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Historic homes for the viewing - who knew?

Published June 9, 2006

A few months ago, I was driving back from a day touring Ca d'Zan, the famously extravagant Ringling mansion in Sarasota, when a sign along Interstate 75 near Ellenton caught my eye.

I had probably zipped past it a hundred times, hurrying back to Tampa and more focused on the outlet mall at the same exit.

This time, I was traveling with my mother, and the sign for the Gamble Plantation Historic State Park piqued our interest. Both of us are historic house aficionados, hence the Ca d'Zan visit, and we were intrigued by the idea of a plantation house this far south. It's believed to be the only surviving structure of its kind in South Florida.

Though the home had just closed for the day, a park ranger was kind enough to give us a quick, but thorough, tour of the mid-19th century plantation house with its elegant columns and simple, airy verandas.

The mansion, once part of a sprawling sugar plantation, is believed to have been a hideout for Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin at the end of the Civil War. After the tour, we browsed in the visitors' center/museum and learned more about the history of the home tucked away in the small town of Ellenton.

I must admit, I'm a junkie when it comes to touring old homes. I manage to squeeze in as many tours as possible whenever I travel, having visited the best of the best in Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., Natchez, Miss., and New Orleans.

I adore house tours, particularly in Tampa's older neighborhoods, though now that the spate of seasonal tours has ended, my attention has turned to the public sites around Florida. Our state, despite its relative newness and penchant for bulldozing and building things from scratch, has a surprising share of interesting historic homes that beg for a summer visit, whether it's a day trip or a weekend getaway.

Here is a round-up of some of the more intriguing sites. Call for hours.

* Gamble Plantation Historic State Park: 3708 Patten Ave., Ellenton; (941) 723-4536; admission to the park is free, but home tours are $5 for adults and $3 for children.

n Whitehall: Railroad and oil baron Henry Flagler's Gilded Age confection of a mansion, built in 1902, which features his private railroad car on the grounds. One Whitehall Way, Palm Beach; (561) 655-2833; admission is $15 for adults, $8 for students 13-18 accompanied by parents, $3 for children 6-12 and free for children under 6.

n Goodwood Estate Museum and Gardens: An 1830s cotton and corn plantation house in the heart of Tallahassee on 16 acres of shaded lawns and grand old live oaks. 1600 Miccosukee Road, Tallahassee; (850) 877-4202; admission to the gardens is free; house tours are $5 per person or free for children under 3.

n Ca d'Zan: The Venetian/Gothic mansion of John and Mable Ringling on Sarasota Bay features 32 rooms, 15 bathrooms and an 8,000-square-foot terrace of variegated marble. 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota; (941) 351-1660; admission is $15 for adults, $13 for seniors, $5 for students and Florida teachers with ID, and free for children under 5.

n Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park: A 1930s Cracker-style home, farm, groves and nature trails of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who wrote The Yearling. Located between Ocala and Gainesville, 18700 S County Road 325, Cross Creek; (352) 466-3672; admission is $2 per vehicle, guided house tours are $3 for adults, $2 for children 6-12 and free for children under 6.

n Mary McLeod Bethune Cottage: Home and gravesite of the educator, social activist, civil rights leader and adviser to Franklin Roosevelt. The simple cottage features memorabilia and artifacts from Bethune's life, as well as the guest bedroom where first lady Eleanor Roosevelt slept while on a visit to Daytona Beach. Located on Lincoln Street on the Bethune-Cookman College campus in Daytona Beach; (386) 481-2122; admission is free.

n Edison and Ford Winter Estates: Old-fashioned vacation homes and gardens of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford along the Caloosahatchee River. The men spent many winters "working, talking and even relaxing together" according to the Web site, 2350 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers; (239) 334-7419; admission is $14 for Florida residents and $7.50 for children 6-12.

[Last modified June 7, 2006, 12:43:34]

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