History turns to rubble

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House once belonging to war hero gets razed after county says no to repurposing the structure

By Jane Bartnett

A piece of Siesta Key history is no more.

On Feb. 11, the former home of Siesta Key resident Capt. Ralph Styles, a U.S. Navy World War II hero and Pearl Harbor survivor, was demolished to make way for a new structure.

Capt. Ralph Styles

The old-world blue Florida cottage at 99 Beach Rd. that stood facing the Gulf held a special place in Siesta Key’s history and in the hearts of longtime residents. For many years before his death in 2008 at age 98, Styles held a patriotic sunset tradition. Joined by family, friends and many public officials who came to witness the occasion, Styles would lower the American flag while the haunting sounds of a bugler’s taps played in the background. He became a beloved legend on the Key.

After the captain’s passing, the house changed hands several times and in 2016, it was purchased by Siesta Key resident Michael Holderness’ real estate company. Holderness restructured and improved the property, adding new windows, floors, and doors. He lived in the home and later used it as a rental property before selling it to a private owner in 2021.

About six months ago, when Holderness learned that the new owners planned to tear the house down to make way for a new residence, he approached them and asked if he could buy the structure back. He told them that his plan was to donate the home to Sarasota County and pay all the costs involved in moving it to a new location, such as nearby Beach Access 3B.

“The house was completely restructured,” Holdnerness reported.

A plaque in the Village pays tribute to Styles. (photo by Trebor Britt)

Although it did not have historical designation, Holderness felt that it could be placed elsewhere on county beach land. He began contacting Sarasota County officials and offered to pay for all costs involved in moving the house to a new location.

“They refused,” he said of the county. “The idea was to save a valued piece of history and repurpose it.”

Holderness said the former Styles home “Would have made a quality lifeguard office, welcome center, and/or a police outpost complete with much-needed public restrooms. The county showed no interest.”

His next step was to reach out to the Siesta Key Association. The group got behind the effort and Catherine Luckner, the organization’s president, began her own outreach to county officials.

On behalf of the association, Luckner pleaded with the county to consider Holderness’ offer to save the historic structure. She also offered several suggestions for new locations.

“These were local places that could have had real benefit to the public,” she said. “The house was beautiful. It was newly renovated and Mike had done a great job. Everything was brand-new inside and structurally sound. It could have been a wonderful addition to a local beach park.

“It was a small house, so there could have been many uses. The county was just not interested. It’s so unfortunate.”

The house came down on Feb. 11. (photo by Mike Cosentino)

When both pleas fell on deaf ears and all efforts were exhausted, the fate of the house was sealed. Despite his disappointment, Holderness said “The new owner is doing the right thing — meaning, homes on the coast, where people sleep, should be built to FEMA, ADA, and hurricane compliance.” 

He remains perplexed about the county’s refusal to accept his gift of the historic home.

“It’s sad that it’s lost, but let’s not let it be forgotten,” said Holderness about the memory of Styles.

Although the war hero’s former residence may only be a memory, his many contributions to his nation and to Siesta Key — the place that he made his home — are not forgotten. Along with a painting by the late Siesta Key artist Shawn McLoughlin that captures the vintage beauty of the captain’s house at the sandy shore, photos and memories remain.

Holderness said that for several years after Styles’ death, Siesta Key resident Andy Cooper, who had purchased the home, arranged for a flag ceremony to be held daily at the gazebo in the heart of Siesta Key Village. Although the flag ceremony no longer takes place, visitors to the gazebo will find a commemorative plaque that tells the story of the beloved Siesta Key resident — a man who was also a submarine commander and former assistant director of Naval Intelligence.

“The gazebo and the plaque are a part of the history of Siesta Key,” said Luckner. “They remain a lasting tribute to this great man who lived right here in Siesta Key. It’s so important that we keep our history alive.”

A painting of the historic house by celebrated artist Shawn McLoughlin. (submitted image)
Jane Bartnett
Author: Jane Bartnett

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