Posts made in April, 2010

Villa Am Meer, Chapter 6

The Greatest Show on Earth

New here? Start with Chapter 1…

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Benedict family over the past week. I’ve wondered what memories the family shared together at Elena Duke Benedict’s funeral, and whether the topic of Villa Am Meer came up in any of their conversations. I imagine maybe it did, though in reading Ms. Benedict’s obituary, it seems her little seaside cottage on Longboat Key was just a small fragment of a much larger and more extraordinary life.

I’m really hoping to hear more from the Benedict family members soon. If they’re willing, my great hope is that I’ll be able to share some of their stories about life at Villa Am Meer, as well as some vintage family photos. But, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, there’s one little tidbit I learned a while back that sent me on another of my day-long research benders. I’d heard that Hermann and Hertha Kohl (the German couple who founded Norda, Inc. and took in Elena Duke Benedict as their legal ward) were contemporaries of the Ringling Brothers. I also learned through family lore that Villa Am Meer was designed by the same architect who’d designed the Ringling Museum in Sarasota.


Of course, anyone who knows Sarasota knows the Ringling connection. That’s because for 33 years, Sarasota was the winter headquarters of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The Ringling Brothers

The Ringling Brothers

The Ringling Brothers Circus began in 1884 in Baraboo, Wisconsin. It was founded by five (of seven) of the Ringling Brothers, Albert (1852-1916), August (1854-1907), Otto (1858-1911), Alfred T. (1862-1919), Charles (1863-1926), John (1866-1936), and Henry (1869-1918).

In 1907, the Ringling Brothers Circus acquired the Barnum & Bailey Circus, yet the two operated as separate entities until they merged in 1919 and became the “Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.” That same year, the Ringlings moved their winter headquarters from Baraboo, Wisconsin to Bridgeport, Connecticut.

In 1927, the Ringlings decided to move their winter quarters from Connecticut to Sarasota, Florida. Here’s some info I gleaned from

On March 23, 1927, prior to the circus’ opening in Madison Square Garden, John Ringling announced that Sarasota would become the new home of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The Greatest Show on Earth would move its winter quarters to 200 acres on the east side of town.

Winter quarters provided an annual respite for circus performers while giving management and the creative staff an opportunity to create and produce a new show for the following year.

John Ringling realized that the public had a great interest in a “behind-the-scenes” look at circus life, so he opened winter quarters on Christmas Day, 1927, and charged $.25 for adults and $.10 for children.

Ringling’s winter quarters boosted tourism for Sarasota, and reaped a great deal of publicity for the state of Florida. By 1940, the winter quarters in Sarasota drew 100,000 visitors in one season, making it one of Florida’s earliest and most heavily visited tourist attractions.

Brothers Charles and John Ringling decided to make Sarasota their permanent homes. Each built beautiful bayfront mansions in the 1920s.

Charles Ringling mansion

Charles Ringling mansion. Brother John Ringling's mansion is just to the south (top of photo).

Charles was the production man for the Ringling Brothers Circus… the real brains behind the business.

The estate was built in 1925-26 as the winter retreat for the Charles Ringling family in what was known as the Shell Beach subdivision, platted in 1896. The compound was designed to be completely self-sufficient, including staff quarters, farming and livestock. In addition to the main mansion, Charles built another gracious bayfront home for his daughter, Hester Ringling Sanford, and her children, now known as Cook Hall. The two bayfront homes are connected by a covered walkway that creates a transition between the two architectural styles. Within months of the completion of the construction, Charles died, but Edith Ringling and their daughter continued to reside on the estate for many decades. The structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. [citation]

Charles Ringling was very influential on the design and architecture of downtown Sarasota. In fact, Ringling Boulevard, one of the main thoroughfares, is named after him.

View a video about Charles Ringling’s architectural contributions on Sarasota History Alive.

John Ringling's residence

John Ringling's residence, Cà d'Zan

Older brother, John Ringling, was the showman. During the years 1924-1925, he and his wife, Mable, also built a beautiful mansion on Sarasota Bay, just south of his brother Charles’ residence. They named it Cà d’Zan, which means “House of John.” It is 200-foot long, encompassing approximately 36,000 square feet with 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms.

John Ringling was also an avid art collector, and in 1927, began work on a museum to house his extensive art collection.

In 1925, Ringling engaged architect John H. Phillips to design the museum. Construction began in 1927, but was slowed almost immediately by the collapse of Florida’s land boom and later, Wall Street’s stock market crash. Financial misfortune and Mable’s death in 1929 might have ended the dream, but John Ringling instead gained a new resolve to complete the museum, borrowing money as needed, knowing that it would perpetuate the memory of his beloved Mable. [citation]

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

John Ringling bequeathed his art collection, mansion and estate to the people of the State of Florida at the time of his death in 1936. In 2002, governance was transferred to Florida State University (FSU), establishing the Ringling estate as one of the largest museum/university complexes in the nation.

*End sidebar*

Phew. Long sidebar. Now, back to the tidbit about the architect of the museum… John H. Phillips. If family lore holds true, he is the same architect who designed Villa Am Meer. Why is this significant? Because John H. Phillips was a rock star among the architects of his day.

Here’s a wonderful interview I found on John H. Phillips, dated August 7, 1949, in the Sarasota Herald Tribune. My favorite part is Mr. Phillips’ description of Mabel Ringling, who wore leather hip boots and carried a pistol, just in case she came across any rattlesnakes or alligators while she was overseeing his work on the museum.

John H. Phillips interview, August 7, 1949, Sarasota Herald Tribune

One final, crazy thing. When I started this blog, I mentioned that my family has been visiting Longboat Key for 15 years. Of course, I knew about Sarasota being the winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers Circus. I’ve also travelled along Ringling Boulevard, driven over the John Ringling Causeway Bridge and admired the Ringling statues on St. Armand’s Circle for what seems a million times. However, in all those years, I can’t believe I’ve never visited these amazing properties, nor toured the famous Ringling Art Museum.

Next year, you can bet I will.

Read Chapter 7…

Read More

Villa Am Meer, Chapter 5


New here? Start with Chapter 1…

You know, it’s odd… how I fell into this crazy obsession. I really can’t explain what has driven me to stay up until all hours digging for information about a vintage beach house that isn’t remotely connected to me or my family. All I really know is… I love it. It just feels right, and I can’t explain it any better than that.

So, you can about imagine my excitement when I received a message from one of Elena Duke Benedict’s granddaughters this past week. At last! A real, live human connection to my house… someone who could finally tell me what I had wanted to know all along… what was it like to live in that special place?

Her name was Cristina, and she didn’t disappoint. She shared this information about her grandmother and life at Villa Am Meer:

Was just alerted to your blog by my sister this week. My grandmother’s maiden name was Elena Amaducci, and her parents were the Italian gardeners to the wealthy and childless German Kohls who fell in love with her and made her their legal ward. I love this house and still remember the lavish dinner parties and long summer evenings spent in the back courtyard facing the sea as the sun went down… (you should have seen the inside in the height of its day!) My family has made deals with the developers that the house will remain ‘historically intact’ but it’s still hard to see our old beach house being torn up. My mother Elene Benedict-Smith has much more information on the mysterious and fantastic back story of the lot and the building of the house (all that stained Venetian glass!)

I was giddy! This message was a real treasure in more ways than one. First, I had found someone who had a direct connection to my house and was willing to share its stories with me. But perhaps even more importantly, she had taken the time to seek out, read, and comment on my blog. It almost made me feel… well, like a real writer.

But my giddiness ended abruptly when I read the next two lines from Cristina…

Alas, this week it pains me to say that my Grandmommy, herself, passed away at the age of 93. The funeral will be held this Wednesday in New York.

This Wednesday. That’s today. Cristina’s Grandmommy, Elena Duke Benedict, died this week, and her funeral was today.


I always tell my children to pay attention to goosebumps, because they’re not really goosebumps at all. They’re Godbumps, and they happen when God is trying to tell you something. With that in mind, I do believe God has had a hand in this, though for what reason, I have absolutely no idea. But I believe I’ve done something good here…. something good for the Benedict family, and something good for me. I don’t know what it is yet, but I trust the Godbumps.

So tonight, I will say a special prayer for the Benedict family as they say goodbye to their mother and Grandmommy. May you find peace in your memories. God bless.

Elena Duke Benedict, aged 93, businesswoman, mother and philanthropist died peacefully surrounded by family in Greenwich, CT, on March 30, 2010. She had homes in Longboat Key and Palm Beach FL, Manhattan and Purchase, NY. Mrs. Benedict, the daughter of Maria Stella and Romeo Amaducci, was born in Harrison, NY. She attended Columbia University and was graduated valedictorian of her class at the Swedish Institute of Physiotherapy in Manhattan. Mrs. Benedict was Chairman of the Board of Adron, Inc, and CEO of Duke & Benedict, Inc and was one of the founding co-owners of Tropicana Products. Mrs. Benedict, the owner of Tilly Foster Farms, was active in thoroughbred breeding and racing and was co-chairperson with Penny Chenery for 8 years of The Travers Ball benefiting Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine and Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Her generosity in helping scores of young people to achieve higher education was renowned. In 1979, she donated the island of Buck Key, FL to The Nature Conservancy as a gift from the Benedict Family to the people of Florida. She was an Honorary Chairman of the March of Dimes and was a benefactress of the Metropolitan Opera, Greenwich Hospital and the Baptist Home for the Aged. She was an inveterate traveler and in her later years enjoyed her home and its gardens and her daily excursions with her devoted driver and friend, George Daher. She loved her dogs and flowers, her home of 64 years, her friends and her loving family. Mrs. Benedict was preceded in death by her husband, Edward E. Benedict and her daughter Celeste Benedict Pinelli and is survived by five daughters: Elise Browne, Patricia Benedict Ryan, Diane Benedict, Elena BenedictSmith and Verna Neilson, as well as 15 grandchildren and 13 greatgrandchildren. Mrs.Benedict was so loved by her large family who are truly grateful to have known and learned from such a remarkable woman. The viewing will be held at BALLARD-DURAND FUNERAL HOME, 2 Maple Avenue, White Plains, NY on Tuesday, April 6 from 2-4 PM and 7-9 PM.

Read Chapter 6…

Read More

Villa Am Meer, Chapter 4

Who’s Nellie Amaducci?

New here? Start with Chapter 1…

Big Mountain Ski Resort, Whitefish MontanaIt’s 6am Mountain Standard Time, and I’m writing this post from Big Mountain Ski Resort in Whitefish, Montana. I’m here with my family this weekend, a few cousins, aunts, uncles, and a bajillion teenagers. We took the Amtrak from Minnesota to catch the last weekend of skiing at Big Mountain. (Ironically, I hear it was 76 degrees yesterday in Minneapolis.)

The snow is still pretty good, at least on the back side of the hill. Much better than I expected. We were hoping for some fresh powder this morning, but I don’t see too much outside my window. Hopefully there’s more at the summit.

Now, in answer to your question (because I know you’re thinking it), I’m writing this blog post today – while on vacation – because I’d like to share some important news with you that I just received from the Benedict family.

But first, you need to get caught up.

In the last chapter, you learned that Villa Am Meer was built by a “Dr. Kohl.” He had a daughter, Elena Kohl, who married into the Benedict family, and that’s how the property came to be known as “the Benedict estate.”

From the newspaper article in the Sarasota Herald Tribune, I learned that “Dr. Kohl” was an investor in a citrus packing business that would eventually grow to become Tropicana. However, I didn’t have any more information about this “Dr. Kohl.” So, I moved him to the back burner for a bit.

Instead, I focused on Edward E. Benedict. I did another Google search and found his name mentioned in an article from a 1962 summary of proposals filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission:

Norda Essential Oil & Chemical Company. Inc., 601 West 26th Street. New York, filed a registration statement (File 2-19989) with the SEC on March 20th seeking registration of 200,000 shares of Class A stock, to be offered for public sale through underwriters headed by S. D. Fuller & Co, 26 Broadway. New York. The public offering price (maximum $15 per share) and underwriting terms are to be supplied by amendment. The statement also includes 30.000 Class A shares underlying 5-year warrants to be sold to the principal underwriter at l¢ each, exercisable at a price to be supplied by amendment.

The company manufactures, processes and distributes natural and synthetic essential oils, flavors, extracts. essences and aromatic chemicals used principally in the cosmetic, toiletry, food, beverage, cigarette and drug industries. Of the net proceeds from the stock sale, $2,200,000 will be used to reduce outstanding short-term bank loans incurred for working capital, and the balance will be added to working capital and used for general corporate purposes. In addition to certain indebtedness, the company has outstanding 804,478 shares of Class B stock, of which Hermann J. Kohl, president, Hertha Kohl, his wife, Duke & Benedict. Inc. and Elena D. Benedict (wife of Edward E. Benedict. executive vice president) own 23.6%, 29%, l6.6% and 22.8%, respectively. The Benedicts, together with their children and family, own about 30.9% of the outstanding stock of the company, and they are also principal stockholders and management officials of Duke & Benedict. Inc.

Aha! There was our mysterious Dr. Kohl. His full name was Hermann J. Kohl, and his wife’s name was Hertha. I Googled them and found Hermann’s obituary in the New York Times:

April 25, 1971 – Dr. Hermann Joseph Kohl, founder and board chairman of Norda Essential Oil and Chemical Company, Inc., manufacturers of flavors and perfumery, died yesterday at his home, 186 Riverside Drive. His age was 81.

Dr. Kohl was born in Germany on Aug. 7, 1889, received a Ph.D. degree in chemistry from Heidelberg University, and came to the United States in 1911.

He held various positions in New York until he founded Norda in 1924. He served as president until 1970, when he became chairman of the board.

Surviving are his widow, Hertha; a daughter, Mrs. Edward E. Benedict, and six grandchildren.

In memory of Dr. Kohl, the Benedict family announced the establishment of the Hermann J. Kohl Foundation for aid to students.

OK, so now I was starting to build a timeline. Hermann Kohl came to the U.S. from Germany in 1911 [actually, 1910]. He founded Norda, Inc. in 1924, and he built Villa Am Meer on Longboat Key in 1935. I wondered when their daughter, Elena, had been born and when she had married Edward E. Benedict. I was hopeful that Elena might still be alive, so she could tell me about Villa Am Meer in its heyday.

I decided to log on to to see if I could find the Kohls listed on the U.S. Census. That would help me determine Elena’s birth date.

Hermann Kohl, NY Passenger List, Sept. 18, 1910

I ran a search for “Hermann Kohl” in “New York” and found the actual ship manifest from the day Hermann Kohl first arrived on Ellis Island on September 8, 1910 (view image).

I looked at that image and was lost in nostalgia for a bit. Here was a young German immigrant, lucky enough to have left Germany just prior to the outbreak of World War I, arriving in New York City with nothing but a chemistry degree from Heidelberg University and a dream of making it big in America. I wondered if he’d had any idea at the time that his little fragrance company in Boonton, New Jersey would eventually lead him to become a shareholder in the world’s largest orange juice company.

I noticed another record for the Kohls, showing them listed on the 1920 U.S. Census. I opened up the original scanned document and found Hermann and Hertha, both age 30, living at their home at 336 Halsted Street, East Orange (ironic), New Jersey. Hertha’s 23 year old younger sister, Elli Trapp, was also living with them at the time.

But, where was Elena? Hermann and Hertha were 30 years old; I assumed they would have had their daughter by this time. But, who knows… maybe not.

I went back and ran a search for “Elena Duke Benedict” and found her listed on the U.S. Public Records Index, living at the property on Longboat Key, birthdate September 11, 1916.

Wait a minute… huh? If she’d been born in 1916, then she would have been 4 years old at the time of the 1920 U.S. Census.

So, where was Elena?

I went back to Google. I searched for “Elena Duke Benedict” and found her mentioned in an obituary for a man by the name of Louis J. Amaducci who died on March 3, 2005:

AMADUCCI, LOUIS J. – Louis J. Amaducci of Parsippany, NJ died suddenly at home on Tuesday, March 8, 2005. He was 87. Born in White Plains, NY to the late Romeo and Maria (Bilancioni) Amaducci on February 9, 1918, he was a resident of Parsippany for over 61 years. Mr. Amaducci was a 1941 graduate of Columbia University in New York City, earning a bachelor of science degree in Mining Engineering. Mr. Amaducci was the president of NORDA, Inc. of Boonton, NJ, a manufacturer of flavors and fragrances.

Hmm, so Louis Amaducci also worked at Norda, Inc. Interesting. But where was Elena Duke Benedict in this obituary? I scanned to the end and found her in the list of survivors: “…his sister, Elena Duke Benedict of White Plains, NY…”

Woah. Wait a minute. Huh?

If Elena was the daughter of Hermann and Hertha Kohl, how could she possibly be the sister of someone named Louis Amaducci?

So, once again, I went back to I Googled “Elena Amaducci” and found her listed on a 1937 ship manifest, travelling aboard the Europa with none other than Hermann’s wife, Hertha Kohl. They were returning home from a trip to Bremen, Germany. Elena was 20 years old.

Hmmm… curiouser and curiouser…

I ran another search for Elena Amaducci, this time with her birthdate entered.

Amaducci family on 1930 U.S. Census

Amaducci family on 1930 U.S. Census

I didn’t find an Elena Amaducci exactly, but I did find a “Nellie” Amaducci on the 1930 U.S. Census, 13 years old, living with her parents, Romeo and Mary Amaducci, in the town of Harrison, New York. Romeo’s occupation was listed as “Gardener.” Younger brother Louis was listed right after her.

Well now. Here was a mystery. How did Nellie Amaducci, born to Italian immigrants Romeo and Mary Amaducci, come to be known as the daughter of German immigrants, Hermann and Hertha Kohl?

Much more to come… and I promise I’ll blog again within the next day or two, so keep checking back, or sign up to receive update notifications by email.

Next time: A chat with Elena’s grandson leads to an interesting connection to the Ringling family (yes, *those* Ringlings), and some important news from Elena’s granddaughter.

Read Chapter 5…

Read More