. The 40 cabanas are separated from the Gulf by a little bridge. We used to come there as kids and straight through college. I organized my own children's birthday parties at the cabana. One of my brothers paneled our place over spring break.
"We had marvelous times at our cabana and got to know lots of other families. Interior designers Pat and Sam Coward had a cabana when they were married, and the inside was painted with a wonderful mural reminiscent of Tuscany. They would invite friends and play cards at sunset."
Nick and Millie Ellis, who have a home near the Ringling Museum in north Sarasota, bought their Sun and Surf Colony cabana 16 years ago and have used it ever since.
"It's my tiny, rustic home on the water," says Millie. "We used to have our kids' parties there, and now our two sons come with their children to enjoy the cabana. We've had Thanksgiving and Easter dinners there, countless birthday celebrations, cocktail parties for friends and just relaxing days grilling burgers and enjoying the peace and quiet."
The Ellis cabana has a small bathroom and kitchen facilities that include a refrigerator and microwave oven. "It's basic, but that's its charm, because it makes you relax and do no-frills entertaining," Millie says. "My husband installed some storage cabinets, one of which is just for the kids' beach toys. We don't need much when we're there. And having fun at the cabana isn't even dependent upon good weather. It can be cold or rainy, but if I say I'm going down to the cabana for the afternoon, I've always got people who want to come along. One of my favorite ways to use the place is for a breakfast cookout."
Ellis says that to buy a Sun and Surf Colony cabana, an owner must be proposed by two current owners, and she notes the most recent cabana sold for about $65,000. There's a waiting list of eager buyers.
There's also a waiting list for the pink cabanas at White Sands Cabana Club (Key Beach, Inc.) on Siesta Key. Gwenne Heiser, president of the association, notes that the last couple who wanted one of the 12-by-20-foot cedar and Ocala block cabanas had to wait four years. The price today is near $100,000 and climbing. Heiser and her husband Ron bought theirs in the early 1980s and use it for casual entertaining and spending time with visiting children and grandchildren. The cabana was also the site of a celebratory catered beach dinner for Ron Heiser when he retired as president of New College Foundation a few years ago.
White Sands consists of 60 cabanas, built in 1956. Owners are all stockholders and pay an annual maintenance fee and agree to abide by covenants such as a 10 p.m. curfew. "Also, stockholders must reside in Sarasota County," adds Gwenne Heiser.
The White Sands huts all have running water, bathrooms and kitchen facilities. "We've put in furniture, lighting, a fan and at times have had a television in there, too," says Heiser.
The White Sands social committee organizes activities and the seven-member board meets regularly. Recently, a developer made an offer to buy Key Beach, Inc. "It was a hefty offer, too," reports Heiser. "So we gathered the stockholders to vote. Of the 60, only three wanted to entertain the offer. However, we did vote to gate the whole area to enhance security. What we all prize is the quiet, the seclusion and the luxury of having a private place right on the Gulf."
A hundred thousand clams for a 12-by-20-foot cabana at White Sands Beach Club doesn't sound outrageous when you consider what's going on in Miami, where a deeded beach cabana no larger than a small walk-in closet recently changed hands for $850,000.
SOURCE: The Daily Reckoning, www.dailyreckoning.com.