MANATEE -- The once winter home of Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones and Dr. Joyce Brothers in Whitfield Estates is changing hands.
The area's oldest surviving inn, Villa Serena Inn, 7012 Willow St., will now be under the care of Bradenton resident Steven Levin.
"It was really serendipitous," said Levin, a New Hampshire native.
One day Levin was driving through the neighborhood to help scout homes for a friend. After seeing a for rent sign at the property, he checked with his real estate broker Vicki Lonborg with Coldwell Banker in St. Armands. Londborg, who helped find Levin's vintage Bradenton home, also held the listing for Villa Serena.
"We came over, we looked at it for 15 minutes, went back to her office and wrote up a contract," Levin said of the 12-unit building with a carriage house designed by Chicago architect Clare Hosmer.
Londborg said she has shown the property about three or four times a week during the two years it was on the market. Christopher J. Brown acquired the property for $565,000 in 1998, and after extensive renovations -- including ripping up layers of carpet and tile to rediscover the original wood floors -- brought tenants back. He put the three-story Mediterranean Revival inn on the market for $1.4 million in 2011.
"There was lots of interest and in fact, I was in four different written contracts and three verbal, but they never got to the inspection part of it," Londborg said. "They started their due diligence and for whatever reason, one of the investors backed out or financing was an issue for them."
In the matter of 30 minutes, Levin was able to close on the property on Aug. 15 for $900,000, she said.
In its heyday, the Villa Serena was the place to be, Brown said.
"It was going to be a winter resort for the elite, rich snowbirds," Brown said. "Even the most inexpensive unit here, a simple one-bedroom unit, was renting for $225 a month in season."
That's nearly $3,000 today when adjusted for inflation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but the most expensive unit today rents in the $1,000 range.
"It was built to house prospective buyers from the north, as I understand it, and lure them down here to encourage membership at the country club across the street and purchase one of the many vacant lots around here," Brown said of the original Ringling Estates orange groves, and the Sara Bay Country Club, which was originally the Whitfield Estates Country Club. The country club was the first golf course along the North Trail.
"I can just squint when I look over the balcony over there at the drive-thru parking area. I can almost imagine the chauffeurs for the Ringlings and Powel Crosley and all those many names that once belonged over there," Brown said.
The area got an early start to the Great Depression after two major hurricanes in 1928 and 1929 struck Florida damaging both the housing and the tourism market, Brown said.
The property changed hands during the Depression, with eventual plans for an in-ground pool, which has since been built and buried, and dreams of sunken gardens, Brown said.
Levin is now tasking himself with starting where Brown and his late wife, Ruth Brown, left off and continuing to return Villa Serena to its former glory.
Levin's experience and love for vintage properties can be found in Keene, N.H., where owned and operated the 850-seat Colonial Theatre built in 1924 where acts such as B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt played. He purchased it in 1984 with Ira Gavin and sold it to the community nonprofit in 1993, which renovated the property in two phases, according to the theater's website.
Levin's renovations mainly involve restoring the inn's historic charm by redoing the roof and gutters, installing European pavers on the driveway, and building an in-ground pool on the property, with Perez Tile Construction of Bradenton leading the way as the general contractor.
Brown converted the Villa Inn to apartments, and Levin plans to restore it as an inn, which includes a mix of seasonal and year-round residents and a dining area and galley kitchen for guests. The residents that live there now, which include professionals at area museums and colleges to name a couple, do not have to move out during the renovation, Levin said. The initial phase should take about six months to complete.
Levin wants to keep the National Register of Historic Places designation, but one challenge is finding a way to make the building ADA accessible, he said, because the width of the doors are 32 inches. That's a long-term project to figure out, he said.
"Right now we have more on our mind," he said, like the water running through cracks on the penthouse balcony.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.