Carolyn Van Helden is active in the Daughters of the American Revolution, and her mother, Lyde Jones, can trace her family back to Jamestown (a walk-in closet filled floor to ceiling with her meticulously organized genealogy research backs her up).
It’s no wonder, then, that the moment Van Helden saw the 82-year-old, Mediterranean-style home in the walk-to-downtown neighborhood of Avondale, she thought, “This is my baby.”
Able to look beyond the down-at-its-heels old home’s electric blue, pink and green painted interiors and the dilapidated detached garage at the rear of the property, Van Helden envisioned a home she and her mother could share while maintaining their own private spaces.
She bought the sad sack of a house in April 2005, took it through the demanding historic designation process with the City of Sarasota, then hired architect Thorning Little and contractor Pat Ball to design and build a one-story wing that nearly doubled the original 2,000-square-foot home.
By the time she and her mother moved in last December, she’d gained a bright, brand-new, functional kitchen, an airy great room and generously proportioned master bedroom and bath for her mother, a laundry room and two-car garage, as well as taking the existing home back to its original spit and polish.
The house was built in 1925 during the height of the Florida land boom for William and Bessie Pearsall, a prominent Sarasota couple who owned an interest in the U.S. Garage on Pineapple Avenue in Burns Court (where this magazine’s offices are located today). It was thought to be designed by renowned architect Thomas Reed Martin, who also designed the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium.
Just two years after they moved in, the Pearsalls lost the home to foreclosure—as did so many Sarasota homeowners in the real estate bust that followed the mid-‘20s boom. Van Helden has a clip from the Feb. 14, 1929, edition of the Sarasota Herald that proclaims, “Pearsall Home Sold to Geiger,” in which the reporter called it “one of the most important real estate sales of the season.”
With her architect’s help, Van Helden held onto the original plaster and horsehair molding and wood floors in the living and dining rooms. In the dining room, she replaced two original windows with French doors that open to a lovely new terrace tucked between the new and old parts of the home. She furnished the dining room with an antique English table, sideboard and hutch that holds a small part of her and her mother’s collection of five large sets of china. “I was taught well by my mother,” Van Helden says. “Start with the things you love.”
Upstairs in the original part of the house are two small guest bedrooms—dressed in crisp white bed linens and furnished with heirloom spool beds from the 1940s that belonged to Van Helden’s mother and grandmother—and a reconfigured master suite with bedroom, study, bath and walk-in closet.
A fine arts major in college who went on to a career in financial services as a senior vice president at Morgan Stanley in Chicago, Van Helden has amassed an extraordinary collection of art that is proudly displayed throughout the house. Among them are Impressionist paintings by Blanche Hoschede-Monet, stepdaughter of Claude Monet, and Ernest Lawson, a member of the group of artists who were known as The Eight, as well as four Rembrandt sketches and a lovely small portrait of Peter Paul Rubens that was formerly in the collection of Charles Ringling North.
Van Helden and Jones had no sooner moved in last December than they hosted a tea for 80 members of the DAR. (“I’m an ex military brat, so I know how to move in fast,” Van Helden says with a laugh.)
And in March, more than 700 people tramped through the house as part of the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation’s 17th annual Historic Homes Tour. In a city that is rapidly changing, the alliance hosts these tours to emphasize that teardowns in historic neighborhoods are one of the biggest problems facing these older treasures.
“When I saw the house, I knew it was the one,” Van Helden says. “My friends said, ‘Are you sure, Carolyn? Do you know what you’re getting into?’ Maybe I didn’t, but I have no regrets.”