The storied character of a Venice Grand Dame | Arts Entertainment

Two magnificent homes sit on W. Venice Ave. just west of Park Boulevard.

Both were built in 1926 by contractor Owen Ward for officers of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. Both homes were abandoned shortly after having been built due to the economic crash of the late 1920’s.

This column explores the design and history of the westernmost of the two: at 613 W. Venice Ave., which was rescued, in part, thanks to Metropolitan Opera artists during the first third of the 20th century.

This home was designed for gracious living and entertaining. The opening photo shows the home under construction. The floor plans, re-drawn from images of the original, are shown below. The home is large by most standards, being 100 feet wide and 72 feet deep. Not shown is an unattached two-car garage behind the left side of the house.

The three arches in the front are the visual entry to a large open porch with a stately front door within the porch, shown in the next photo. The details visible in just this one photo portend what will meet one’s eye upon entry. The door surround is a Greco-Roman pilaster and beam with a hint of dentils under the flared beam cap with a decorative round tile at the center. The solid wood door reflects the secure doors of the Italian Renaissance. In the ceiling are support beams for the roof, reminiscent of Spanish architecture.

Imagine being one of the many guests entering this grand home for an evening event. Upon entry, as can be seen in the first-floor plan, you’re in a large 17 by 30 foot entry hall with the side view of a grand staircase up to the second floor. Directly ahead, positioned to the side and under the staircase, are three arches, inviting you to continue to the covered patio (loggia). To the right is an arched entry to the living room and to the left is an arched entry to the dining room. Both the living room and the dining room have their own fireplaces whose chimneys provide for additional fireplaces in two of the upstairs bedrooms (marked as “chamber” in the plans).

With large hallways, about 17 rooms (depending upon how one counts rooms) and the prospect of regular lavish parties, it would be logical to provide for household staff, in those days known as “servants.” Indeed, the house provides nicely for staff: behind the kitchen is an apartment with two bedrooms, bath, and sitting room having both a front door off the driveway and a back door leading toward the garage. It was sufficient for a butler and two maids/cooks.

The kitchen, as can be seen from the floor plans was separated from a side entry hallway (off an abbreviated porte cochère, labelled “porch”) by a breakfast nook and two doors. The door at the dining room swung both ways — as in modern-day restaurants — and had generous glass panes though which to see the dining room. The door beyond, to the kitchen area, was also double-swing but with only a small porthole; the kitchen wasn’t on the normal guest tour.

The staff, while expected to remain generally in the service areas, including the kitchen and laundry room, were provided an elegant way to reach the upstairs bedrooms without using the grand staircase: an elegant carved spiral staircase, shown in a photo, that joins the first-floor entry area at a door to the back yard directly with two of the upstairs bedrooms. The staff then had access to the entire upstairs.

That staircase also provided an emergency exit in case of fire.

After having been vacant for several years, the home was rescued in 1933 by Florence and Fitzhugh Haensel from New York City who purchased the home as a winter haven. Fitzhugh was a well-known music critic and, as part of Haensel and Jones, a successful impresario — a fancy term for agent to the stars.

As early as 1905 Haensel and Jones was booking performances for singers and dancers, including Metropolitan Opera stars, across the country and later, internationally. A few of their bookings included Enrico Caruso, Leo Slezak, and Isadora Duncan.

The Haensels became very wealthy and as a result were able to travel the world booking performances and shopping for furniture. They bought this elegant Florida abode as a winter get-away from the miserable winters in Manhattan.

Upon purchasing their Venice home, the Haensels brought in heavy European furniture consistent with the times and elegance of their lifestyle. They hired two maids/cooks and a butler in preparation for setting up a comfortable home and for entertaining their friends from afar.

Although they were only in their home a few months of the year, the Haensels kept their staff on the payroll year-‘round. This ensured that the home was well-maintained and was in perfect condition upon the Haensels’ arrivals. Fitzhugh was able to enjoy the house for only about 11 years, as he passed in 1944.

Florence continued to enjoy the home for another 23 years. In her many years in Venice, she was active with the Red Cross and, very likely, the Venice Little Theater. According to the grandson of Sonia Terry, one of the theater’s founders, Florence would have been among the social circle supporting the arts in Venice.

Florence enjoyed her home until her passing in 1967. Thus for many years the home was well-maintained and cared for, ready for the next generation of owners, thanks in large part to the commissions from Fitzhugh’s having represented many talented performers from the Metropolitan Opera and other venues.

Two years after Florence passed, her family sold the home to Jack Severson, a local dentist, and his wife Nancy who owned it for 34 years, until October 2001. Nancy reports that she frequently found new hidden alcoves in the house, a source of continued amazement.

The house and its land, including 1½ lots to the rear facing Granada Avenue, were then sold to an individual who broke up the plot, selling the Granada Avenue piece separately in January 2002, then a month later selling 613 W. Venice Ave. for a handsome quick profit. I suppose we can be grateful that that owner didn’t tear the home down and split up the land it was on.

This was done, in fact, a few years ago to another grand home on the west end of the same block.

The sale of the back parcel did, though, cause later buyers quite a headache as I’ll detail shortly. The buyer in 2002 owned it for several years until foreclosure was looming, at which point Curt and Tommye Whittaker, a couple from New Hampshire, rescued the home in 2014.

The Whittakers have been careful to retain, and in some cases restore, much of the original features of the home. They even brought in heavy furniture, this time from Indonesia, which turned out to nicely replicate the look and feel of the house during the Haensels’ time.

The main modification the Whittakers did was to combine the breakfast room (seen on the first-floor plan to the middle left) with the adjacent kitchen to make a roomy and very functional contemporary work space. The staff quarters have over the years been modified, at one point having served as a separate rented apartment with a tiny kitchen.

The front west of the house is shown in the adjacent photo. This particular view of the home shows several aspects that defined the Venice Historical Precedent. The section in the left third of the photo is one of the upstairs bedrooms above the living room. Note the strict symmetry on that section: two upper windows with simple brick window sills. The outer lower trim on a window is called the window sill; the inner lower trim is called the window stool. Centered above those windows is an attic vent. Below, on the first floor, one can see a single decorated, arched window at the living room.

At the right of the living room/bedroom façade is an architectural trick to break up a wide expanse: a shift in angle. The sewing room wall is brought forward by about 30 degrees from the main house. That angle is continued for the sunroom on the main floor. Note also that the two-story height is broken up with this single-story sunroom.

On the west wall of the sunroom — in the right of the photo is a door that is secondary to but reflects the front entry door, with a handsome decoration as its surround. Finally, the roof lines are varied to give interest to what could have been an overpowering expanse of tile roof.

Purchase and preservation of an historic home oftentimes provides the owner with several surprises, some happy and some not so happy. On the bright side, the Whittakers found a structurally sound house and an elevator from near the sunroom to the sewing room upstairs. They also found original house photos and a first-edition Venice Magazine from 1927 in the attic.

Surprises on the downside are to be expected for a nearly 100-year-old house. Given that, one surprise for the Whittakers was caused fairly recently: they found that the house built on the Granada Avenue lot behind them was on land raised in accord with the building code. While the code also requires that all storm water flows to the front street, some water ended up going to the 613 W. Venice Ave. property rather than to Granada Avenue — unfortunately, the site-preparation plans are no longer available.

The Whittakers found that during rains, their patio beyond the entry hallway that was described earlier, would flood ankle deep or more. Their driveway had deteriorated, so before replacing it, they addressed the water run-off issue by installing a major surface run-off control system involving a large sump pump and multiple drainage pipes diverting water under the driveway onto Venice Avenue.

In addition, the sewer pipe had deteriorated, so a liner had to be installed to restore its integrity. Finally — they hope — the electric utility had to be redone underground from the pole at the rear to the house with directional tunnelling technology. It’s important to note that as extensive as the repairs have been, the value of the home has risen enough to more than cover those expenses.

For being 95 years old, this home is in excellent condition. The original design has been preserved, a slice of culture has been retained with the grand gathering spaces and the servants’ quarters, and the home continues to provide shelter and enjoyment for its current occupants. It is also an example of how loving care over most of those years has resulted in a source of pride for the owners and for the community.

Sources consulted for this article include: Tommye and Curt Whittaker, The Music Magazine -Musical Courier Sept. 1915 and Oct. 1926, Venice Museum and Archives, Mark Terry,, The New York Times May 5, 1944, City of Venice, Nancy Severson.

The views expressed herein are solely the personal views of the author and are not intended to represent the views of the city of Venice nor the city’s Architectural Review Board. The author may be contacted at [email protected].