Lewis Ogden O’Brien had just turned 12 in the spring of 1885, when he scribbled out a short note, jammed it inside a bottle, and hid it inside an air vent at his family’s new winter estate in Florida. The oldest of three, Lewis would go on to attend Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard College, and Harvard Law School before becoming the Deputy Attorney General of New York in 1905. But on that afternoon in May, he was just a boy with a message for the future.
“This house is now being built by Henry Stanton O’Brien for a winter home for his family,” he wrote, listing out each member of the O’Brien clan who would inhabit the winter home including his mother, father, two brothers, and grandmother. “I write this so that perhaps 100 years or more from now, people will know who had this house built.”
It’s easy to imagine that Henry O’Brien, a native of North Carolina, was eager to have a secluded escape from his bustling life in New York City real estate. And so he commissioned a nine bedroom, three-story estate on a peninsula of land he purchased from one of his New York contemporaries, a man named Henry Flagler.
Located south of St. Augustine on 43 acres of wild marshes and mossy oaks, the Queen Anne-style home was built using a mixture of poured concrete and coquina, a technique pioneered by Franklin W. Smith when he constructed the Villa Zorayda in 1883.
A confederate soldier under General Robert E. Lee, O’Brien moved north after the Civil War and married Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” Flood in 1870. Lewis came along three years later, followed by Henry in 1876 and Earl in 1880. Shortly after the family began wintering at their new home in Florida, they added a daughter, Edna, in 1886.
Unfortunately, tragedy soon struck the O’Brien clan. In the span of ten years, Lizzie, Lewis, and the younger Henry passed away. The family patriarch survived until 1912, when he died in Sleepy Hollow, New York, at age 73.
Some time after, the family estate outside St. Augustine was purchased by John Lake Young, owner of the Ocean Pier Amusement Park in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Conjecture still abounds today over Young’s time at the home, including rumors of speakeasies, visits from Al Capone, and mob activity.
In 1931, the property changed hands again and became the Dixie Home for the Aged and Infirm Deaf. St. Augustine was already home to the Florida School for the Deaf & Blind, but the Dixie Home provided residences and care for a handful of deaf senior citizens. A black and white video from the St. Augustine Historical Society’s collection shows residents reading books, fishing and tending garden at the former O’Brien estate.
The facility closed in the 30s and shortly after, the property was purchased by the Kelley family who turned it into a fish camp. They added a few trailers to enjoy the comforts of air conditioning, electricity, and running water, but left the house largely untouched.
Except, of course, for some essential maintenance that included hiring exterminators in 1980, who happened across a young boy’s hidden message in an air vent. Lewis’ 100 year prediction was off by only five summers.
Although the Kelleys treasured the property, they struggled to protect the aging estate. Over time, the red tin roof faded, the front porch sagged, the wood floors warped, and slowly, the lustre of this once magnificent home slipped away.
In 1998, much to his dismay, Fred Kelley decided to part ways with his family’s beloved property after 50 years. As he turned over the keys to the new owner, Bruce McLean, he also passed along Lewis’ note and his own heartfelt wishes for the house to be loved by a new steward who would honor its history.
Over the two decades since, McLean, his sister Kathryn, and other family and friends have painstakingly brought the home back to life. The delicately carved wood casings around every window were hand-sanded and re-stained. Pieces of heart pine were cut to match and replace damaged floorboards. Craftsmen were brought in to recreate the intricate spindle work along the porch rails.
Upstairs, two sets of bedroom furniture created by the home’s original carpenters remain in exquisite condition. Across the headboards and along the dresser are circular carvings that resemble the cross-section of an orange. These same details can be found on the stair rails and some of the mantle pieces throughout the house.
Along their restoration journey, McLean and his family discovered nearly every St. Augustine native who visited the house had some sort of story about it. Though the remaining 9.5 acres are carefully tucked away now behind endless blocks of suburban sprawl, many locals have stumbled into its ethereal labyrinth at one time or another, myself included.
“I come out here sometimes just to get ideas for the new houses I’m building,” said Jon Benoit, a local contractor who, like so many others, has become a protector of this St. Augustine treasure. “Sometimes I bring my carpentry subcontractors to show them the kind of work these craftsmen were doing a hundred years ago by hand.”
Inside, Benoit pointed out the carvings along the massive door frames off the central hallway. “See how they provided interest and scale on the moldings of these doors?” He moved to the grand staircase between the dining room and men’s parlor. “These railings? They had to find a piece of wood with just the right grain to carve into this angle.”
Benoit’s passion for the house is contagious — or maybe it’s just the house itself. It’s hard not to fall in love from the ten-foot tall front doors off the wrap-around porch to the house’s crowning glory, a widow’s walk with 360 degree views of Moultrie Creek and the Intracoastal Waterway.
McLean still lives in New York and uses the property as a second home, just as it was originally intended. Kathryn resides in Jacksonville and visits often. She is working diligently to add the home to the National Registry of Historic Places in the hopes of preserving the property’s legacy.
The McLeans know they are reaching the end of their season with this hidden St. Augustine gem. Time is drawing near for the next steward to take the keys and that little boy’s hopeful message in a bottle so that they can carry on the torch for the future.
This story was originally written for First Coast Magazine.