Posts Tagged "Elena Duke Benedict"

Love Letters, Chapter 2

Who’s “Poul”?

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Both of the letters I’d purchased were signed “Love, Poul” and I was curious to know who “Poul” was. The return address on the envelope said “R. Ives,” so I figured “Poul” must be some kind of nickname. I’d never heard it before, so I ran the word through Google Translator, and when I clicked “detect language,” it gave me Danish for the origin of the word. Unfortunately, the English translation was also “poul,” so I still have no idea what it means. However, it may stand to reason that it would be a Danish/Dutch term of endearment, since the recipient’s last name is Van Duyn… a Dutch name. (Incidentally, “mon poulet” is a French term of endearment and means “my chicken.” Probably similar to that.)

I assumed the recipient of the letters, “Dr. John Van Duyn” of Duluth, Minnesota, would be easy to find on Not so. I found a few Van Duyns living elsewhere in the state, but none in Duluth. So, I put that name on back burner for a while and concentrated instead on “R. Ives” living in White Plains, New York.

I tried looking for “R. Ives,” gender female, with a keyword of “White Plains,” but no luck. Too many hits, and none with a first name starting with “R”. I tried restricting my search to just Census records, but still no luck… too many hits, and no “R” first names. Then, I tried taking a stab at her birth date. This letter was sent in 1949, so I assumed she was about 25, give or take 5 years. Still nothing. Finally, I went back to my original search and checked the box that said “Exact” next to my keyword phrase “White Plains.”


I found 12 year old “Ruth Coes” on the 1930 census living in White Plains, New York with her father Warren, mother Millicent, and younger brother Edward, age 4. They had misspelled the family’s name. In brackets under the search results, it said [Ruth Ives].

I still didn’t know for sure that this was my “R. Ives,” so I opened up the file to look at the original census document.


As luck would have it, in 1930, the Ives family was living at the same address as the return address on the letter (sent nineteen years later): 107 Ralph Avenue, White Plains, New York.

I’d found my Poul. But… now the next question… was she still alive?

I went back and edited my search again. First name: Ruth. Last name: Ives. Birth: 1918 (plus or minus one year). Birth Location: New York.

I found a record on the U.S. Public Records index for a Ruth L. Ives living at 107 Ralph Avenue in White Plains, New York. Birth date: October 1, 1917.

I ran my search one more time, this time with the middle initial “L,” and the exact birth year of 1917. I found a record for Ruth Ives on the Social Security Death Index, born October 1, 1917. Died August 1975 in Maine.


I took a look at her birth date again, and wondered how close in age she was to Elena Duke Benedict. I checked back through my Villa Am Meer blog posts and discovered the craziest thing. Elena Duke Benedict (originally Elena Amaducci) was born September 11, 1917, also in White Plains, New York. They were born 20 days apart.

Now really, what are the chances of that?

They were probably schoolmates; maybe even friends. Now that I had a name, Ruth L. Ives, I’d be able to track down a lot more information, and potentially some living family members. And of course, there was still the mysterious “Dr. John Van Duyn” I would need to track down.

Color me giddy. My “happy mystery” is starting to get fun.

Read Chapter 3

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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

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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…

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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

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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…

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