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Old homes harbor ship and other sea images

The ornamentation disappeared after the 1950s, to be replaced by other designs.

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 24, 2002

TAMPA -- Relief images of ships adorn some of the city's oldest homes.

They sailed into the city with the Charleston and left with the jitterbug.

"The first that you start seeing them is on the Mediterranean revival houses built in the 1920s," says Del Acosta, administrator for Tampa's Architectural Review Commission.

"Many times they were glazed, sometimes with colored glazing. They kind of got transported to the ranch-style homes in the '40s and '50s, and then they disappeared."

Left in their wake are similar ornaments on newly constructed Mediterranean revival-style houses, though none have nautical themes. There are flowers, fleurs-de-lis, griffins, musical instruments and simple geometric shapes.

But no ships.

"We've never had a request for a ship here as long as we've been in business," says Toni Prohenza, a sales representative for Slate and Granite Imports, a Tampa company that supplies cast stone ornaments to home builders.

As a result, the homes with ships are quite distinctive.

"There are a lot of people who say, 'Oh, you live in the ship house,' " says Karen Gonzalez, who lives in a home on Bay to Bay Boulevard at Church Street that prominently features a colorful ship on its front.

Her home was built in 1924, when Church Street was just a dirt road. Her husband, Mark, points out the ship's beautiful detail, including cannons and flags and foam at the tips of the waves.

"We had people ask us, after we bought it, if we were going to keep the ship or not," Karen says, her tone incredulous.

Rick Herpel owns Herpel Cast Stone in West Palm Beach. His family has been in the cast stone business for 125 years. He traces the origin of the ornamentation on Florida architecture back to the work of Addison Mizner, who popularized Mediterranean revivals in West Palm Beach.

His influence is apparent all over that city -- on homes that are often embellished with ships, shells or palm trees.

In Tampa, a port city with a strong Cuban influence, ships as muses were inevitable.

"When they really started developing in Florida, they dredged up that Spanish heritage and turned it into architectural materials," Herpel says. "They were copying and mimicking the golden era of trading and shipping. You see a lot of rope trims, conquistador helmets and things like that."

Acosta says the carved and cast stone ornaments on Tampa homes built in the 1950s were crafted by the same workers who adorned homes in the 1920s.

"They're beautifully done," he says.

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