By Dan Wagner
It’s a national trend: 60-something retired homeowners downsizing, escaping the frustrating maintenance of a big house and choosing something compact and carefree.
But that’s not for retired businessman Alan Kesten.
Three years ago, he sold a spacious University Park home and did something unexpected. He bought a coveted parcel of waterfront property on Steven’s Point in the established neighborhood of Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores, near the Ringling Museum. He took down a 1960s-era house and built a 10,000-square-foot Italian villa that he says replicates features in a 17th-century Tuscan farmhouse.
His girlfriend, Melba Jimenez, looks around the house with each new purchase and teases him, “Alan, I don’t think this is how farmers lived back then.” But it’s how Kesten is enjoying his new 21st-century life — seeing his real estate odyssey to the finish and realizing his vision of an ideal home formed by 20 years of travel to Italy.
The travel was mostly for business. Kesten ran his family-owned fragrance and perfume oils company called Belmay that began small in New York and got big fast when it sold to Revlon what would become that company’s first shade of red lipstick. Over the years, Kesten took the company international, setting up offices and manufacturing plants all over the world. His fast-paced career included short-term stays in exotic places as well as big, cosmopolitan cities in Europe and Asia. When he retired to Sarasota in 2000, it was from South Africa where he had been living just outside of Johannesburg.
“My parents had a place in Boca Raton so I had been to the east coast of Florida and, frankly, it wasn’t for me,” he said. “I had ruled out the state when one of my sales reps told me to check out Sarasota on the west coast. When I did, I knew this was it. I play golf, which is why I chose University Park, but I was also used to a lot of arts and cultural options and Sarasota supplied that, too.”
But why an Italian house? “Actually, I was looking for a great piece of waterfront property and when the parcel on Steven’s Point became available in 2014, I bought it,” Kesten said. “I’ve always wanted a house on the water.
“Then, I considered the style of house I’d build. Over the years, I’ve collected photographs, drawings and paintings of Italian homes from various time periods and I wondered what it would be like to live in an Old World home.
“I could afford to build it, so I thought ‘Why not. It’s never too late.’”
But Kesten said the size and luxuriousness of the home were ultimately a business decision as much as an emotional indulgence.
“When you pay a great deal of money for a lot, you have every reason to build an impressive structure on it that is commensurate with the value of the land,” he said. “That’s just protecting your investment. As it turned out, the size is right. Melba and I entertain all the time. The inside and outside spaces get used every day. The house is big but it’s totally livable.”
One of Kesten’s hobbies is ballroom dancing and he’s competed in pro/am events regionally. “Sometimes when we have a dinner party for 12, we turn on music and all of us end up dancing in the great room and on the terraces. There’s plenty of space for salsa dancing, which is a favorite. It’s a perfect party house. This Thanksgiving, we’ll have 40 guests, lots of them members of Melba’s family visiting from out of state who’ll stay with us.”
House doesn’t look its age
Kesten was determined to have his new house look old. That was possible because John Cannon was the contractor and the home is completely custom.
“I wanted to replicate features from a 17th-century dwelling that have aged over time,” he said. “Consequently, the walls have been finished to look old, the dining room has a brick vaulted ceiling, the floors are terra cotta, uneven, hand-made tiles that have been acid washed and stained to look like they’ve seen centuries of wear.”
Walls have frescos and ceilings have beams that were popular in the Renaissance. Arched niches frame classical statuary. Stone and wrought-iron balconies capture natural breezes and water views.
To get the antique look he wanted, Kesten commissioned artist Dawn Marie DeLara, who moved from Minneapolis to a Sarasota rental so that she could work on site for five months, doing walls, ceilings, murals, frescos and tromp l’oeil treatments such as seemingly exposing old brick beneath layers of peeling plaster. The house shows its “age” in every room. The artist also designed a Kesten family crest that hangs above the fireplace in the great room.
Some of DeLara’s projects required her to spend long hours on a 22-foot-high scaffold.
“Yes, at times she did the Michelangelo thing,” Kesten said. “It was amazing to see her up there for hours sometimes on her back to get the angle she needed. I came to watch her work often and although we collaborated on each theme, everything she did was more wonderful than I expected.”
Kesten sourced stone from Italy and Qatar but also shopped locally at Sarasota Architectural Salvage, Franklin Lighting, Sarasota Trading Co. and at antique shows at the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium. Scouting trips to local art galleries here and in Tampa and St. Petersburg were frequent.
“Melba proved to be brilliant with internet shopping,” Kesten said. “With the exception of the piano in the great room, all the new furniture purchases and design were her doing. She’s the one who made the house a home by adding small touches I wasn’t thinking about.”
Dining room the favorite
The house has 5,200 square feet under air but 10,000 square feet when the covered outdoor living spaces are factored in. Nearly all the rooms are oriented toward bay views, but Kesten’s favorite room in the house has no water view at all. It’s the dining room with a brick vaulted ceiling. He believes this elegant and moody cave-like room is the optimal expression of the home’s Mediterranean aesthetic. The stone floor, vaulted ceiling, the table (which he repurposed from his previous home) and all the accessories come together to transport guests back in time. An oil painting of a solitary tree is a reminder of Kesten’s time in South Africa. The tree was on his homestead there.
To make sure the ambiance is absolutely right when everyone sits down to dine, Jimenez lights candles in an antique metal candelabra. She found the pair online and they arrived the day before their first big dinner party. The cook’s kitchen with its wood and Brazilian soapstone counters and hammered copper sink are her domain. Her hobby is cooking for crowds.
“Outside, I’ve got citrus trees, plants, flowers and herbs I’ve seen in Italy as well as the palm trees that were originally on the property,” Kesten said. “I’ve also planted six olive trees. How much fun it would be to see a crop of olives someday and to think about pressing them for olive oil, although I’ve been told these are the wrong kind of olives for that. We’ll see.”
Kesten said he’s enjoying this house even more than he imagined he would and the 18 months it took to build it were an education every day in European art history and modern homebuilding.
“I give the credit to the Old World craftsmen who put heart and soul into their projects. Every room has been touched by artisans with a passion for what they do, and it shows,” he said. “And I thank project manager Mike Johns who was on site every single day and kept everything going smoothly.
“He made sure my old Tuscan farmhouse is up to code and includes modern conveniences including the elevator which, because of an injury from playing pickleball, I got to appreciate right away.”
You can view additional images of this beautiful home here.