A long driveway winds under oak trees, circling a white marble fountain with cascading water sparkling from mythical creatures frozen in motion. The heavy front door of solid bronze and glass swings open as a prelude to entering the grand home of Karen Durden and family. Karen Durden, the perfect host, greets visitors with her typical large warm smile and innate class. This estate, she explains, is a dream fulfilled by her late husband Earl Durden. One of Northwest Florida’s most prominent businessmen, K. Earl Durden was an icon in the railroad industry. He is best known in Panama City, his chosen hometown, as the owner/operator of the Bay Line Railroad. He owned 16 railroads across the country. Florida
Trend Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential persons in Florida.
Among many other notable achievements and positions, Earl Durden was a former chairman of the Florida Transportation Commission and longtime chairman of The American Short Line and Regional Rail Road Association. “Villa Chimera,” as the Durdens named their mansion, stands to evidence the owners’ great love and celebration of life. Since her husband’s passing, Karen Durden has maintained the house just as it was. It serves as a reminder of the most cherished memories. “We loved traveling to Italy. We immersed ourselves in “La Dolce Vita” and admired the beauty of Italy’s ancient and timeless structures. When we came back home one spring, I drew the basic layout of the house,” Karen reminisces.
Inspired by one of the most influential Italian architects of the Renaissance, Andrea Palladio, Villa Chimera incorporates elements of classical Roman and Greek architecture–most poignantly the symmetrical layout and the dramatic 24-foot columns that dominate the façade as well as the stairs leading to an expansive terrace with beautiful views of the sculptured garden overlooking St. Andrews Bay. Much time was dedicated to studying the original architecture. “For my birthday one year, I asked for a pilgrimage to all the existing Palladian Villas in Northern Italy. I researched all of Andrea Palladio’s remaining structures, and my husband and I started on an adventure to find and tour the buildings that were still standing from the 1500s.” Karen began collecting antiques from around the world as a young woman. Many aspects of the house were planned to showcase those furnishings plus the ones she discovered with her late husband; “Our travels to Italy were the happiest times of our lives.
Each treasure purchased has served as a reminder.” The house was designed for the comforts of the owners and their family. Unlike its Italian inspirations, with a four-car garage, the 45-foot infinity pool, and state-of-the-art smart house technology, it offers all the amenities of a new construction. Stepping inside the entrance hall feels momentous. With its domed ceiling, accentuated by a custom-made 7-foot diameter chandelier, Karen declares it her favorite room as it stays light and sunny year-round. The 127-step Travertine staircase, pillow-cut Crema limestone walls, and marble compass rose inlay in the honed limestone floor are among her favorite design elements. A large dining room opens to the left of the foyer with a Baroque marble pedestal table that can comfortably seat twelve guests. The masterpiece was hand-carved by an artisan in Rome and it took nine months to receive.
Painted Venetian plaster decorates the walls and the flooring draws the eyes with harlequin-cut marble refined with bronze borders. A doorway leads to the great room with stunning antique furniture and paintings. Walls and furniture are upholstered in green and gold silk Brocatelle fabric imported from renowned Luigi Bevilacqua weaving workshop in Venice. All fabrics throughout the house are imports from Venice’s most exclusive manufacturers Fortuny, Rubelli, and Bevilaqua. Many of the lamps in the house were hand-made by two artisan sisters in Venice, who since have closed their boutique shop and retired, Karen explains. The memories are bittersweet and there are many stories that involve her and her husband’s hunt for the perfect items to complement their new home. During one of their trips, they set off to the island of Murano to find one of the world-renown artisan-made chandeliers. When the chandeliers on display in the glass maker’s showroom were not quite what the couple had been looking for, a local antique dealer invited them to his Palazzo on the Grand Canal.
After much negotiation they bought one of the family’s antique chandeliers–now the centerpiece in the great room. A hallway leads from the great room to the study. “This was my husband’s favorite room. The warmth of the wood and the comfort of the furniture beckoned him daily.” With stained, raised panel walls and a fireplace with floor-to-ceiling marble mantel, the room has an old-European flair–regal and fitting for a man who held highest regards among his peers and in his community. Earl Durden was known for his steadfast character and generosity. Italian influences are ever-present and carried out in the smallest details such as doorknobs and lighting fixtures. To Karen, the groin vaulted hall, as they are common in Renaissance architecture, is one of the most Italian-feeling aspects of the house. The flooring in the hall repeats the groin vault design in honed Emperador marble.
The great room, master bedroom, and study each are dominated by wood-burning fireplaces, the mantels carved overseas and shipped direct to the port of Panama City. Situated in the west wing of the house, a large bar offers the ideal space for entertainment while the kitchen island with 75 feet of polished marble counter space is a dream for the most demanding chef and hostess. Distressed exposed beam rafters blend with custom handcrafted cabinetry by William Ohs, designed by Laurie Lehrich. Many local artisans worked on the interior. The upstairs master bedroom is accessible through two stairwells and an elevator. The ceiling in the master bedroom was painted in fresco by Panama City artist Jodi Matakovich.
Antique paintings of Carnevale, Italy’s yearly celebrations, echo the Renaissance theme. Planned for business and family entertaining, the home’s construction began in 2005 after two years on the drawing board. In 2007, the Durdens moved in. Once completed, finding a name for the new home came easy. At times realizing the illusory vision of the house became a three-headed monster, the name “Villa Chimera” was born. The Carrera marble fountain tells the myth of Pegasus and Bellerophon slaying the three-headed monster, “Chimera.” According to the fable, when Pegasus, the winged horse, pawed the ground, a fountain sprang up. During the past ten years, Villa Chimera has hosted presidential candidates, governors, celebrities, and extended family and friends. Three weddings have been celebrated, as well as photo shoots, baby showers, charitable fundraisers, and recently the launching of the run for office by Congressman Neal Dunn, M.D. Earl Durden was very proud of the finished product and often remarked about the vision that was accomplished and how amazed he was that his wife knew “where each stick of furniture was to be placed” on the day they moved in.
When he passed away in 2010, son Michael and Karen created The Durden Foundation to support prostate cancer research in his memory. Today, the slumbering marble lions guarding the entry witness much new life and laughter. Karen’s sons visit often with their significant others. Daughter-in-law Adrianne, a busy Realtor, and 3-year old grandson are frequent visitors. His toys are often scattered across the great room and grounds. After mass on Sundays, the family spends time kayaking, paddle boarding, hosting swim parties, cookouts, and always looks forward to the next holiday celebration.
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