Whenever 30-year Dunedin resident John Tornga takes visitors on a tour of his quaint, coastal town, he makes sure to pass the home at 129 Buena Vista Drive S.
“It’s the only place anyone calls a ‘mansion’ in Dunedin,” said Tornga, a city commissioner. “There’s a mystique to it. Who else can say they have a Kellogg mansion in their city?”
The 7,600-square-foot, Mediterranean revival-ish home was built in 1925, and was then known as Villa Marino. W.K. Kellogg, founder of the Kellogg Company that revolutionized breakfast via ready-to-eat cereal, purchased it in 1934.
The interior is a wild mashup of styles and textures and colors. There is marble and velvet and crystal. There are tile mosaics of chariot races, stained-glass windows and hand-painted murals of the Taj Mahal.
A staircase to nowhere suggests it may have been designed by the notable architect Addison Mizner. The canopy bed is supposedly carved from trees from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The actor Sean Connery, it is believed, once bunked down in the guest house.
Soon it will likely all be torn down and replaced with a new home on the prime waterfront acreage overlooking St. Joseph Sound, just south of the Dunedin Causeway.
The property, listed for $4.59 million, is currently under contract with closing set for May 15. An application for a permit to demolish the entire home was filed on April 23.
The home was listed for sale for more than seven years, with four different listing agents. Realtors say that’s not surprising. An aging house that quirky does not have wide appeal in a market driven toward modern construction.
“It would take a very special buyer to want to renovate or restore a home this unique to live in it,” said Jennifer Zales, a Coldwell Banker agent specializing in luxury Tampa Bay properties, who is not involved with the Kellogg home.
Meanwhile, she said, “waterfront land is selling at an incredible premium right now, and we have little to no waterfront property on the market. There’s a severe shortage.”
In many cases, Zales said, the value of such land has surpassed that of the old homes on top of it.
The home reminds Manuela Hendrickson, president elect of the Pinellas Realtor Organization, of a European castle.
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“I think for a million, or a million and a half, you could turn it into a phenomenal, restored 1920s home,” she said. “The shape of the windows, those ceilings, they’re gorgeous. But the bathrooms right now are so gaudy it’s actually funny.”
The home is currently owned by Dane Webb, widow of Clearwater physician James Nielsen, who died in January. He was the father of former Homeland Security secretary Kristjen Nielsen. They lived in the home for nearly 20 years, but even they weren’t sure about the design when they bought it for $2.5 million in 2003.
“It certainly wasn’t my taste or my wife’s,” Nielsen told the Times in 2019, “but we got in there and got used to it and it’s magnificently done.” They ended up changing almost nothing.
The buyer this time around is David Wenk, a physician in Palm Harbor. Wenk said he would like to see the home preserved if possible, but he has no interest in restoring it or living in it himself.
He plans to instead build a new single family home on the property and live there with his wife and four kids, ages 7, 6, 3 and 1. “And,” he said, “I wouldn’t mind one or two more children.”
Wenk had offered to let the city take anything inside the home after the closing, or to delay the demolition up to 90 days so the whole structure could be moved. More recently, Wenk’s agent notified the city manager via email that, “the buyers have rescinded any previously mentioned offers to the city.”
Wenk said he remains open to letting someone transport the house, or parts of it, to a new property, but a firm plan of action would need to come together very quickly.
“I’m just looking to raise my family, and bring good things to the neighborhood,” Wenk said. “Do I want to destroy (the house)? No. But I also need to move ahead with my plans. If someone wants to spend a million dollars and they can move it next month, great, but I don’t want my kids to be in college by the time I build my house.”
Moving the Kellogg mansion could cost $400,000 to $900,000, according to some estimates. That’s not counting the cost of a new property to move it to, or infrastructure like a new foundation and utility hookups. Wenk said he was told such a move would require a barge, because local streets can’t handle it.
It briefly looked like the city might block demolition of the home by designating it as historic. Dunedin’s Historic Preservation Board voted in December to give the home historic status, and the Dunedin City Commission was set to make it official with a vote on April 1.
The day of that vote, however, city staff withdrew the agenda item. There may have been concerns over the legalities of designating a home historic amid a pending sales contract.
Wenk said that anything that derails his purchase would harm the seller, who to his understanding can no longer afford to live in the home.
“I feel bad for her,” he said. “She lost her husband, and all her money is tied up in this house. If the sale doesn’t go through, her bills don’t go away.”
The owner also wrote a letter pleading with the city commission to deny any historical designation that could harm the property value.
“My husband and I have enjoyed this property to the fullest, but it is time for another family to have and enjoy,” Webb, the owner, wrote.
Dunedin city commissioner Deborah Kynes believes the Kellogg mansion is just as important to Dunedin’s “sense of place” as the Fenway Hotel, the Dunedin Golf Club, the causeway, a vibrant arts scene, the Toronto Blue Jays or the Gladys E. Douglas Preserve. She called it, “one spoke on the wheel of what makes Dunedin, Dunedin.”
“It’s a thing of beauty. I truly believe it should be preserved,” Kynes said. “It depends if people have the passion and the will to do it. I’d just like to hear from residents what they think.”
The story of the Gladys E. Douglas Preserve has inspired hope that the Kellogg mansion can be saved, said Vince Luisi, chairman of the Dunedin Historic Preservation Board. The wild, 44-acre Douglas property was under contract to be sold to a developer in 2020. But after the developer walked away from the purchase, the community raised $4.5 million in private donations on top of $5.5 million in city and county funds that have changed its course. Now that property is set to become a nature preserve.
Correction: This story was updated to correct the name of Dane Webb, and to reflect when fundraising for the Gladys E. Douglas Preserve took place.