For decades, the historic Patten House has been overlooked like the ugly duckling compared to the white swan: the Gamble Mansion.
To make for an unobstructed view of the white, tabby mansion nearly 60 years ago, the Patten House was lifted and moved 100 feet east and 30 feet north of its original location. Living descendents of the Pattens were surprised, too, to discover that the Gamble Plantation Historic State Park tours hardly mention their family, if at all.
The Gambles lived on the property for only 12 years, the relatives say. The Pattens were there for 93.
A newspaper article from Nov. 27, 1966, even begins with, “Mrs. Ida Mell Patten Weesner of Ellenton, granddaughter of Maj. George Patten, called the Herald yesterday to say that the Patten family owned and lived in Gamble Mansion for a number of years before abandoning it ... ‘longer than any other family.’”
But today, the house has degraded so much by time and termites that the porch, ceiling and floor have been ripped from its core. The doors have been boarded up with plywood and the windows with clear plastic tarp. All that remains is the tin roof, exterior walls and brick chimney.
History is in danger.
Back in the late 1800s, the brown, four-room Florida pioneer house that would come to be known as the Patten House was built by the son of the Gamble Mansion’s owner, Dudley Patten. A second story was later added, along with a wrap-around porch, a fresh coat of paint and an “indoor” toilet.
(Dudley Patten, who grew up with outhouses, refused to have a toilet inside the home. He settled on building a bathroom attached to the home, but it was only accessible from the outside.)
The United Daughters of the Confederacy Judah P. Benjamin chapter had a 99-year sublease with the state to hold their own tours on Sunday afternoons and to use the building as a chapter house. The state was in charge of maintaining the exterior, and the UDC took care of the interior.
Chapter president Jan Greene remembers the house’s squishy floors and a sagging foundation. Over the past 10 years, she said, the house was tented at least twice. One time, someone broke into the house and the UDC replaced the door. Another time, a visitor fell through the porch, an expense UDC again paid for, she said.
“For years, I’ve been trying to get (the state) to do something about it,” she said.
In fall of 2014, the damage to the house was deemed to serious and it has been closed ever since. The contractor who assessed repairs said work had stopped between October and December 2017 because damage had been too extensive. An extra $182,033 and another three months would be needed to replace five termite-damaged doors; nine windows that had rotting and glass damage; and 2,200 square feet of siding that can’t be reused.
The state has made more than $300,000 worth of repairs to both the Gamble Mansion and Patten House since 2006, said Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Jason Mahon.
“These projects include ceiling repairs and restoring walls in the mansion, as well as treating for termites and repairing screens and doors at the Patten House,” he said in an email to the Bradenton Herald.
The state had come to the conclusion that the Patten House needed to be torn down. But those who have a special connection to the house swear:
“Not on our watch.”
Growing up in the Patten House
Peggy Duke-Lindgren remembers fresh-squeezed orange juice and fried chicken dinners served on Sundays at the Patten House. It wasn’t anything like her friends’ modern houses.
Grandmother Patten, her great-grandmother Ada Melville Patten, was a “classy old southern woman” who faithfully read her Bible, refused to use a washer and dryer and would trim her own grass and bushes until her last breath.
To get to the house, Peggy would have to cross U.S. 301. The children would play hide and seek in the pantry and tried to avoid getting caught sliding down the banister or climbing onto the second story balcony.
Despite being a kid, she remembers the feeling of respect she had for Grandmother Patten.
“They were almost on a pedestal,” she said.
Duke-Lindgren’s cousin Jay Miller recalls spending a week at the Patten House in the summer of 1965. His parents bought a brand new, nine-seater Pontiac Catalina to make the trip from Indiana to Ellenton.
“I remember how hot it was,” he said.
Some things never change.
The typical road trip with his parents and three siblings was filled with fishing on the Manatee River and visiting relatives he had never met before.
When he stayed in the area on a business trip as an adult, he visited the Gamble Plantation and took a tour. He left surprised that the park ranger stuck mostly with the story of Maj. Gamble and Judah P. Benjamin, with no mention of the Pattens. The Gambles only stayed at the mansion for a dozen years.
He stopped by the old house and flipped through old photos of relatives. That’s when he told the members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy who he was.
“They just went berserk,” he said.
Lela Hartsaw isn’t related to the Pattens, but her passion about local history is evident. Just ask her anything about surrounding this plot of land and she likely has the answer right at the top of her head.
She wrote a children’s book called “The Adventures of Abigail Rose” to tell the tale of the Patten House, and is working on a book about W.D. Sugg. She created a Facebook page dedicated to the house earlier this year to celebrate what should have been a completed renovation project. Now it’s being used as a plea to save it.
Maj. Robert Gamble acquired the 160-acre property in 1844 after the Seminole War and built the Gamble Mansion, Hartsaw said. He had a sugar plantation there, and at its peak it grew to 3,500 acres and had 162 slaves.
Twelve years later, Gamble was losing money from the property, so it was sold to his brother-in-law and creditors Coefield and Davis. When the Civil War began, Capt. Archibald McNeill was stationed at the mansion to oversee food production for the Confederate states. The sugar plantation was burned down in the midst of the war in 1864, because troops heard “Davis” and assumed it referred to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, Hartsaw added.
When the war was over, McNeill helped hide Judah P. Benjamin, the namesake of the UDC chapter and the Confederate secretary of state, as he evaded treason charges.
After their cotton plantation in Savannah, Ga., was burned down following the end of the Civil War, Maj George Patten and his wife Mary Thomson spent some time at the Braden Castle before buying the Gamble Mansion and its property for $3,000 in back taxes and took over in 1873, Hartsaw said.
Dudley, their youngest son, was 9 at the time. And their eldest daughter Mary Ellen was the inspiration for the name of Ellenton.
“(George Patten) had heard about the Gamble place being up for sale and came to Ellenton and bought it,” Ida Mell Patten Weesner told the Herald in 1966. “Then he returned home, chartered a boat and brought the members of the family and all the family slaves to the mansion. He lived there the rest of his life.”
Patten divided the 3,500 acres among his family. He died in 1891, the same year Dudley married Ada Melville Turner, the granddaughter of the city of Bradenton’s founder. The newly married couple moved in with Mary at the mansion. Their first son Roy was born in the mansion, but then plans were in the works to build their own pioneer Florida farmhouse.
“Rumor has it that Melville demanded to have her own house,” Hartsaw said. It was built in 1895.
After Mary Patten died in 1897, the mansion went by the wayside. People would come and go and it had a “high turnover,” Hartsaw said. At one point, Dudley had leased the mansion to a fertilizer company that used it to store horse manure.
In 1925, the United Daughters of the Confederacy came together to buy the Gamble Mansion, and then the organization donated it to the state.
Ada Melville, also known as Mother Patten, lived in the Patten House until her death in 1966. UDC again asked that the house be saved. The state appropriated $26,000, and the remaining $4,000 came from donation to buy the house from the family.
“Who knows what it would be if we kept it,” Lindgren said. A bed and breakfast, perhaps.
The house was moved and renovated, and crews treated the ground for termites, according to a St. Petersburg Times article from Aug. 4, 1970.
‘It is what it is’
The jury’s out on how the state will save the house, and even how interested parties want to see it. So far, $191,586.39 has been spent by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection on the most recent rehabilitation project, according to FDEP spokesman Mahon.
Miller isn’t sure he has a right to say what happens to the Patten House.
“It’s a deeply spiritual thing for me personally,” he said. “But what’s for me personally doesn’t make any difference to the common good for Florida state property. I’m realistic about that.”
Greene wants to see it in its original glory, the one-story brown pioneer house. Since the UDC was told to move all the furniture from the house in 2014, including Grandmother Patten’s original bed and piano, they’ve spent nearly $300 a month on a storage unit. Now they’re trying to pay $3,000 for a permanent one on the Patten property.
Duke-Lindren hopes the house will be rebuilt as she remembers it — as two stories.
“Nobody in this century even remembers this (one-story) cottage,” she said.
“If this house had been maintained properly, we wouldn’t be having a conversation about this,” she recalls telling Chuck Hatcher, assistant director of recreation and parks at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Hatcher traveled from Tallahassee recently to meet with UDC members and those interested on the Patten House’s progress — or lack thereof. Hatcher discussed various ideas for the future, including repairs and replicas.
“I was gonna get a helmet and some shin guards,” Hatcher had said, expecting an angry mob when the possibility of demolition was put on the table.
Whatever and whenever the state decides, those who love the Patten House cling to the hope that it will still stand, though it might need some reinforcing.
“I don’t think I ever expected it to get to this point,” Duke-Lindgren said. “It is what it is.”