by Tim Gilmore, 5/1/2021
1. The House Beneath the House
The original house still stands. Underneath. There’s another house poured on top of it, as if squeezed from a giant tube of icing.
For most of its existence, the place lately known as Tuscan River Estate and more casually as Kelnepa House, was the Saleeba House. “Our family lived there longer than anybody else,” Raymond Saleeba tells me. “It hurt when we sold it. My whole life was in that place.”
As for what’s happened to the house the last 15 years, the Saleebas no longer recognize it. “It looks like somebody wrapped another house around it,” Raymond says.
Kelnepa is one of several “one block subdivisions” from San Jose Boulevard to the river that stayed unfinished. When the 1920s Florida Land Boom went bust, so did most of those most lavish dreams. And the luxury British sports car bought with worthless stock, the death threats, the brides who had to cancel bookings for their weddings? Just the details of a story that took on a life of its own, as stories do, sickened, spun out of control.
In 1924, Thomas Keller, who owned and operated T.M. Keller Lumber Company, and Ella Canipa Keller spliced their surnames together to form the name of their subdivision: “Kelnepa.” When the Florida real estate bubble burst, Kelnepa consisted of three houses.
Nobody used concrete block for “Mediterranean Revival” style houses, nobody but architect Bernard Close and builder Victor Zambetti. Those bright flecks of stone, blue and green and amber, embedded in concrete, made “Miami marble,” which the Zambetti family produced at their Art and Ornamental Stone Company.
With Kelnepa stillborn, the Kellers called the ornate two story riverfront house home. Early city directories gave their address as “San Jose Blvd (SJax).” When Thomas died “of recent illness” in 1942, just 60 years old, Ella moved into a much smaller house nearby on Morvenwood Road. That’s when Tom and Beulah Saleeba, owners of a local dry cleaning empire, bought the Kellers’ house to raise Raymond, Sr. and Betty Jean. Not until the 1960s and ’70s would modest upper middle class houses fill what came to be called Kelnepa Drive.
The Saleebas added a swimming pool fed from an artesian well, a hilltop verandah and two sunken gardens. Tom Saleeba bought adjoining property on Silverwood Lane and built Raymond and his wife Gwen the house where Raymond, Jr. and his siblings Renee and Anthony grew up.
Their childhoods were idyllic. The former Keller house and its gardens were synonymous with Raymond’s grandparents—with stability, joy and family. Raymond holds dear his memories of Easter egg hunts, of touching the top of the Christmas tree from the top of the stairs, of shooting fireworks from the pavilion out over the river on the Fourth of July.
2. Another Sad Gatsby
Today the house stands empty. The loggias surrounding the scummed water in the swimming pool look lonely. These arches ache for revelers. Grand historic details merge confusingly with gauche, faux and oafish affectations. The house is filled with light, but the light’s not right. Something’s wrong with the sunlight here.
It was contractor Mitchell McDaniel, working for Independent Life Insurance Company heiress Linda Stanley, who turned the estate into a wannabe MTV party house. In 2001, McDaniel’s redesign was featured in Old House Journal Magazine and on the TV show Classic Homes Today. The subheadline Remodeling Magazine ran in August 2005 referred to “a sensitive whole-house remodel.” McDaniel said, “I thought it could be changed in a way that would be an asset to both the place and its location, without altering its appearance,” then completely altered its appearance.
It was here that Brent Brown, former chief executive of Latitude 360, a Jacksonville based company whose themed restaurants included giant movie screens, “luxury bowling” alleys, dance floors and cigar lounges, was indicted. It was here Brown threatened journalists and litigants, tried to run over a 64 year old woman when she arrived to serve a court summons, and hid his ownership of the property beneath a shell company that rented out the house to parties of 100 guests and infuriated neighbors.
It was no curse that brought Jacksonville’s tackiest scandal of the inchoate 21st century to Kelnepa, just another sad Gatsby, dime a dozen, whose ego was bigger than his intelligence, taste and credit schemes.
In this sad bright depressing cheerful sunlight this Tuesday afternoon, it’s a shell company of a shell company that offers the house for sale. Remodeling Magazine said Mitchell McDaniel and Linda Stanley had returned the house to its “vanished glamor.” Raymond Saleeba barely recognizes the house where he spent so much of his early life.
From a certain angle out front, the angel who stands atop a fountain appears to grasp the tall slim conifer behind it. Colored hand stenciled patterns on ceiling beams mimic the oak beams down at Epping Forest Yacht Club. In the rear banquet room, an enclosed back verandah, columns march on columns and arches calumniate arches. In a massive upstairs bathroom, a toilet lid bears the big pink outline of a heart. It seems more symbolic than it should be.
3. House = Family
Raymond still loves the house beneath the house, the house he knew throughout his childhood, the house that meant the same thing as family. Is it metonymy or synecdoche when “house” means “family,” as in the House of Tudor or “The Fall of the House of Usher”?
Raymond loved Christmas at his grandparents’ house. He loved the wooded isolation of Kelnepa back then. He loved the playroom with the pool table in the basement. The maid and the gardener, husband and wife, lived in the basement apartment.
He loved those sunken gardens, playing in the thick dense green and the fountains, fishing and shrimping in the river before pollution killed the fish and the shrimp. “We’d fish out on the dock and see the manatee come up, slow and peaceful, and eat the vegetation off the bottom of the river underneath us.”
Raymond’s grandfather, Thomas Saleeba, born in Boston in 1899, built the family’s dry-cleaning empire, Deluxe Cleaners. From its flagship location at 2216 Oak Street in Riverside, Deluxe operated 15 laundries across the city.
“You have to understand,” Raymond says, “this was before most people had washing machines and driers. We had company trucks that went out to people’s homes to pick up their laundry.” Deluxe also operated commercial laundries for area hospitals, hotels and military bases. Thomas Saleeba started the business in 1927 and the family operated it until the early 2000s.
Betty Jean Louis, Raymond’s aunt, inherited the house and sold it to a decorator when her mother Beulah died, 96 years old in 1996. It had been the Saleeba family home for more than half a century.
After McDaniel’s and Linda Stanley’s remodeling, Raymond’s brother Anthony brought the house under contract for over a year, hoping to bring it back into the family. The property hung in limbo while Stanley worked through slow-churning litigation. The delay exceeded the opportunity until once again, the house slipped away.
“Those early days were the happiest times in my life,” Raymond says. “I remember my grandfather on the covered porch facing the river, watching with a big smile as his grandchildren played croquet and my Nana cooked our favorite Lebanese foods and a banana cake to die for.”
4. Liens, Lawsuits and Back Rent in Pseudo Tuscany
On August 31, 2017, a district attorney in Pittsburgh filed a warrant for the arrest of Brent Brown on 34 charges of theft and writing bad checks. Dan Scanlan of The Florida Times-Union referred to Brown as “the troubled ex-CEO of a failed quartet of nightclubs.”
Just months after Brown opened his Jacksonville restaurant, Latitude 360, in 2011, “19 liens were filed against it involving money owed for work done there,” Scanlan wrote. By 2014, the Department of Revenue had filed warrants for more than $48,000 in unpaid taxes, the company was $92 million in debt, and the chief financial officer had resigned and sued, saying his last seven months of paychecks had bounced.
None of that interfered with Brown opening Latitude restaurants in Indianapolis and Pittsburgh and planning one for Albany, New York. Lawsuits kept coming, 60 of them. The company’s Jacksonville and Indiana landlords sued for eviction, as Latitude owed nearly $6 million in back rent.
In June 2016, a 64 year old woman tried to serve Brown a court summons at his home at 4424 Kelnepa Drive. He shouted and drove his car at her, hitting her in the arms and knee, then leapt from his car, shouting and threatening her.
Whether the car Brown had weaponized was the $90,000 Aston Martin he’d acquired with worthless stock shares, reports didn’t say. Aaron Riley, the 22 year old who’d traded the British luxury sports car for 180,000 shares of junk stock in 2013 had just filed suit when Brown tried to run over the woman serving summons.
National publications picked up the Latitude fiasco too. Matt Stroud wrote for Buzzfeed that Brown had conned a Swiss investor out of $3.5 million and convinced an elderly couple to drain their retirement account for a loan they never got back. Stroud wrote, “To investors who lost millions of dollars, Brent Brown is a con man who used a restaurant franchise as his personal piggy bank. But Brown defiantly insists he’s been wrongly vilified and just needs a little more time to make everything right.”
Then along came Tuscan River Estate.
TV reporter Jenna Bourne staked Brown out at Kelnepa and dug into his financial records. “Brown lived in the sprawling waterfront estate at 4424 Kelnepa Drive,” Bourne reported, “while his employees’ paychecks bounced, and while government records show he failed to pay taxes.”
Now Brown was renting the house out illegally through a limited liability company for weddings and other events. Though the property was zoned residential, Tuscan River Estate advertised it could accommodate 100 guests.
Anyone who’d known the Saleeba House would barely recognize it on TV as Tuscan River Estate. Mitch McDaniel and Linda Stanley had added a porte cochère and three car garage on one side and a three story tower on the other. He’d enclosed the rear verandah, added a new pool and chintzy loggias. He’d painted the upper stories ochre. If you could concentrate a Tuscan stage set in a tube of cake frosting and squeeze enough out that it obscured the original house, you’d have Tuscan River Estate.
Neighbors on the quiet dead-end street couldn’t get to their driveways. Sometimes they couldn’t get onto the street. A neighbor named Bobby Thomas said “50 to 100 cars” showed up at functions “every weekend.”
When Tuscan River Estate representatives denied any connection to Brent Brown, Jenna Bourne broke it down this way:
“Brown sold his mansion to CLS Asset Management. CLS Management then sold the mansion to Tuscan River LLC.
“Here’s the thing: Florida Department of State filings show that Tuscan River Estate LLC is listed as the registered agent for CLS Management.
“Tuscan River Estate LLC is registered in Delaware, where you don’t have to name a registered agent. But Michael Johnigean is listed on the venue’s website as the manager. Johnigean is also the director of Rex Gryphon LLC, a company whose certificate of formation is signed by Brent Brown’s wife Antonia (Toni) Brown.”
In addition, the general partner for CLS Asset Management was a company Brent and Antonia Brown managed called Brownstone Developers, LLC.
Two years after the City filed suit in March 2018 and a judge ordered that scheduled weddings had to find another venue, the limited liability company listed the house for sale for $3 million. CLS had sold it to Tuscan, left hand selling to the right, for less than half that figure.
5. Shining in the Florida Sun
When Victor Zambetti died at his River Road home in San Marco in 1949, his obituary called him a “pioneer developer.” Born in Milan, Zambetti worked as a contractor in Jacksonville, often with architect Bernard Close, for 33 years. Close and Zambetti worked together in Atlantic Beach and San Marco, though surely their most eccentric project was Kelnepa.
In advertising the upcoming season of the TV show Today’s Classic Homes, Old House Journal Magazine praised “the novel mixture of cement and crushed glass called ‘Miami Marble’ that Zambetti invented to give the appearance of gems shining in the Florida sun.”
Visions embodied in the world take on their own lives. Even the tackiest designs of the present gain patinas of legitimacy, or at least historical acceptance for having existed, across the passage of time.
Just by happening, stories legitimate the places where they happen. Stories accrue to make a place storied.
You climb into the open-air pavilion atop McDaniel and Stanley’s new tower from a square in the ceiling of a second-floor walk-in closet. From there, you hear someone cry out, “Rapunzel!” and you let down your hair.
White chairs stand in rows at the river. The cake, wrapped in roses, towers over the round stone wall. The bride and bridesmaids clink glasses and sip champagne. Their teeth and dimples gleam. The groomsmen wear blue suits and hipster hair, quiffs and fades.
Corsages in place, the men awkwardly flex their arms, proceed down those stone stairs around the wedding cake. Father walks bride down those same stone steps. Everyone claps for the kiss, toasts, dances, the caught bouquet. They hold sparklers aloft and stand in two lines through which the newly married couple makes passage, departs, then shines like crushed glass in the Florida sun.