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If this house could talk: 100-year-old Helm-Nanney home in Oneco attracts attention, national register notice

ONECO

What Margi Nanney hears about the stately, three-story gray stone house on 53rd Avenue East never fails to amuse her.

It would make a good Top 10 list:

n “I’ve driven by that house a million times and I’ve always wondered — does anybody live there?”

n “It looks like a castle.”

n “Is that place haunted?”

Haunted?

Nanney loves that one.

She and husband Pat have lived in the house since they brought it in 1985 and raised their two sons, James and Mark, there.

“It’s haunted with good ghosts,” said Nanney, the Manatee County school district spokeswoman and former DeSoto Super Speedway owner. “It’s got a lot of good vibes, and it’s happiest when it’s filled with a lot of people having a good time.”

Which it was over the holidays, when the Nanneys celebrated the house’s 100th birthday and its candidacy for the National Register of Historic Places.

Manatee County has 31 residences and buildings on the list, according to Florida Bureau of Historic Preservation.

The Helm-Nanney house, as it is called, was built in 1908 for Johnson and Fannie Helm, who came from Indiana and ran a general store in rural Oneco through the Great Depression until 1938.

The Nanneys are the fifth family to own the home, 4,000-square feet on one acre, which has maintained much of its original charm, guarded by a 300-year-old live oak, draped with Spanish moss.

“The way it was built, at that time it was THE house in this area,” said Ed Wilson, a former owner and a great-grandson of the Helms. “It had a lot of unique features you didn’t find around here.”

Among them were:

n Marble fireplace mantels.

n Solar panels and a water heating system.

n An acetylene lighting system.

Yet it what’s on the outside — a distinctive architecture rare in the community, cited in the nomination by Archaeological Consultants Inc., of Sarasota — that merits the attention of the Florida Bureau of Historic Preservation, not just motorists and passersby.

It includes:

n A semi-turret on the left of the house above the facade, and a tower on the right side of the building to the rear.

n A low arch as you go onto the porch.

n A bay window with three sides sticking out from the front wall.

They are just some characteristics of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture, said Carl Shiver, a historic preservationist with the bureau in Tallahassee.

“It’s very unusual to have something like this, that kind of detail, in an area like Oneco at the turn of the century,” he said.

Richardsonian Romanesque is named after Henry Hobson Richardson, a 19th century architect whose masterpiece is Boston’s Trinity Church.

According to NationMaster.Com, Richardson’s style “incorporates 11th and 12th century French, Spanish and Italian Romanesque characteristics, emphasizes clear, strong picturesque massing, round-headed ‘Romanesque’ arches, recessed entrances and cylindrical towers with conical caps embedded in the walling.”

In other words, like nothing else you’d see in Oneco, especially 100 years ago.

“This was out in the sticks, the boonies,” said Ward Reasoner, whose family’s roots in Oneco date back to 1881, when Pliny Ward Reasoner arrived from Princeton, Ill., to start a thriving nursery business in the garden spot of the county. “The only thing happening was the railroad and the nursery.”

The Reasoner homestead, the Bethsalem House, east of the Helm-Nanney house near Sam’s, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Both houses were very unique for the day,” said Reasoner, 52. “But the Helm house was considered a mansion.”

The builder was J.S. Maus, and it took a crew of 16 carpenters, stone masons and craftsmen 18 months to complete.

According to Egbert Helm, an 83-year-old descendant of the home’s first owners, much of the building material came from Sears & Roebuck.

John Herzog, whose family lived there from 1972 until 1985, discovered that in an amusing way.

“We found an original Sears catalogue that showed a block-making machine and it was a dead ringer for the block the house is made of,” the 57-year-old said.

Herzog loved the view from the turret three stories up, but that’s not all.

“The people were very careful about saving the original woodwork,” he said. “It’s a neat old place.

“I can’t tell you any ghost stories, though.”

One of Margi Nanney’s earliest and longest lasting memories has to do with the first time she arrived at the house when the Herzogs had it for sale.

“I came to the door and I could smell something was baking and I heard children’s voices,” she said. “As old as the house was even then, it just felt so alive.”

Built to last, too.

Its doors and windows are original. So are the fireplace, wooden floors and doorways, pillars, stairways and banisters, made mostly of pine and some cypress.

With the overstuffed chairs and period furniture, the coziness and comfort of the home endures, indeed.

“The work ethic and attention to detail back then was so much more solid,” Nanney said. “It’s been standing for 100 years and will probably stand for another 100. It was built right.”

That doesn’t mean the Nanneys haven’t had to do their share of heavy lifting when it comes to upkeep.

Friends pitch in, but Nanney gives credit where it is due.

“My husband fixes everything,” she said. “If you don’t love old houses, and you don’t have someone who understands every system — the heating, the electric, the plumbing — it’d be tough to own a house like this.

“You have to love an old house to live in and own one.”

The lack of central air and heat is no big deal.

That the house was designed with cross ventilation in mind works fine, thank you.

“You can’t mind a draft coming around the door in wintertime,” Nanney said. “We don’t even think about it.”

And in warm weather, whatever breeze blows through the original front porch screened door works, too.

“It even slams the same way,” she said.

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055, or write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, FL 34206 or email him at vmannix@bradenton.com. Please include a phone number for verification.

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