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Englewood History
home : features : englewood history
May 16, 2022

9/9/2009 3:13:00 PM
The Hermitage: A Community Treasure
A restored Hermitage is back in its glory.
A restored Hermitage is back in its glory.
The Hermitage was boarded in the early 1990s and moved across the street. It was eventually moved back.
The Hermitage was boarded in the early 1990s and moved across the street. It was eventually moved back.

Five days a week I have the privilege of going to work at one of Englewood's most beautiful and historic places - The Hermitage Artist Retreat on Manasota Key. The five buildings that sit on a piece of the 8.5 acres of beachfront surrounded by mangroves and dunes have inspired residents and visitors for decades. The Hermitage continues to do so as one of only three artist retreats in Florida.

However, had it not been for a group of local residents and members of the arts community, the Hermitage might look a lot different, it might have even been a parking lot.

The people who stay at the Hermitage these days do so by invitation only. Working artists and writers are invited by a national advisory committee of professionals renowned in their artistic fields. The artists are offered a six-week residency to live and work at the Hermitage and are asked to share their talent with the community, for example, by holding a class, open studio or public reading.

While there are five buildings, it is the main house, that most people picture when they think of The Hermitage - pale grey wood with white shutters, green and white striped awnings, a metal roof and stone chimney - one of the most painted and photographed in Englewood.

Long before it became the Hermitage, the property had history. The green common area where there are no buildings was once a Calusa Indian midden and remains protected property.

"On this site's eight and a half acres is basically the history of mankind on this island," said Bruce Rodgers, the executive director of the Hermitage. "To have that become a parking lot would have been a terrible loss."

The Hermitage House

The house was built in 1907 by Carl Johanson, a Swedish immigrant who came to Manasota Key, then called Palm Ridge, with his wife Anna, several of his 13 children and Anna's mother Matilda. There were no roads or bridges so Johanson had to bring the lumber by boat down Lemon Bay from the sawmill he had purchased on the mainland.

Nobody is quite sure when the Johansons moved out, but in 1936 the Hermitage was owned by Bill Hewitt, and known as The Sea Island Resort, Englewood's very own nudist colony. In 1937 clothes were back in style when new owner Louise Plummer opened it as a guest house.

One of those guests was Dr. Alfred Whitney, a retired Naval engineer and bachelor, who enjoyed his stay so much that in 1940 he purchased land near the Hermitage and built several buildings he christened Liability Lodge. The Whitney House, Pump House and garage remain part of the Hermitage complex as space for artists to live and work. A testimony to Whitney's skill and ingenuity, these buildings were so well constructed, they surpass the hurricane standards enacted by the state of Florida after Hurricane Andrew. Whitney also built the two large cisterns that remain on the property, but are now non-functioning.

Ownership of the Hermitage House switched hands again in the 1940s when Otto and Ruth Alexander took over. They also purchased Liability Lodge, after Dr. Whitney's death, bringing the properties together as they stand today.

The 1950s through the 1970s remain a bit of a mystery but one thing is certain, the weather, lack of attention and time was taking its toll on the Hermitage.

In 1975 local artist Ruth Swayze leased the property. In a 1993 story in Images Magazine, Swayze recalled her first impression of the Hermitage as "overgrown and bedraggled."

Swayze, her family including daughter Carroll, a local artist, assorted guests and travelers stayed there until 1986. The house became a refuge for Swayze's artist friends and a place for parties, impromptu concerts, and even a wedding or two.

Pat Newton, editor of The Review, spent time at the Hermitage as a guest of the Swayzes. "I had no idea of the historical significance of staying there," recalled Newton. "I just thought it was a cool old house."

A New Role for the Hermitage

In 1986 the property was purchased by Ryder Home and Groves, who sold it to Sarasota County in 1988. The county considered several options for the property including razing it to create parking for nearby Blind Pass Beach. In the mid-90s the main house was moved across the road and back again and meanwhile, a small group of supporters, including the Swayzes, had begun talking about how to save the Hermitage.

Patricia Caswell was the executive director of the Sarasota County Arts Council at the time, and has stayed at the Hermitage as a family friend of the Swayzes. The SAC was also aware of the concern for the arts and artists in South Sarasota County. She joined forces with Syd Adler, a member of the SAC Board, philanthropist and champion of the arts to explore ideas for the Hermitage. Also on board was Bruce Rodgers, a playwright and associate director at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota.

On the local front, long-time Key residents Nelda Thompson, Tom and Annette Dignam and their families became involved and are supporters of the Hermitage to this day. Sydney Crampton whose family, the Buffums, own the Manasota Beach Club, appealed to the County Commission with pictures and poems written by local students pleading to "save the Hermitage."

In 1999 Sarasota County signed a generous lease with the Arts Council allowing it to renovate the Hermitage for use as a retreat for artists. In 2000, the SAC received a Historic Preservation Grant from the state of Florida to begin work on the main building.

In 2002 the Hermitage was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In late 2003, The Hermitage House opened its doors to its first artist in residence, Malcolm Robertson, a sculptor from Scotland. In 2004 it became its own nonprofit corporation and in 2005, Rodgers became executive director, a position he still holds.

The efforts to make the buildings comfortable and safe while maintaining their historic feel and integrity, was complicated, time consuming and expensive. It took 10 years and $1.3 million from the initial rebuilding of the main house until the February 2009 dedication of the Tom Dignam Beach Cottage. No Sarasota County funds were spent on the restoration.

Originally built in the late 1930s, the beach cottage guest house was the final building to undergo renovation. It was rebuilt to its original dimensions and much of the original cypress paneling was saved and reused. It provides a visual arts studio and administrative office space. This is where I work every day.

Oh and you may have heard about the "ghost" that supposedly haunts The Hermitage House. I have yet to encounter her but I am certain that given the feeling of serenity and peace I experience every day, it is a friendly ghost indeed.

Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, September 10, 2010
Article comment by: Bess Hodge

The ghost is probably my Great Grandma Anna Johanson as they lived in the house, and she's making sure that it's well taken care of.

Bess Hodge

Posted: Saturday, September 4, 2010
Article comment by: Bess Hodge

My name is Bess Hodge and I am a Great Grand daughter of Carl Johanson, who built
The Hermitage House in 1907. Ruth, who was his 13th child was my Grandmother. I never got to meet my Great Grandparents, but have been told the story of the Hermitage House by my mother.
Bess Hodge

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