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For many, this fire hits home

Tampa grew up around this "special old house,'' built in 1850, that in recent decades has sheltered dozens of people in need.

By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 25, 2002

TAMPA -- Susan Taylor has lived in the four-bedroom bungalow on Burger Street for more than 30 years. She raised five boys there, sheltered the homeless, fed the needy and stored blankets and other supplies for the indigent.

The home, rich with history dating back to 1850, was heavily damaged in an electrical fire Thursday morning.

"This was my special old house," Taylor said, near tears. "I don't know what I'm going to do."

Taylor, a hospice nurse, came home from an overnight shift caring for a heart patient to find firefighters battling the blaze shortly after 8:30 a.m.

Her thoughts quickly turned to the house's past, documented in a 2-inch-thick folder that firefighters were able to salvage.

Although singed around the edges, a land grant shows the home was built by Thomas Fisher in 1850. He died in 1896 and bequeathed to his family all of his possessions, which included the house, one horse, one wagon, one buggy and cattle.

Over the next 100 years, extra rooms were added to the structure, which started out as a one-room cabin made of virgin pine, Taylor said. Its original walls, now enclosing the living room, were covered by wallboard and paneling long ago.

Taylor, 58, said the documents came with the house, which she bought for $12,000.

The fire started in a back room and was caused by an overloaded electrical outlet, Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman Bill Wade said. Neither Taylor nor her friend, who rents the back room, were home.

Most of the damage, estimated at $41,000, was in the back room. Taylor said she has insurance and hopes to restore the home.

Annie Hart, the Historic Preservation Commission administrator for the city, said she had no idea a home of such significance sat on Burger Street, just north of Waters Avenue. That neighborhood consists mainly of homes built in the 1950s.

"What an unusual location," she said. "But it's possible."

Hart said that homesteads were scattered, but rarely that far north. The homesteads were absorbed into neighborhood developments in the early 1900s.

Hart said the Historic Preservation Commission would be interested in inspecting the house to find out how much of the original cabin is intact, and what condition it is in.

"That's incredibly interesting," she said.

For Taylor, the house provided her with wonderful memories.

Aside from raising five sons, she also unofficially raised 32 foster sons and sheltered several families. Once, one of her sons found a couple and two young children living in a tent in the woods. He invited them home and they stayed for three years, Taylor said.

She most likely will move now into her camper, which she uses to travel on medical missions. She provides care on the Seminole Indian Reservation, as well as to the ill around Tampa.

"I'm terribly upset about the house," she said. "And I worry about all of the people who need help. I supposed I can still cook and care for them. But all of the things I collected for them are gone. Just like that."

-- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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