Can’t stop smiling

Villa am Meer being restored by new developer

Villa-am-Meer, built in 1935 on Longboat Key. The property is being developed as the upscale Aria condominium; the house is being renovated for use as the clubhouse for residents. (Staff photo / Harold Bubil)

Villa-am-Meer, built in 1935 on Longboat Key. The property is being developed as the upscale Aria condominium; the house is being renovated for use as the clubhouse for residents. (Staff photo / Harold Bubil)

For those who have been following my Jacob Wetterling story, I apologize for this short digression back to a former blog topic, but this is big news. In fact, this news is so great that I just can’t stop smiling today.

I woke up this morning to find an email from Chet Pletzke, a member of the Longboat Key Historical Society. He sent me a link to a newspaper article that appeared in today’s Real Estate section of the SARASOTA HERALD-TRIBUNE. The article is about the development of the Villa am Meer property and it mentions my blog.


For those of you who are new to my blog, or for those who have only happened-upon it because of my Jacob Wetterling story, you may have missed how this blog came into existence in the first place. It’s called “Joy the Curious” for a reason… and it all started with my curiosity about a weather-beaten beach house located on Longboat Key, Florida. If you haven’t already, I invite you to read the story from the beginning:

Last year, I was invited to be a speaker as part of the Longboat Key Historical Society’s annual lecture series. In case you missed it, here’s a link to that presentation:

**End sidebar**

Now then, back to today’s newspaper article in the SARASOTA HERALD-TRIBUNE. The big, great news is… drum roll please… Villa am Meer has been sold and the property is being developed by an experienced builder who is committed to restoring the historic beachfront home. Villa am Meer has been saved. And, there’s a small piece of me that would love to believe that all the hard work I put into researching and writing about the property might have helped… if even a little… to save it from the wrecking ball.

And THAT’S why I can’t stop smiling.

When I started this blog in 2010, I found myself smack in the middle of a mid-life crisis. I knew I was ready for a career change, but I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. I wanted to write, and for some reason, more than anything, I wanted to write about this ramshackle beach house. My curiosity became intense, and I just couldn’t let the story go. I kept on and on, and I couldn’t explain why. All I knew for sure is that writing about Villa am Meer just felt good… and right.

At the time, I had no idea where all this would lead… and I still don’t for that matter. But today, all I know for sure, is that when I walk down the beach this March… and next March, and the March after that… Villa am Meer will still be there. And maybe, just maybe, my blog had a little something do with that.

So, for anyone else out there who currently finds themselves smack in the middle of a mid-life crisis, I have just one little piece of advice. Trust your gut. Do what feels good and right. Follow your passion, and pay attention to the Godbumps along the way. You might not understand it at the time, but good things will come when you follow your heart.

Read the article in today’s SARASOTA HERALD-TRIBUNE

Read More

Villa am Meer – the final chapter

New here? Start from the beginning…

I’m on my way home from Longboat Key today. What a week. The weather was pretty cool and windy most days, but at least the sun was out, so nobody seemed to mind much. My presentation for the Longboat Key Historical Society was on Thursday, so of course, I spent every single day working on it (because I hadn’t started it yet).

When we arrived in Longboat Key on Saturday afternoon, I picked up a copy of the Lonbgoat Key Observer and there, right on the cover, was the story about me and Villa am Meer. On the cover! I couldn’t believe it. People I didn’t even know were telling me how excited they were about attending my presentation on Thursday. (The one I hadn’t started yet.) I politely nodded and broke into a sweat.

On Monday, I met with Monika Wehofsich and her daughter, Katja, from Hamburg, Germany. Hertha Kohl was Monika’s great aunt (her grandfather’s sister), so they had traveled all the way to Florida to see Villa am Meer and hear my talk. Monika had contacted me in January after running across my blog on the internet. She had just begun to do some genealogy research on her grandfather’s family and was blown-away after discovering my story about Villa am Meer. She contacted me by phone in February and we chatted for almost an hour. (I should note, Monika was an English teacher in Germany, and her daughter Katja went to college in England, so they both speak fluent English. Thank goodness.)

Monika had quite a story to tell. It seems there was a bit of a kerfuffle back in the 80s when Monika’s family was contacted by an American lawyer who had been hired to investigate the settlement of the Kohls’ estate. Hertha Kohl had suffered a debilitating stroke in 1968, and after Hermann Kohl died in 1971, Hertha’s will was amended, leaving the entire fortune to the Benedict family. The probate judge had been told that Hertha had no remaining relatives in Germany, when in fact, that was not true. Thus, the kerfuffle.

There was another comment on my blog from someone named Hans who mentioned that he used to work for Hermann Kohl. Monika happened to see the comment, so she decided to contact Hans to find out more information about Hermann and Hertha Kohl. As it turns out, Hans and his wife, Ursula, are also from Germany and now live in Sarasota. Monika and Katja met with them on Tuesday and convinced them to also attend my presentation. (The one I had barely started at that point.)

Later in the week, I was contacted by Chet Pletzke, a member of the Longboat Key Historical Society, who told me people had been contacting him all week about the presentation. He expected it to be their largest crowd ever. Gulp.

By the time Thursday rolled around, my face had broken out like a teenager and I hadn’t slept in four days. The pressure was really on to deliver something wonderful. Something well-planned, well-rehearsed, well-done.

Good lord, what had I gotten myself into?

I met Chet earlier in the afternoon to make sure we wouldn’t run into any technical difficulties. Which, of course, we did. After much hair pulling, Chet finally determined that the cable connecting my laptop to the projector was bad, so we had to do some last-minute Macgyver-ing to make everything work. Chet mentioned again that they were expecting a large crowd. I went back to the condo and had a beer.

By 6pm, an hour before my talk, Ross and I were on our way. Earlier in the week I had cajoled my entire family (husband, children, parents, brother, niece, nephew) into attending, just to make sure there would be some seats filled. Now I was worried there may not be enough.

I made a swing through the crowd to see who was there. I met my mother’s cousin, Barb, who had driven down from Orlando with her husband to see my talk. I met people from Indiana, New York, and even Spicer, Minnesota… my own hometown… all there to see my presentation. (Which I had just started five days ago.)

In the end, it went just fine. Once I started talking about “my house,” everything just felt easy and natural. It was like sharing a story about an old friend.

But the real magic happened at the end of the night. It turns out I wasn’t the only one who had fallen in love with Villa am Meer. Others had stories and photos to share as well. Others had dreamed and wondered about this magical place… curious about the mysteries it held within its sturdy, stone walls.

And then, after most people had already filed out, Monika took me by the arm and told me she wanted to introduce me to someone. She led me over to a small group where Katja, Hans and Ursula were chatting with a tall woman in a blue scarf. She had long dark hair and seemed somehow familiar.

“This is Elena Benedict Smith,” said Monika. “Elena Duke Benedict’s daughter.”

I about fell over. I had no idea that one of the Benedict daughters was in the audience that evening. She took two small, laminated photos out of her purse and handed them to me. One was a picture of six young girls lined up on the stairs of their Purchase Street home in Harrison, New York. The other was a photo of Elena’s mother, Elena Duke Benedict, sitting on the grass and playing with her young daughters.

There was so much I wanted to tell her in that moment. I wanted to tell her how Villa am Meer had taken me through a mid-life crisis and turned me into the writer I had always wanted to become. I wanted to tell her that I felt she was very brave to have shown up that night, not knowing where my story might lead. And mostly, I wanted to tell her that by sharing this story, I sincerely hoped something good had come from it… something good for her family. My need to tell the story… my compulsion and dedication to it… was like a pull I’d never felt before. It was bigger than me, and it made my life feel purposeful. I wanted to know if she had felt it, too.

I don’t know how this story will end… or if it ever will. I don’t know where it will lead me next. I can only trust that I’ll feel the pull again when the time is right. Until then, peace to all whose lives this story has touched.

Thank you for following me on the journey.

Watch the video of my 2013 presentation to the LBK Historical Society…

Next time… back to Jacob… Kevin’s story.

Read More

March 7, 2013 – Mark the date!

I have some news! I’ve been asked by the Longboat Key Historical Society to give a presentation about one of my favorite subjects… Villa am Meer. So, if any of you happen to be on Longboat Key on March 7th, 2013, I invite you to stop by the Community Center and listen to the story of “my house” and the crazy path it started me down about two years ago.

Skip ahead to March 7, 2013 and watch the video of my 2013 presentation to the LBK Historical Society…

As for other Villa am Meer news, I haven’t heard much lately. I know the Historical Society is interested in setting up a walking tour of the property prior to the lecture, so I think they’re trying to figure out how to contact the owner. If you have any information that could help them out, please let me know.

Also, several months ago I received some amazing photos of the Benedict Estate… Hermann and Hertha Kohl’s private estate in Harrison, New York. (The Kohls were the ones who originally built Villa am Meer in 1935.) They lived in the “guest house” on the property, while their daughter and son-in-law (Elena Duke Benedict and Edward “Ben” Benedict) lived in the main house with their six daughters. As you’ll see by the photos, the guest house was plenty spectacular in and of itself. From what I understand, it even had its own attached greenhouse.

View the photos

One more side note. If you have any additional photos or stories to share with me about the Villa am Meer property, please leave a comment below. I’d love to have more photos to share for my presentation. Hope to see you on March 7th!

Kohls' Guest House

Read More

Live from Longboat – 2012

I’m on Longboat Key this week, vacationing with my family. The weather has been amazing, and today is no exception. The forecast says sunny and 83 degrees, and as I write this, I’m sitting in my favorite spot, staring at one of my favorite views. The beach is less than 20 steps away, and this is where we sit and watch the sun set every night. Here are some photos from earlier in the week.

Click image for slideshow...

So, as you can imagine, it’s pretty easy to see why I love this place. But for those of you who have followed me along on my crazy journey, you know about a special little beach house called Villa am Meer that sits quietly and resolutely about a half mile up the beach. MY house… and the impetus for me to quit my career of 20 years and take this great, scary leap of faith.

[For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, it’s a long and winding tale that all started with my very first blog post. Start here if you want the whole backstory: Villa am Meer, Chapter 1.]

Ross and I took a walk the other day to go check on my house. Nothing much new to report. A fisherman on the pier told us that a caretaker lives on the property, and as far as he knows, there are no plans to develop it anytime soon. It doesn’t look much different than it did last year at this time:

Villa am Meer

Me and my house, 2012

There is something new to report, though. Last month, I received an amazing gift via email. A relative of the Kohls who lives in Germany found my blog and sent me several old photos of Villa am Meer, taken back in its heyday.

Enjoy the gift. I’m off to soak up some sun.

Vintage Villa am Meer… view the slideshow

Villa am Meer

Click image to view slideshow

Read More

Villa Am Meer, Chapter 16

Was Hermann J. Kohl ever convicted of bootlegging?

New here? Start at Chapter 1…

If you followed my Villa Am Meer story, you know there was one outstanding question I was never able to answer… was Hermann J. Kohl (founder of Norda, Inc.) ever convicted of bootlegging by the federal court in Chicago?

Just to recap a bit, Hermann J. Kohl was the person who originally built Villa Am Meer. He and his wife, Hertha, were German immigrants who came to the U.S. in 1910. Hermann (pronounced “er-MON”) held a Ph.D. degree in Chemistry from Heidelberg University and started his own flavoring and fragrance company in 1924, Norda Essential Oils and Chemical Company.

At the time Kohl started Norda, the U.S. was already four years into Prohibition. Because of this, the company had to apply for a special government-issued permit in order to use alcohol in the preparation of their perfumes. The law was very clear about how much alcohol they were allowed to use each year, as well as what levels were allowable in the perfumes they manufactured.

On February 11, 1930, Hermann Kohl, along with 155 other individuals from across the U.S. were indicted on federal “liquor conspiracy” charges. Among them were owners and executives from several well known druggists and perfume companies, including Norda Essential Oil and Chemical Company, C.H. Selick, Inc., a well-known manufacturer of perfumes and toilet waters, E.M. Laning, Inc., another flavor and fragrance company, Joubert Cie, Inc., a perfume factory, Allied Drug and Chemical Corporation, and Maiden Lane Drug Company.

In Chapter 11 of my Villa Am Meer story, you learned that Norda had been implicated in this national “rum ring” because a man by the name of “A. Srebren” was caught selling and distributing cases of Norda perfume from his Chicago warehouse. Not a big deal, you say? The problem was that, along with the perfume, Srebren was also providing customers with caustic soda and a written formula book showing how to separate the alcohol from the essential oils. That, and the Norda Company shared warehouse space with Srebren and Company.

Early in 1930, the Chicago warehouse was raided by Prohibition agents. The following text is taken directly from the appellate brief:

“On the premises, they found a lot of whiskey, alcohol and toilet preparations. A further search of the premises netted a file of correspondence, which showed the name of the Norda Essential Oil Company. An examination of the fifth floor of the building revealed a small room with bottles bearing the label “Norda Essential Oil Company.” On the first floor of the building were found 13 cases of toilet preparations containing ten one-gallon cans each, all bearing the label of Norda Essential Oil Company; also freight bills relating to these 13 cases, showing Srebren & Co. to be the consignee. They also found 35 cases packed in a similar manner to the 13 cases, which bore the label of Srebren & Company, 121 E. 24th Street, New York City. This appears to be the address of the Norda Company, New York City.”

The evidence was plenty damning, and therefore, Norda’s Vice President, Arthur Henricksen, and its Executive Secretary, Beatrice Epstein were also arrested on liquor conspiracy charges.

I was able to retrieve all this information from the National Archives in New York (Northeast Region). From court documents I received, I learned that appeals for all three Norda executives were denied, and they were ordered to stand trial in Chicago on federal bootlegging charges.

I wrote to the National Archives in Chicago (Great Lakes Region) to see if I could find the outcome of the federal case, but they wrote back to tell me the case filled an entire legal size archive box and contained over 1500 pages. In order for me to determine the outcome of the case, I would need to visit the National Archives myself and sift through the 1500 pages.

As it turns out, I just so happened to be in Chicago two weeks ago…to see OPRAH. (If you missed that story, read “My Crazy Wonderful Week“). So, with a little persuasion (a trip to Target), I was able to convince my friend’s daughter and former babysitter, Amanda, to join me on my quest. Amanda attends school at Columbia College in downtown Chicago, which was just a few blocks from our hotel.

Amanda and Joy at the National Archives

OK, time to dive in.

First, we found a list of all the people and companies who had been named in the original indictment. In addition to the New York companies named earlier, I was surprised to also see Royal Crown Manufacturing Company (RC Cola) on the list, as well as Nipola, a St. Paul company that manufactured “Lucky Lindy” perfume, named after Charles Lindbergh, who was raised in Minnesota.

There was one other familiar name on the list that caught our eye… Gambino (yes, *those* Gambinos). Biagio (aka Frank) Gambino, trading as All Star Laboratories in Cleveland, was indicted in the same case as Hermann Kohl. Interestingly, he was already serving time at the federal prison in Fort Riley Kansas, and was ordered to be released from custody there in order to stand trial for this case in Chicago. Carmella (aka Charlie) Gambino was also served a bench warrant for his arrest in a different jurisdiction.


So, what exactly were Hermann, Arthur and Beatrice accused of in this 96 page indictment?

“53. That the defendant, Beatrice Epstein, of New York City, in the State of New York, on or about, to wit, August 1, 1928, in said City and State, signed a certificate of the action of the board of directors of the defendant, Norda Essential Oil and Chemical Company, of New York City, aforesaid, which said certificate was a part of an application for a permit applied for in the name of the defendant, Norda Essential Oil and Chemical Company of New York City, aforesaid.”

“83. That said defendant Arthur J. Henriksen, of New York City, in the State of New York, on or about, to wit, October 4, 1929, in said City and State, signed the application for a permit issued to defendant Norda Essential Oil and Chemical Company, of New York City, aforesaid for 1050 wine gallons per month.”

“113. That on, to wit, July 18, 1929, said defendant Herman J. Kohl, at New York City, New York, signed a letter addressed and mailed to the defendant A. Srebren Company, Chicago, Illinois.”
“113 (a). That from, to wit, January 1, 1922, to, to wit, the filing of this indictment, the defendant, Herman J. Kohl, has been acting as President of defendant Norda Essential Oil and Chemical Company, a corporation, doing business in the City of New York, New York.”
“114. That on, to wit, July 23, 1929, said defendant Herman J. Kohl, at Chicago, Illinois, in the division and district aforesaid, sold to Anastassoff Srebren, doing business as A. Srebren Company of the City of of Chicago, Illinois, 13 cases of ten gallons each of toilet water, said toilet water having theretofore been manufactured in violation of the National Prohibition Act and of the regulations made thereunder.”
“115. That during the month of, to wit, March, 1928, said defendant Herman J. Kohl, at St. Louis, Missouri, met one John A. Ayars.”

Norda, Inc.
“252. That on or about, to wit, January 1, 1927, and again on or about, to wit, January 1, 1928, and again on or about, to wit, January 1, 1929, the defendant, Norda Essential Oil and Chemical Company, a corporation, ding business in the City of New York, State of New York, made application to the Prohibition Administrator in New York City, for the renewal of a permit to withdraw large quantities of specially denatured alcohol.”
“253. That from, to wit, January 1, 1927, to, to wit, the filing of this indictment, the said defendant, Norda Essential Oil and Chemical Company, a corporation, as aforesaid, manufactured large quantities of alcoholic products, to wit, deodorant spray, in violation of the National Prohibition Act and regulations made thereunder.”
“254. That during the year 1928, at Chicago, in the division and district aforesaid, the said defendant, Norda Essential Oil and Chemical Company, a corporation, sold to the defendant, Anastassoff Srebren, large quantities of saponifiable oils and esters, to wit, “Lilac 59,” jasmine, carnation bouquet, and rose concentrate, in violation of the National Prohibition Act.”

We read and read, sifted and sifted, and while we were able to determine that several defendants did indeed plead guilty or no contest, with fines ranging anywhere from $200 to $6,200 and prison sentences up to 18 months, Hermann and Arthur plead not guilty on June 21, 1932 (no record for Beatrice). The motion was continued to September 20, 1932 to be set for trial.

So… what happened??? (Can we end the suspense already??)

We couldn’t find anything. We went through all the documents a second time, and I photographed everything that mentioned Norda, Kohl, Henriksen or Epstein, but still nothing. We’d hit a dead end.

Finally, I asked one of the researchers at the National Archives why there was no transcript of the trial, and no outcome for the case. She asked a supervisor, and he told us that shorthand notes were very seldom saved, and therefore no transcripts existed for most trials during this era. However, we could very quickly determine the outcome of the case by checking the court docket.


Docket Book

He brought out an old book with yellowing pages that gave a chronological line-by-line account of everything that took place in the Chicago federal court. I quickly paged to case number 21145, which went on for the next 21 pages. It spanned all the way from February 10, 1930, the day of the original indictment, to July 13, 1934 – four and a half years after the original indictment, and seven months after the official end of Prohibition (December 5, 1933).

(Oh, for heaven’s sake! Get on with it! What happened to Hermann Kohl??)

I quickly scanned to September 20, 1932, the date Kohl and Henriksen’s trial had been scheduled. A lot went down that day… mostly people changing their pleas from not guilty to guilty and getting sentenced, but still nothing for Kohl and Henriksen. I scanned forward to November 26, 1932 and found appearances filed for Norda, Kohl, and Henricksen, along with Jourbert Cie, Inc. and Joseph S. Lindemann, by their mutual attorney, LaVerne Norris.

I scanned forward some more and discovered that on December 13, 1932, just a few weeks later, Joubert Cie also withdrew their not guilty plea and, instead, entered a plea of “nolle contendre” or “no contest.”

Still nothing for Kohl, Henricksen, or Epstein. And then… another continuance.

May 22, 1933:
Continued to June 19th for trial on motion of U.S. Attorney as to Allied Drug and Chemical, Centraphor Pharmacal, Chicago Toilet Supply, Majestic Chemical & Drug, Norda Essential Oil and Chemical, Perfection Laboratories, Puritan Cosmetics, Redwin Manufacturing, Royal Crown, C.H. Selick, Vidor Perfumeries, and a handful of individuals including Anastassoff Srebren, A.J. Henriksen, and Herman J. Kohl.

These were the holdouts, the ones still pleading not guilty, and (most likely) the ones who could still afford their legal fees.

On October 2nd, another continuance was filed for the holdouts. Trial set for November 1st.

Tick, tick, tick.

On November 1st, another continuance for the holdouts. Trial set for January 18, 1934.

Tick, tick, tick.


January 18, 1934, another continuance. Trial set for January 25, 1934.

And then, miraculously…

“Order to nolle pross as to the following defendants, bonds released and sureties discharged.”
Norda Nolle Pros

The holdouts had won. They had bided their time and bought their freedom until Prohibition ended, and just like that (*snap*), all their charges were dropped.

Nolle pros… no prosecute… charges dropped. Just like that. Even Anastassoff Srebren himself. Crazy.

After four and a half years of legal fees and 1500 pages of paperwork, you’d think something would have come of all this. But, in the end, the holdouts won.

Nolle pros.

I’ll drink to that.

Next… “Villa am Meer – The Final Chapter”

Read More

Our last day on Longboat

It’s our last day on Longboat Key, and I can’t believe how fast the week went by. Like every year, I get here and think, “Wow, a whole week! It’s only Saturday, and we have seven more days!” And then, suddenly, it’s Friday, and I think, “Wow. Now how did that happen?” Rats.

A photo from our first sunset last Saturday:

I know I said I was going to update you on the outcome of Hermann Kohl’s national bootlegging trial this week, but that’s a little too time-intensive for my last day of vacation. Instead, I thought I’d just upload a few photos from the field trip that my mom and I took today. Even though it was a perfect, sunny beach day, I really wanted to see the John and Mable Ringling Museum, so that’s what we did. Well… kind of. We actually never made it to the museum because we were too enthralled with Ca d’Zan (“House of John”), the Ringlings’ waterfront mansion on Sarasota Bay.

What a great and tragic love story. John and Mable both came from humble beginnings, but soon became one of the wealthiest couples in America. They were married in 1905, and began work on Ca d’Zan in 1924. Under the artistic direction and ever-watchful eye of Mable, it was completed two years later, in 1926.

In 1927, John and Mable decided to begin construction of a museum to house their ever-growing art collection. John had acquired several hundred valuable works of art while traveling Europe in search of new circus acts.

Sadly, Mable died on June 8, 1929 from complications of Addison’s disease and diabetes. She was only 54 years old. She had spent only three years in the Venetian-inspired palace she had helped design and build.

John was devastated by Mable’s death. Only four months later, the great stock market crash of 1929 hit and the Florida land boom went bust. Times were hard for the Ringling Brothers’ Barnum & Bailey Circus, and John had been a bit reckless in his financial dealings. Construction of the Ritz-Carlton hotel he’d been building on Longboat Key was halted permanently. It stood vacant for almost 40 years before it was finally torn down in 1964. (Today, it is the site of the Longboat Key Club resort.)

John had to borrow money to complete the construction of Mable’s beloved art museum. In October 1931, “The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art” was officially opened to the public. Five years later, John Ringling bequeathed his art collection, Ca d’Zan mansion and entire estate to the people of the State of Florida.

Read much more about the Ringlings and their art museum at this link:

Joy at the main entrance to Ca d'Zan (House of John)

Mable picked out the colors of the window panels which glow from every room of the house

John and Mabel had no children, but considered their two pet birds as children

The Tap Room saw a lot of action, even though it was the Prohibition era

Joy and Kathy on back patio of Ca D'Za

Marble staircase leading out to Sarasota Bay

Kathy showing off the waterfront side of Ca d'Zan

Railing detail on marble staircase

Mable Ringling's Secret Garden

Final resting place of John and Mable Ringling, and John's sister, Ida Ringling North. (We wondered where Mr. North was... I'll have to get to the bottom of that.)

Until next time… we’ll miss you Longboat Key! XOXO

Read More

Live from Longboat!

An update on Villa Am Meer

It’s Tuesday morning and I’ve finally had some time to exhale and catch up on my sleep. We arrived here on Longboat Key Saturday afternoon and have enjoyed beautiful, perfect weather every day. Today we woke up to our first day of clouds, so I decided to take the opportunity to write a quick update about Villa Am Meer.

(Achtung! Spoiler alert! If you have no idea what I’m talking about, click the link at the very top of my blog that says “villa am meer” to start from the beginning.)

On Sunday, Ross and I took our first daily amble down the beach. I was anxious to see “my house,” as well as the new concrete piers (groins) they installed last year, so I brought my camera along. We were a little bummed because we’d heard The Colony Resort had closed, so we were keeping an eye out for a new “margarita stop.” (If anyone knows of a place, please let us know.)

Here’s the view as we were just starting out. You can see the concrete groins up ahead. That’s where we’re headed. Villa Am Meer is the first property past those groins.

On our way toward Villa Am Meer

Here’s a Google map of where we’re headed. That’s Villa Am Meer at the bottom right of the map (the house closest to the beach with the long driveway off Gulf of Mexico Drive).

View Larger Map

Once we reach the groins, you can see the tall palm trees on the property. That’s the Islander Club on the left. Notice how close to the water that resort is compared to the rest. That’s why they had to put the groins in… to prevent erosion of the beachfront. These days, new properties are required to be built much further back.

New groin in front of the Islander Club

Ross decided to check out the new pier/groin…

New pier/groin in front of the Islander Club

Finally, we approach Villa Am Meer. Trying hard not to look like a creeper, I decide to take a few videos:

Later, on another walk, we noticed a young couple enjoying the beach, directly in front of Villa Am Meer. We introduced ourselves and learned they are now living on the property and maintaining it, though it is still owned by a separate company. They confirmed there are no plans to develop the property anytime soon. (Yay!)

So… all good news for Villa Am Meer at the moment! Later this week… an answer to the question, was Hermann Kohl or his company, Norda Essential Oils and Chemical Company, ever convicted of bootlegging? I’ve been to the National Archives in Chicago to find out.

Stay tuned!

Read More

Villa Am Meer, Chapter 15

A few final thoughts…

New here? Start with Chapter 1…

I’ve been writing about Villa Am Meer for about seven months now. In that time, this beach house has become like an old friend to me. I’ve imagined what it would have been like to have stayed there, listening to the waves crash on the shore, sipping a cool glass of Chardonnay at sunset, and snuggling around the wood-burning fireplace after sundown. I’d like to imagine there were no TVs allowed here, and that guests were asked to leave their cell phones at the door. I imagine soft music playing, an acoustic guitar, and dancing on the rooftop patio under the moonlight.

I’ve been told of family Christmases at Villa Am Meer, with delicious Italian food and homemade ravioli. I’ve been told of summertime parties with friends, sangria, brie cheese and strawberries. And, I’ve been told of the “little house” – a one level, two bedroom guest house on the northeast corner of the property. It had a tiny fish pond in front of it, and a wrought iron bridge you had to cross in order to get to the front door. The “real magic” took place here, from what I’ve been told.

As one might imagine, the family is very private. I guess I would be too, especially if some crazy midwestern woman with no earthly connection to the house suddenly started blogging about it. But, I do hope to connect with them one day. I hope that by sharing the history of this house, I haven’t caused them any distress. That was never my intent. Those who know me would tell you I’m not that kind of person.

So then, what WAS my motivation for writing about this house? In the past seven months, I’ve been asked this over and over, and the answer is both simple and complicated.

I guess it all boils down to this… it got me writing again. I’ve always loved writing, and it seems to come naturally to me. However, a few years ago, I became hell-bent on writing something in order to get it published. I wrote a few children’s books, a middle-grade novel, a screenplay, and even a corporate gift book. Nothing was published. This didn’t surprise me; I knew the odds. But, I have to admit, it was hard on my ego. I wasn’t used to failure.

So, I quit writing. I decided if I couldn’t make my living as a writer, then what was the point. I went back to what I knew and saved myself the heartache.

For two years, I wrote nothing at all. I turned 40, took up snowboarding, and became obsessed with tracking down every branch of my family tree. When I ran out of branches on my own tree, I started tracking down my husband’s branches. Anything to keep from writing.

Then, last March, I was walking along the beach with my husband, on our way to The Colony to have a margarita. I spotted my favorite little beach house amidst a rumble of big rig construction. It appeared war-torn and vacant, and I was certain it was about to be torn down. I ran back to our condo and grabbed my camera, determined to preserve this little nugget of Longboat Key history. I knew nothing about the property or its owners, but for 15 years that little beach cottage had piqued my curiosity, and since it appeared to be on its final death throes, I decided to ask a few questions. And that’s how this whole journey started.

But, truthfully, why did I keep on? (And on, and on?)

Well, I guess because it just felt good. It felt good to be writing again, and I loved the instant feedback that blogging provided. People were commenting on my posts, adding to the story, encouraging me to go on. And so… go on I did.

There was also that moment, while I was on vacation in Montana, when I first learned of Elena’s death. The news hit me hard, and the synchronicity of that event seemed absolutely uncanny. At that point, the story seemed to take on new meaning… like it was bigger than me and just ached to be told. I can’t explain it really… it just seemed like continuing the story was the right thing to do.

One final thing.

On August 1, I began reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Ironically, I’d given this same book to an artist friend of mine a few years ago, never assuming it would ever apply to me. I was a writer after all, not an artist.

I was wrong.

The Artist’s Way has changed the way I look at the world. I’ve now realized that the reason I kept on writing about Villa Am Meer is because I was finally writing for the right reasons… not to gain fame, wealth, or success… but simply to enjoy the process. “Creativity is God’s gift to us,” Julia Cameron writes. “Using our creativity is our gift back to God.” The refusal to be creative is counter to our true nature.

I must admit, I’ve been lost for a while, manically trying to busy myself with other pastimes while my one true passion has been stuffed inside a storage locker made of gray matter. And now, I feel like Simba, staring into the water and hearing the reflection of Mufasa telling me, “You are more than what you’ve become, Simba.” Yes, Mufasa, you’re right. I am more than what I’ve become.

And so, starting January 1, my business partner and I have decided to take a two month sabbatical to “be still.” For twenty years, we’ve run a small ad agency together… a company we started just out of college. It’s been a crazy ride… turbulent, exhilarating, and often scary. But through it all, we’ve grown up together, raised our families, and remained best friends. And after twenty years, we’ve decided the best gift we could give each other is two months off. Imagine it… two months of peace and art. Groovy, baby.

I do hope to continue writing about Villa Am Meer, if any new information should trickle in. In the meantime, feel free to follow me on my journey.

(UPDATE: Skip ahead to Chapter 16 to learn the outcome of Hermann Kohl’s and Norda, Inc.’s bootlegging trial.)

Next time… a new story piques my interest…

View all the updates to my Villa am Meer story when you browse by category…

Read More

Villa Am Meer, Chapter 14

The Florida Master Site File, and a few other tidbits

New here? Start with Chapter 1…

For those who don’t know me, my father is a Minnesota Christmas tree farmer who runs two cut-your-own farms, several tree lots, and a large wholesale operation from his company just north of Minneapolis. Last week, he wanted to go look at some trees from a grower in Quebec, so my mom decided to go along because she’d never been there, and I got invited along because I know how to speak French (sort of). I’d been to Quebec once before, on a 9th grade French trip, but truth be told, I couldn’t remember a single thing about the city or the trip. So, we did the town, took some tours, drank some wine, ate a lot of great food, and had a fabulicious time.

While I was in Quebec, I received a few blog comments that I thought I’d pass along. First, I heard from someone named Frank who mentioned he’d been good friends with Ralph Smith, a husband to one of the six Benedict daughters. It turns out Ralph had been the best man in Frank’s wedding, so every now and then, the two couples would vacation together at Villa Am Meer. Frank mentioned that he and his wife spent many evenings sleeping in the southwest bedroom of Villa Am Meer, listening to the sounds of the waves crashing on the beach. If my bearings are correct, I believe the southwest bedroom is the one with the beautiful stained glass window that faces the beach.

View my entire album of Villa am Meer photos, taken in 2010…

Tilly Foster Farm, Brewster, New YorkI also heard from someone named Annette who mentioned that she’d worked on the Tilly Foster Farm from 1985-1999, and served as Manager for the last five of those years. She mentioned that Elena called Mrs. Kohl “Tante” which means “Aunt” in German. It was Mrs. Kohl (Hertha) who was the one with the parrots, and in the attic of one of the barns at the Tilly Foster Farm, there were several large, ornate bird cages that used to belong to Mrs. Kohl.

A while back, I also heard from Shannon O’Donnell who is a Historical Data Analyst for the Florida Master Site File, a State maintained inventory and archive of recorded cultural resources in Florida. She had found a link to my blog in a recent issue of Sarasota History Alive, and contacted me about recording the Villa Am Meer property with the FMSF. That way, if it was ever to be torn down in the future, there would be a permanent historical record of this beautiful home. I was concerned about whether this “historical designation” would hinder the future development of the property, and she assured me it would not. I was also concerned that I had no direct link to the property, nor its original owners, but she assured me that anyone could register the property, regardless of whether I was an owner or not.

So, with a little guidance, I completed the form and now Villa Am Meer is officially recorded with the Florida Master Site File for all posterity. Shannon also included all the posts from my blog, along with the photos I had taken of the property. For future reference, the Florida Master Site File ID number for Villa Am Meer is SO6900.

I’m afraid I’m coming to the end of my Villa Am Meer story, not for lack of interest, but simply because I’m running out of material. If you have any thoughts, memories, or photos of this house, please send them my way.

Next time: A few final thoughts and a new mystery to solve…

Read Chapter 15

Read More

Villa am Meer, Chapter 13


University Commons… the beginning of the end

New here? Start with Chapter 1…

Back in Chapter 1, my very first blog post, I started with a list of questions I wanted to know about “my house” on Longboat Key. Who built it? How long had it been there? Who owned it? And finally, why had it fallen into such a state of disrepair? Over the past several months, I’ve answered all but the last one. Today, I’ll do my best to answer that question as well.

Throughout the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s, the Kohl-Benedict family had a good run. They built a family fortune that started with perfume. They ventured into real estate. Dairy farms. Thoroughbred race horses. Tropicana orange juice. Private islands. And something about parrots…? I never did get to the bottom of that one.

Indeed, it was a lavish lifestyle… private schools, country clubs, debutante balls, luxury Manhattan apartments, corporate parties at the Rainbow Room, and beach parties at Villa am Meer (attended by the occasional celebrity).

Things clipped along until 1985, the year Hermann Kohl’s company, Norda, Inc., was acquired by Unilever, a huge Anglo-Dutch food and fragrance company dually-based out of the UK and the Netherlands. If you think you’ve never heard of Unilever, think again. Think Lipton, Hellman’s, Dove, and Axe.

When the deal was done, the question, I’m sure, was what to do with this latest windfall. How could the family invest their wealth to guarantee a sustained income for future generations of “Dukes and Benedicts?”

The answer, it seems, was a Sarasota retirement community offering sequential care for the elderly. Enter University Commons, “a 256-acre nursing/retirement home complex covering 567,800 square feet, with golf course, resort hotel, and office space.”

It was to be built on land purchased by Hermann Kohl in 1931, north of University Parkway, at the intersection of Tuttle Avenue. It was such a large undertaking, the project was deemed a “DRI,” or Development of Regional Impact. After all, as late as 1982, University Parkway was still unpaved, and referred to simply as “County Line Road.”

All that changed by October of 1992, when University Parkway was converted from a two lane road to a six-lane superhighway that connected I-75 with the international airport and two other major U.S. highways (301 and 41) between Sarasota and Bradenton. In all, seven DRIs were planned for the five mile corridor along University Parkway.

It certainly seemed like a good idea. After all, during the 90s, millions of aging baby boomers were busy stuffing money into their IRAs and making plans to move to Florida in droves. Yes, everything would be coming up roses for the Benedicts for a very long time, assuming all went well with the University Commons project.

All did not go well.

I have no idea what went wrong with the project, but the property tax records for 8104 Tuttle Avenue tell some of the story. On August 2, 1994, the University Commons property was sold to Unicom Nursing Care for $900,000. Unicom was another corporation owned by the Benedicts. This company was incorporated on July 31, 1994 in the state of Florida, but was based out of Edison, New Jersey. Two years later, on December 31, 1996, the property was sold for $1 to OIDC, Inc., a land subdivision and real estate credit company based out of Greenwich, Connecticut. One year later, OIDC sold the property for $541,900 to Life Care Health Resources, Inc.

The Life Care Center of Sarasota was completed in February of 2000 with 120 beds and a staff of 180. It was no longer a development owned by the Benedict family, but instead by Life Care Centers of America, a company that operates more than 200 skilled nursing homes, assisted living facilities, retirement living communities, home care services, and Alzheimer’s centers throughout the U.S.

To be sure, the Benedicts must have spent millions of dollars in plans and permits for the University Commons development, only to lose it all in bankruptcy. It appears to have been the beginning of the end for the Benedict fortune. One by one, other properties were foreclosed upon, including Villa am Meer, the Tilly Foster Farm, and eventually, Elena’s home in Purchase, New York.

Sigh. I wish there was a better ending to my story.

Next time… the Florida Master Site File and a few final thoughts.

Read Chapter 14


Growth Traps Homeowners,” Sarasota Herald Tribune, February 21, 1994

Assisted Living Company Plans 248 Acre Retirement Community,” Sarasota Herald Tribune, December 2, 1997

Manatee County Property Search

Read More

Villa Am Meer, Chapter 12

To Elena, a tribute

New here? Start with Chapter 1…

This story about my vintage beach house on Longboat Key has taken all kinds of twists and turns since I began writing it back in March. I certainly have enjoyed the journey, and it came at a time when I really needed to start writing again. For that I am truly grateful.

I’ve learned a lot about an era I knew very little about, and I’ve begun to piece together the story of a family both blessed and cursed with wealth. At the center of it all, I’ve come to know and respect a woman by the name of Elena Duke Benedict. I never knew her, and I don’t even know what she looks like, but her life story has captivated me these past several months, and I wanted a chance to share what little I’ve been able to piece together from research and emails.

Her friends and family called her Nell. She was born in Harrison, New York on September 11, 1917. If you didn’t catch that, she was born on September 11th. I had to pause a moment when I first discovered this and wonder where she had been on her birthday in 2001, when the New York City she had known since childhood became a different New York City… a different city in a different world.

Elena was the daughter of Italian immigrants, Romeo and Maria Stella Amaducci. Romeo was the first to arrive in 1909. He was 22 years old at the time. Maria came later, in 1913, at age 21. They were married one year later, when Romeo was 27 and Maria was 22.

9200 Gainsborg Avenue

9200 Gainsborg Ave, East White Plains, NY

They raised their family in East White Plains, New York, a neighborhood heavily populated by Italian families. In 1930, Romeo and Maria owned their own home at 92 Gainsborg Avenue. They had three children by then: Anna, age 15, Nellie (Elena), age 13, and Louis, age 12. They also had two other families living with them at the time. The first family, the Braschis, paid $50/month to live with the Amaduccis. The second family, the Abrantes, paid $25/month. In all, there were 17 people living in the house.

View a photo and street map of the house on Google Maps

So, perhaps it comes as no surprise that soon after, Elena went to live with the childless and wealthy German Kohls. Romeo was already working for them as a gardener, and the story goes that the Kohls fell in love with Elena and asked to take her in as their legal ward. I venture a guess that they could see Elena was brilliant, but knew that without their intervention, she would never be given the opportunity to attend college. In return, the Kohls promised the Amaduccis their family would always be taken care of, including a college education for all the children.

Keep in mind, this is the era of the Great Depression. It began with the stock market crash of 1929 and continued all through the 1930s. One might wonder why Romeo and Maria Amaducci would have willingly turned over their daughter to live with a foreign German couple, but given the circumstances, it seems understandable. They were being given an incredible opportunity to give their daughter an education and a life they would never be able to afford. I just wonder what Elena thought of the arrangement. Was she scared? Excited? Probably both.

Because Hermann Kohl was standing trial on national bootlegging charges in Chicago in 1931, I assume Elena went to live with them sometime around 1932-1933. She would have been 16-17 at the time. I’m still not sure if Kohl was ever convicted/imprisoned, but if he was, it wasn’t for long. By April of 1933, Hermann Kohl was sailing aboard the S.S. Europa, bound for NYC after visiting Bremen, Germany. By July of the same year, he had purchased a tract of thirteen acres fronting the Bronx River Parkway extension near Peekskill. And by December 5, 1933, Prohibition was repealed forever, and any wrongdoing on Kohl’s part was probably just water under the bridge.

Elena went on to college at Columbia University in New York City, then graduated valedictorian of her class at the Swedish Institute of Physiotherapy in Manhattan. Clearly, she was one smart cookie. Her younger brother, Louis, also attended Columbia University, graduating with a bachelor of science degree in Mining Engineering. He would go on to work for Hermann Kohl at Norda, Inc., eventually becoming President of the company. Their oldest sister, Ann, also worked as Elena’s personal assistant for many years.

Living with the Kohls meant high society and haute couture. In 1937, the New York Times published a report from the U.S. Ways and Means Committee which released for publication the incomes of every person who made more than $15,000 in 1935. To be clear, that means everyone in the entire country, not just New York City. William Randolph Hearst topped the list at $500,000. Mae West was next at $480,833. Other movie stars and film executives followed close behind.

And next on the list? Industrialists, of which, Hermann Kohl was among the richest. According to the article, Herman J. Kohl, president and salesman of the Norda Essential Oil and Chemical Company, was making a whopping $77,840 in 1935. His wife, Hertha, was also listed, bringing in an additional $15,988. For comparison, this is more than George Burns and Gracie Allen were making at the time (they came in at $92,000).

So, where were they living at this time? According to a NYC city directory, the Kohls were living at 43 East 19th Street in 1925. By 1930, they had moved to 121 East 24th Street, and by 1931, had moved again to 317 East 25th Street.

Starrett-Lehigh Building, 1936

Starrett-Lehigh Building, 1936

From 1933 to 1948, whenever they travelled abroad by ship, the Kohls repeatedly listed their address as 601 West 26th Street. After a little research, I found this to be the address for the historic Starrett-Lehigh Building, down by Chelsea Piers, along the Hudson River. I did a little bit of backround research on the building and found out it was completed in 1932 and used as a freight distribution warehouse. A railroad company took up the entire first floor, and train tracks ran right through the ground floor of the building. However, I never found anything about the building having any residential space, so it’s hard to believe Elena or the Kohls ever lived in this building. Not sure though. Today, the building houses a variety of digital media companies, including Martha Stewart OmniMedia.

Read more about the Starrett-Lehigh Building and view photos here…

186 Riverside Drive

186 Riverside Drive, Upper West Side, Manhattan

I found another address of 186 Riverside Drive on a few different genealogy records. This luxury apartment building is located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and was built in in 1928 by famed architect Emory Roth. The 15-story building has 91 apartments, and overlooks Riverside Park and the Hudson River.

Kohl never trusted the stock market, and therefore felt very little effect from the great stock market crash of 1929. Instead, throughout the 30s, he invested in land, and lots of it. He owned rental properties, farm land, orange groves, and even a few private islands off the coast of Florida. One of these, Buck Key (located off Captiva Island just north of Sanibel) was donated to the people of Florida as a nature conservancy in 1979, as a gift from Elena and the Benedict family.

View Buck Key on Google Maps…

In 1935, the Kohls completed the construction of their beach home, Villa Am Meer, on Longboat Key. Word has it they were contemporaries of the Ringlings, and even purchased the chunk of land directly from them. The house is rumored to have been designed by John H. Phillips, the same architect who built the famous Ringling Museum in Sarasota.

Then, sometime during the 1940s, Herman Kohl was said to have invested $7,500 for a 49 percent share in Anthony Rossi’s fruit packing business, which would eventually grow to become Tropicana Products.

Sometime between 1937 and 1943 Elena married Emilio DeBenedictis, a former captain of the N.Y.U. football team. Around this time, Elena also shortened her married name to Elena Duke (short for Amaducci) Benedict, and Emilio DeBenedictis was shortened/Americanized to become Edward Benedict (although those who knew him just called him Ben). He also worked for Hermann Kohl at Norda, Inc, spending his entire career with the company.

In 1943, Edward Benedict took up an interest in farming and purchased the Tilly Foster Farm in Putnam County, New York. The dairy farm had 75 head of cattle, producing 8 to 10 cans of milk daily. Eventually, the dairy cattle gave way to race horses, and the Tilly Foster Farm became one of the leading thoroughbred farms in New York State. It produced such champion horses as 1969’s Silent Scream and 1997 DelMar Derby Winner, Anet.

Read more about the Tilly Foster Farm…

The Benedicts also owned a second horse farm in Putnam County, where Centennial Golf Club stands today. A residential housing development just to the north of the golf course was built with streets named after the Benedict family, including Duke Drive, Benedict Place, and Elena Court.

View the development on Google Maps…

Elena and Edward Benedict raised six daughters at their home located at 4400 Purchase Street in Purchase, New York. All six daughters attended the private and prestigious Rye Country Day School, and were presented at the Westchester Country Club Debutante Cotillion. It was a glamorous life, indeed.

So, what caused the downward spiral that led Villa Am Meer and the family’s Purchase County estate to be foreclosed upon? I don’t have all the answers, but it seems to start with a Sarasota development project gone bad.

NEXT TIME: Unicom Nursing Care and the beginning of the end…

Read Chapter 13…

Read More

Villa Am Meer, Chapter 11

United States of America vs. Hermann J. Kohl

New here? Start with Chapter 1…

We want beer!

Source: New York County Lawyer magazine, October 2005

In Chapter 9, we learned that Hermann Kohl and his company, Norda, Inc., had been brought up on bootlegging charges. Another Norda executive, Arthur Henriksen (Vice President), along with secretary, Beatrice Epstein, were also charged. All three of them were arrested in New York City on February 3, 1931 and charged with conspiracy to violate the National Prohibition Act. They were arraigned and posted bail, along with 17 other men and one other woman. Their hearings were scheduled for the following Monday.

So what happened at that trial on Monday, February 9, 1931? They lost. They were taken into custody and sent to jail. How do I know? Because according to the appellate brief I received last week from the National Archives at New York City, Terence J. McManus, lawyer for Kohl and Henriksen, was appealing the decision from August 7, 1931 which dismissed the writs of habeas corpus for the two men. In a nutshell, that means McManus was trying to get his clients out of jail. He lost the appeal as well. The order was affirmed, and the two defendants remained in jail, awaiting their removal to Chicago where they would stand trial on federal bootlegging and conspiracy charges.

The appellate brief also gives us details about the Norda Company’s specific involvement in this landmark case:

Both appellants have been chemists for many years. Kohl is the president and Henriksen the vice-president of the Norda Essential Oil & Chemical Company, which had obtained a permit for the use of 600 gallons of alcohol, actuallly using only about one-half of it. The Norda Company dealt in essential oils, such as lavendar, geranium, Rose Marie, spike and thyme, and its articles were used mainly by the soap industry.

The total business per annum of the Norda Company was approximately $1,680,000, consisting mainly of essential oils. The business done in alcoholic preparations was approximately $9,000.

In spite of the fact that Norda had a legitimate government-issued permit for the use of alcohol in its perfumes and toilet waters, the problem wasn’t that Norda was selling its perfumes to people who wanted to wear it. The problem was that Norda was selling its perfumes to people who wanted to drink it.


I’ve learned a bit about perfume-making while I was writing this post. Surprisingly, perfume-making is pretty simple. First, you come up with a scent you like by combining a variety of essential oils. Next, you add grain alcohol and water to the oil mixture, in the proportions listed below. The stronger the scent, the higher the concentration of essential oils, and the greater the alcohol content. Therefore, perfume smells stronger and stays on the skin longer than “eau de toilette” (toilet water) or cologne.

 % of Total% of Remainder% of Remainder
Oil %Alcohol %Water %
Eau de Perfume8-15%80-90%10-20%
Eau de Toilette4-8%80-90%10-20%
Eau de Cologne3-5%70%30%
Cologne Splash1-3%80%20%

*End Sidebar*

Before the Prohibition Act was passed on January 16, 1920, there were approximately 125 legitimate businesses in New York City engaged in the manufacture of essential oils, barber supplies (hair tonics), and perfumes. By the end of 1920, the number of “perfume companies” applying for alcohol permits jumped from 125 to 3,000. (Source: New York Times, December 9, 1920. Read the article…)

So now… we know Hermann Kohl and his wife Hertha moved from their residence at 400 West 148th Street in Manhattan, to 336 Halsted Street in Essex County, New Jersey sometime between 1918 (the year Kohl registered for the draft) and 1920 (the year of the U.S. Census). From his obituary, we also know that Kohl founded Norda in 1924… four years after Prohibition was passed. So, clearly, Norda was not one of the original 125 legitimate perfume businesses operating prior to 1920.

The Damning Evidence
At the center of this national liquor ring was a man by the name of “A. Srebren.” He ran a business called “Srebren & Company” in Chicago. Ironically, the Norda Company shared the same warehouse space as Srebren & Company.

Early in 1930, the Chicago warehouse was raided by Prohibition agents. The following text is taken directly from the appellate brief:

“On the premises, they found a lot of whiskey, alcohol and toilet preparations. A further search of the premises netted a file of correspondence, which showed the name of the Norda Essential Oil Company. An examination of the fifth floor of the building revealed a small room with bottles bearing the label “Norda Essential Oil Company.” On the first floor of the building were found 13 cases of toilet preparations containing ten one-gallon cans each, all bearing the label of Norda Essential Oil Company; also freight bills relating to these 13 cases, showing Srebren & Co. to be the consignee. They also found 35 cases packed in a similar manner to the 13 cases, which bore the label of Srebren & Company, 121 E. 24th Street, New York City. This appears to be the address of the Norda Company, New York City.”

However, the most damning evidence of all comes from a witness by the name of Shorn, a shipping and receiving clerk employed jointly by Srebren and Norda Essential Oil Company. In the appellate brief, Shorn gave the following account to the Prohibition agent:

“The toilet preparations were received there and sold, as they were, to persons in private automobiles, in quantities of from six cans to five cases, together with a quantity of caustic soda. They found sales slips to correspond to such quantities. They also found upon the premises a formula book showing how to clean alcohol of its oils. In connection with this, Shorn told him that when Srebren sold this oil to a customer, he always sold him a formula for cleaning alcohol.”

And so, in the end, Kohl and Henriksen’s appeal was denied, the original order was affirmed, and both men were to be removed to Chicago to stand trial on federal bootlegging charges.

And there in Chicago, at the office of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), stands a box with over 1500 legal sheets of paper, just waiting for me to comb through it.

Hoo-ahh… I can’t wait.

(Incidentally, Kohl and Henriksen’s lawyer, Terence J. McManus, was one of NYC’s best criminal defense lawyers and also a strong supporter in the movement to repeal the national Prohibition Act. Here’s a link to a 2005 article from New York County Lawyer magazine that quotes McManus and gives a very detailed account of life during that era. Download the article…)

Read Chapter 12…

Read More

Villa Am Meer, Chapter 10

A tour of the Benedict Estate in Harrison, New York

New here? Start with Chapter 1…

First of all, if you’ve been following from Chapter 9, I should let you know that I received my appellate brief from the National Archives this week. More on that in the next chapter, but first… I must tell you about my phone conversation this morning.

I received a comment on my blog this week from someone named Rosanna who lives in Harrison, New York. She mentioned that she’d happened upon my blog after researching the Benedict family. It turns out, Elena Duke Benedict’s home is for sale in Harrison, and Rosanna, her husband, and her parents just toured the property this week. She wanted to know more about the family who had lived there, and… jackpot… she found my blog.

It turns out, Rosanna and her family have three young children and are thinking about moving. They found the Benedict property intriguing, mostly because of the price… a mere $999,000. She said that any other property in Harrison with 6,000 square feet on 3.85 acres would go for at least four times as much. They wanted to know why it was such a good deal.

First, click this link to view a satellite photo of the property on Google Maps.

4400 Purchase Street, Harrison, New York

A satellite view of the Benedict Estate from Google Maps

As you can see, it’s a grand old estate, built in 1925, with a caretaker’s cottage, greenhouse, and tennis court. It has 10 bedrooms and 6 baths, a living room with a fireplace, a den, porch, formal dining room (with fireplace), sunroom, butler’s pantry, breakfast room, kitchen, and of course, a staff kitchen.

Truly, a grand old estate.

So, why the low price? Rosanna filled me in.

First of all, it seems the Benedicts encountered two strokes of incredibly bad luck when it comes to “location, location, location.”

If you go back to the Google Maps link and zoom out a bit (upper left corner, minus button), you’ll notice that I-684 goes right through the northwest side of their property. Prior to 1964, Rosanna mentioned that this was the quietest, most beautiful spot in town. However, in 1964 construction began on the new bypass, which took motorists from Armonk (headquarters of IBM) to Harrison right through the Benedict property. Rosanna mentioned that the noise from I-684 was very noticeable. Strike one.

Now, if you zoom out a bit more, you’ll notice another whammy to the Benedict’s quiet rural neighborhood. Just to the right of the Benedict’s property, along the New York-Connecticut border, lies the Westchester County Airport. Built during World War II, the airport originally served as a home base for an Air National Guard Unit so they could guard nearby Rye Lake, a major source of drinking water for New York City. In 1947, the airport began offering regular passenger service, and now serves seven major airlines, the largest being Jet Blue. According to Rosanna’s husband, the airport was so close to the estate, “it felt like the helicopters were blowing my hair.” Bummer. Strike two.

However, the ultimate blow came from the realtor showing the house. Strike three? Radon. Strike four? Asbestos. Strike five? Termites. No wonder Sothebys’ listing says the home is being sold “as is.”

But despite the strikes against it, Rosanna was fascinated by the house and its vintage charm. “”Walking around, you could almost picture it in the 50s and 60s, with teenagers running around from room to room.”

She said everything was still in tact, as if the family had just picked up and left. There were high school yearbooks left behind, photos on the walls, and three shelves full of antique, leather bound magazines. Rosanna mentioned that her father was a professor of Italian literature and stumbled across an Italian magazine cover and article, which had been framed and hung on the wall. Mr. Edward Benedict was featured on the cover, and had written the article himself… in fluent Italian. “His Italian was very good,” her father said.

I wanted to know more about the photos on the wall. Rosanna told me there was a photo of Elena and Edward, taken during the 1930s or 40s. She also said there was a funny picture of Elena, sitting in a wheelchair, laughing, with one of her grandsons (or great grandsons) vaulting over the top of her.

What I wouldn’t give to see those photos.

Outside, to the right of the house, Rosanna mentioned there was a small circular drive and grassy area, with six small statues of polo jockeys. Each of the jockeys had the name of a Benedict daughter on it. According to the realtor, this is where the girls would tie their horses whenever they went riding.

Now, why in the world would the family leave those statues behind? Or the photos? Or the Italian magazine article? What the heck?

Rosanna mentioned that all the proceeds from the sale of the house and its contents were going to charity. All of it. I asked Rosanna if Ms. Benedict had been living in the house right up until her death last spring. She said she had not; that she’d been living in a nursing home at the time of her death. The house had actually been on the market since April of 2009.

I wish I had known the house was for sale when I was in New York last month. At the risk of sounding like a stalker, I sure would have loved to have seen it. For whatever reason, I’ve become completely enamored with Elena Duke Benedict and her incredible life story. She seems to me a classy lady who rode a fast moving roller coaster through life… from rags to riches and back again. I don’t even know what she looks like, but I like her. And I miss her. And I hope she has found peace.

View all the photos

Next chapter

Read More

New York City

Start spreading the news…

Taken at the Top of the Rock on our 16th anniversary,
June 11, 2010

For our 16th wedding anniversary, I surprised Ross with a whirlwind vacation to New York City. Neither one of us had ever been there before, and we had a ball seeing all the sites. And I do mean, ALL the sites. We were only there for the weekend, but man, did we pack it in!

Being the born-again genealogist that I’ve become of late, it was fun to see Ellis Island and re-live the immigrant experience from my great grandparents’ perspective. But we did so much more… we stayed at the historic Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue, visited Rockefeller Center and the “Top of the Rock,” took the NBC tour and saw where Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live are filmed, visited Ground Zero and the 9/11 Memorial Museum, saw Wall Street and Battery Park, rode the Staten Island Ferry, rode bicycles around Central Park, toured the United Nations building, ate a fabulous dinner in Little Italy, and topped it all off with a ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

Here’s a link to my pictures on Flickr. If you view them as a slideshow, make sure you go to “Options” and choose “Always show title and description,” so you can see the captions, and choose Slow for the speed, or you’ll go bonkers trying to read the captions before the next picture shows up.


Read More

Villa Am Meer, Chapter 9

Hermann Kohl and Norda, Inc. brought up on bootlegging charges

New here? Start with Chapter 1…

So… here we go.

Jo-La Cola, manufactured by the Orange Brewery

In the last chapter, we learned that by 1920, the year Prohibition took hold in America, Hermann and Hertha Kohl had moved from Manhattan to East Orange, New Jersey. For what? We can’t be sure, but an educated guess says that Hermann J. Kohl partnered with the Winter Brothers of the Orange Brewery during the early years or Prohibition to create “Jo-La Cola”, a carbonated soda drink marketed like champagne and sold in a champagne bottle. From there, he likely went on to create his own business, Norda, Inc., in nearby Boonton, New Jersey, where he created other flavorings and additives for the beverage industry.


In October of 1927, twelve men, including the then current owners of the Orange Brewery, were indicted on charges that alcohol was being illegally distilled and manufactured on a wholesale basis from the facility from at least January 1 of that year up until it was raided by Federal Agents on June 21st. The illegal product was being shipped in car load lots to destinations as far away as Kansas City in containers marked as “paint”, “oils”, and “boiler compound”. Molasses, so distilled into alcohol, was being shipped in railroad tank cars. (Source)

*End sidebar*

Three years later, on February 11, 1930, a New York Times article broke the news that 155 individuals from across the U.S., including several residents of New York City, had been indicted on federal “liquor conspiracy” charges. Among them was Dr. Hermann J. Kohl, head of Norda Essential Oil and Chemical Company. Other companies included in the indictment were C.H. Selick, Inc., a well-known manufacturer of perfumes and toilet waters, E.M. Laning, Inc., another flavor and fragrance company, Joubert Cie, Inc., a perfume factory, Allied Drug and Chemical Corporation, and Maiden Lane Drug Company.

One year later, on February 3, 1931, Hermann J. Kohl, President of Norda, Arthur J. Henrickson, Vice President, and Beatrice Epstein, Secretary, were all arrested in New York on indictments returned from Chicago charging them with being part of a national liquor ring. (Read the complete article.) All three were arraigned and posted bail.

In October of 1931, Hermann Kohl and Arthur Henrikson appealed their case to the U.S. District Court of Southern New York. Two orders were filed, one on October 13, 1931, and the other on October 22, 1931. Their appeal was heard in Nov-Dec of 1931 and the opinion made on January 4, 1932. The original order was upheld, meaning their appeal was denied, and they were still ordered to stand trial in Chicago on federal bootlegging charges.

I obtained all this information from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Northeast Region, in New York. I’ve ordered the complete brief of Kohl and Henrikson’s appeal trial, so I will probably learn more from that once I receive it.

I also contacted NARA Great Lakes Region in Chicago to see if I could determine the outcome of the federal court case, but they wrote back and told me that the case fills an entire legal-size archive box, which holds up to 1500 sheets of paper. They told me they don’t have the manpower to wade through that much paperwork, but I’m welcome to visit the NARA office and wade through it myself. Hmmm… road trip anyone?

And so, while I wait for my appellate brief from NARA New York, I’m still left wondering…

  • When did the Kohls “adopt” Elena? According to the 1930 U.S. Census, she was still living with her parents at age 13, so it had to be sometime after that. From 1930-1932, Herman Kohl was embroiled in legal battles relating to the federal rum-running case, so it seems a bad time for him to take on an adopted daughter. That being the case, she must have been at least 15-16 before she was taken on as a legal ward of the Kohls.
  • Was Herman Kohl ever convicted? If so, how long did he serve? On April 18, 1933, Hermann J. Kohl was listed as a passenger aboard the S.S. Europa traveling from Bremen, Germany to the U.S. He was 43 years old at the time, traveling with a 45 year old single woman by the name of Ellen Jacobsen from Southampton, Long Island. So, if he did serve any time, it wasn’t very long.
  • At what point did Hermann Kohl become an investor in Tropicana? Villa Am Meer was built in 1935. That same year, Hermann J. Kohl was earning one of the highest salaries in all of New York at $77,840 (Source: New York Times, 1/7/1937). According to Anthony Rossi’s biography, we know he was in Miami running the Terrace Restaurant until 1944, and didn’t even start his fruit shipping business until 1945. I have to assume somewhere in that timeframe of 1945 to 1949 (the year Tropicana was founded), Rossi began selling his orange juice by-product (pulp and peel) to Norda, Inc. for use in their flavor and fragrance business. I’m sure it was at this time Kohl decided to become a partner in Rossi’s enterprising orange juice business.

Next time, details from the Kohl and Henrickson court case…

Read Chapter 10…

Read More

Villa Am Meer, Chapter 8

Hermann J. Kohl and his road to riches

New here? Start with Chapter 1…

The S.S. Cincinatti

On September 8, 1910, Hermann Joseph Kohl landed on the shores of Ellis Island in New York Harbor. He left his hometown of Schwerte, Germany, boarded the S.S. Cincinnati, and set sail for the land of the free. According to the ship manifest, he was 21 years old. His occupation… druggist.


Schwerte is presently located in west central Germany, just northeast of Dusseldorf in the beautiful Rhineland region. According to Wikipedia, it belongs to the present day state of North Rhine-Westphalia (“western plain”), usually shortened to NRW, and is the westernmost, the most populous, and the economically most powerful state of Germany.

Schwerte Westphalia Prussia

Schwerte, Prussia in 1905

However, back in 1910, Schwerte, Westphalia belonged to the Kingdom of Prussia, which included all of northern Germany, western Russia, and Poland (see map at right). The kingdom was ruled by the Hohenzollern dynasty, and most notably, by Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck who unified the German states in 1870, forming the basis of the German Reich in 1871.

At age 21, every male who lived within the Prussian Empire was subject to “conscription,” or what we call “the draft.” They were required to serve three full years of active military duty, followed by another 4-5 in the reserve. Once their reserve duty was finished, they became a member of the “Landwehr” for another 2-5 years, similar to our National Guard, and could be called up for active duty during times of war.

*End Sidebar*

From his obituary, we know that Hermann Kohl received a Ph.D. degree in chemistry from Heidelberg University. Heidelberg was located in southwest Germany, outside the Prussian Empire. So, at age 21, Kohl would have been faced with the dilemma of returning to Prussia to serve his military duty, or to take his newly-aquired chemistry degree and head for America. It appears he chose the latter.

By the summer of 1914, World War I had begun in Europe, triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Anti-German sentiment was on the rise in America, and many German immigrants were anxious to become naturalized citizens of the U.S., denouncing their loyalty to their former country.

The naturalization process took five years, and lucky for Kohl, he had filed his “first papers” soon after arriving in the U.S. — on July 31, 1911, at Ellis Island, NY.


The Naturalization Process (source:

The first responsibility for an immigrant wishing to become an official U.S. citizen was to complete a Declaration of Intention. These papers are sometimes called First Papers since they are the first forms to be completed in the naturalization process. Generally these papers were filled out fairly soon after an immigrant’s arrival in America. Due to some laws, there were times when certain groups of individuals were exempt from this step.

After the immigrant had completed these papers and met the residency requirement (which was usually five years), the individual was able to submit his Petition for Naturalization. Petitions are also known as Second or Final Papers because they are the second and final set of papers completed in the naturalization process.

*End Sidebar*

So, on April 26, 1916, Hermann Joseph Kohl renounced his allegiance to William II, Emperor of Germany, and became an official citizen of the United States of America.

Hermann Kohl's naturalization papers

From his “final papers,” we learn some valuable information about Hermann Kohl. First, we can see he was born August 7, 1889 in Westfalen (Westphalia), Germany. He was living at 400 West 148th Street, in present day Harlem, about a mile and a half north of the famous Apollo Theater. His occupation was “pharmacist,” and by this time, he was married to his wife, Hertha Kohl, who was born in Germany.

Kohl was now 26 years old, and though he may have escaped the draft in Prussia, it still caught up with him in America. On June 5, 1917, Hermann Joseph Kohl registered for the World War I draft. He was still living at 400 West 148th Street with his wife, Hertha, and now working as a “chemist.” On the draft card, we also learn that Kohl was tall, slender, had blonde hair, blue eyes, and was not going bald. He also had all his limbs, both eyes, and wasn’t otherwise disabled. A real catch.

Three years later, Hermann and Hertha show up on the 1920 U.S. Census living at 336 Halsted Street in East Orange, New Jersey. Clearly, they are not “rolling in it” quite yet. So why the move to East Orange? Hard to say. A quick look at Wikipedia says that hatmaking had been the essential industry in East Orange, with 21 companies employing 3,700 people in 1892. But by 1921, only five firms remained.

So, what else was in East Orange, New Jersey? Beer. The Orange Brewery was constructed in 1901 by the three Winter Brothers of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. By the late 1890’s they were nearing capacity at their Pittsburgh facility, brewing 150,000 barrels a year. So, in 1899, the brothers sold their lucrative enterprise for over $4,500,000 to the Pittsburgh Brewing Company (PBC), packed up their profits and headed for East Orange, New Jersey.

Orange Brewery delivery wagon

In 1901, Michael and Wolfgang Winter built a brand new $350,000 building in East Orange and named it the Orange Brewery. The Orange Brewery ran a profitable business and had a good run until 1920, the year Prohibition hit the U.S. And while Prohibition may have been bad for the Winter brothers, it seems it was abundantly good for Mr. Hermann Kohl.

“During the ‘dry’ years in the 1920’s, the Winters for a while utilized the Orange Brewery for the production of soda water and syrup type drinks. They manufactured a champagne-like, fruit flavored, carbonated soft drink beverage known as Jo-La Cola. Also during this period they formed a corporation known as The Sugola Company of New Jersey, which was an enterprise involved with (through the brewing process) converting starches to glucose in order to produce a byproduct that served as a food additive with properties that were similar to sugar.”

And so it began… Hermann Kohl’s little flavoring and fragrance company called Norda, Inc. was founded in 1924 in Boonton, New Jersey. Eleven years later, in 1935, Kohl would be listed in the New York Times as earning one of the highest salaries in all of New York.

Oh, but wait, there’s so much more… and I haven’t even told you about my whirlwind trip to New York City last weekend!

Next time… a raid at Orange Brewery, and a messy little court case.

Read Chapter 9…

Read More

Villa Am Meer, Chapter 7

Anthony Rossi and the S.S. Tropicana

New here? Start with Chapter 1…

Sorry for the lapse in my blog posts lately. I had run into a brick wall as far as new information was concerned, and I didn’t want to bother any of the Benedict family so soon after Elena’s death, so I was a bit stuck. However, I still had plenty of questions, and with a little digging, I was able to find some answers.

1. In what year did Hermann Kohl come to be an investor in Tropicana? Did he know the company’s founder Anthony Rossi?

About a month ago, I had purchased Anthony T. Rossi’s biography from, hoping to find some mention of Hermann Kohl’s involvement in the company. The book was written by Rossi’s second wife, Sanna Barlow Rossi, in 1986, and I have to admit, it was a pretty interesting read.

Anthony T. Rossi is widely known as the founder of Tropicana. In 1921, at the age of 21, he left his hometown of Messina, Sicily and set out for New York City with 30 dollars in his pocket and a knapsack on his back. Before too long, he had a job working at his uncle’s machine shop, and within a year, had purchased a car that he used to start driving taxi cab. Not long after that, Anthony bought a Cabriolet and became a chauffeur for the nephew of a famous NYC lawyer, Elihu Root. Soon he was making $450/month, and began sending regular checks home to support his family in Sicily.

By the time Anthony was in his late 30s, he had started a grocery business, a restaurant, and married Florence Stark, the daughter of a Methodist minister. It was about this time he decided that New York was too cold and he wanted to move south. Perhaps he would try farming. They spent one year in Cape Charles, Virginia growing tomatoes, then decided to move further south to Bradenton, Florida. They purchased 80 acres on Cortez Road and started farming tomatoes.

Before long, Anthony saw another business opportunity arise when a cafeteria on 6th Avenue and 12th Street came up for sale – the Floridian. He bought the building and the business for $8,000 and convinced his brother Joe, a chef at a large hotel in Chicago, to come and cook for him. In the cafeteria’s first year, its net profit was $35,000.

With expansion in mind, Anthony convinced Florence to move to Miami and open a second restaurant in July of 1944. The Terrace Restaurant could seat 500 guests, but it was war time, and the tourists just weren’t coming in like he had anticipated. Soon, he was losing $1,000 a day. A devout Christian, Anthony was reluctant to sell alcohol in his restaurant, but in order to stay in the black, he agreed to start selling liquor at the tables, as long as there was no bar. He sold the Floridian in Bradenton for $35,000 in order to shore up the failing restaurant in Miami. But in one month, all the money was gone.

On December 28, 1944, only five months after starting the Terrace Restaurant, Anthony received a call from a realtor who had a client willing to buy the business – Lou Walters, father of television news personality, Barbara Walters. The deal was made, and Anthony Rossi was free to start again.

Anthony began his career in the orange business picking out Florida citrus from Miami supermarkets, packaging them, and shipping the gift boxes to retailers like Macy’s and Gimbel’s department stores in New York. He worked hard to pick the best quality fruit and sell it at the lowest possible price, and soon his business was thriving. Florence’s niece, Dorothy Brown, and her husband Bob joined the gift box business, and the orders continued to pour in. They named the company Fruit Industries, Inc.

But Anthony wasn’t satisfied. He realized if he returned to Bradenton, he could buy the fruit cheaper straight off the trees and make a higher profit on each gift box. So, Anthony and Florence returned to Bradenton while Dorothy and Bob stayed in Miami. They purchased a warehouse, and soon, two rail cars of fruit boxes were shipping out of Bradenton each day.

But, the dilemma… what to do with the smaller oranges that weren’t big enough or perfect enough for the gift boxes? The answer? Orange juice.

Word had it that the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City was employing 40 women a day to cut up the Florida citrus fruit for appetizers and salads, and squeeze the remainder into fresh orange juice. Anthony knew he would have a market for his jars of sliced citrus and fresh fruit juice if he could just figure out a way to ship it up to the great New York hotels without spoiling.

They began acquiring trucks and blew chipped ice into the trailers to keep the juice and fruit sections chilled on the one-and-a-half-day trip to New York. The trucks had to make regular stops to add more ice along the way, but it worked, and business boomed.

By 1950, Fruit Industries, Inc. had changed its name to Tropicana and had a standing order of 1,000 gallons of fruit juice per week, just for the Waldorf-Astoria alone. Even with the new refrigerated trucks, they couldn’t ship the juice fast enough. Anthony had to think of a way to get more juice to New York faster.

On April 12, 1951, Anthony’s beloved wife, Florence, died of a heart attack. Left alone, he threw himself into his work. He wracked his brain over the company’s transportation dilemma and finally decided that the only way to get the juice up to New England faster was to buy a ship. And so, he did.

After much nay-saying from his critics, Anthony Rossi watched the S. S. Tropicana pull into New York harbor on February 19, 1957. The ship left Tropicana’s new five million dollar packing plant at Port Canaveral, Florida, loaded with two million gallons of orange juice, chilled in six custom-welded, refrigerated, stainless steel tanks. They called it “The Golden Stream” as the juice left Florida, bound for New York City.

When cold weather ruined Tropicana’s orange crop in 1964, Anthony Rossi had to get creative once again. He refused to buy orange concentrate even though it was readily available from Brazil, and instead focused on how to supply his Florida plants with fresh oranges from Mexico. He began shipping oranges on giant freighters, but on the third cargo load, a state inspector noticed evidence of the Mexican fruit fly and shut down the operation. It was then Anthony proposed the world’s first floating orange juice factory.

The Mexican Pride was a fifty-foot-wide hulking barge that loaded fresh oranges by conveyor belt from wherever they could be found, then processed them and chilled up to 225,000 gallons of juice, all on board the floating factory. From there, juice was pumped from the mother ship to another barge that would take the juice up to Tropicana’s bottling plant where it was distributed to the hungry juice markets.

Better plans and production methods were always in the works, and soon the S. S. Tropicana and the Mexican Pride were replaced with more efficient methods of processing and transportation, namely refrigerated boxcars. This concept evolved into Tropicana’s famed “Great White Juice Train,” consisting of 150 insulated boxcars.

In 1969, Tropicana Products, Inc went public, and in 1978, Anthony Rossi sold Tropicana to Beatrice Foods. The company was later acquired by PepsiCo in 1998.

So, back to my original question, in what year did Hermann Kohl become an investor in Tropicana? And, did he know Anthony Rossi? The answer is, I don’t know. According to the Benedicts, Tropicana was a tiny local company prior to Hermann Kohl’s involvement. It grew to national prominence at his direction, and the whole concept of fresh juice distribution, logistical expertise, and the ability to finance it were all his.

That being the case, then why was Hermann Kohl’s name left out of Anthony Rossi’s biography? I don’t know, but I may have a guess…

Next time: More on Dr. Hermann J. Kohl and a theory on how he made his fortune…

Read Chapter 8…

Read More

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