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Restoring Jazz Age splendor

Neighbors and prospective buyers saw the Sunset Boulevard house as a dump. But Debbie Perez saw something more.

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 5, 2002

SUNSET PARK -- There was a time when kids in the neighborhood were afraid of the old house at 4816 S Sunset Blvd. They scared each other into believing a witch lived in the top of its turret, and dared each other to ring the bell at Halloween.

If anyone had answered, it surely would have given them a fright.

Built in 1926, the house sat vacant from 1984 to 1997, a tangle of trees and shrubs hiding its majestic facade.

Then along came Debbie Perez, a real estate agent and interior designer in search of a Mediterranean or French style home for one of her clients. She noticed the arched front door at the bottom of the turret, peaking out through the trees, and was intrigued.

The home wasn't listed for sale, but Perez contacted its owner, Connie Walters, the wife of Jim Walters, and asked if she could show the house to her client.

Walters gave the green light.

Perez's client was scared off -- and so were the next several prospective buyers -- not by ghost stories but by the massive amount of repairs the home needed.

"It had to be gutted. It needed new AC, electrical and plumbing," Perez says.

Still, Perez was in love. She saw past the orange shag carpet, metal windows and faulty infrastructure. What stuck in her mind were the six mahogany arches in the hexagonal vestibule.

"I see the arches and I freak out," she says of the first time she walked in the house.

She and her husband, Fernando, an international and immigration law attorney, made their own offer. They bought the house for $200,000 in 1997, and Perez began the eight-month process of restoring it to its long-gone splendor.

The Hillsborough County property appraiser now values the house at nearly $400,000.

"I have a lot of big plans still to go," Perez says.

She's already come a long way.

First, she cleared out the front yard. She pulled up the shag carpet and restored the quarter-sawn oak floor that's laid in a herringbone pattern.

She replaced the metal frame windows with wood frame windows and changed out the asphalt shingles for a tile roof, in keeping with the home's history.

She installed copper gutters with old-style collector boxes. She loosely hung carriage house doors on the detached garage and put up rough cedar shingles on the windows of the office above it.

"I wanted it to look old," she says.

Wherever possible, Perez salvaged fixtures.

She moved the old cast iron tub from the master bathroom to the bathroom of her 13-year-old son, Fernando, and cleaned up the sterling silver and crystal chandelier in the dining room. Rather than tear out the old wooden cabinets in the kitchen, Perez painted and distressed them.

The butler's pantry, separated from the dining room by a swinging door and the vestibule by a spindled wood door, still holds the glass-fronted cabinets built into the space nearly 80 years ago.

Several people have asked Perez why she didn't tear out the narrow porte-cochere outside the breakfast room.

"Why?" she answered them. "Because it's original."

Anything added or put into the house reflects the era or the home's French architecture.

The 500-square-foot family room added on to the back of the house repeats the hexagonal shape of the vestibule. The new construction also copies the thickly textured plaster walls, 12-inch baseboards and arched windows that are part of the home's previously existing 3,500 square feet.

Perez waited two years to find a vintage corner sink for the tiny downstairs powder room, which has the original black-and-white unglazed porcelain tile floor and a mirrored medicine cabinet.

The house is full of French furniture and detail, much of it from the early part of the last century. Even the hinges and keys on the family's room's built-in entertainment center, which Perez designed, are French reproductions.

A long, narrow 200-year-old farm table from France dominates the dining room. The table is surrounded by 10 parson's chairs draped in monogrammed linen that looks like burlap but is soft to the touch. A sea grass rug covering the wood floor completes the rustic look.

Because she wanted to preserve the plaster crown molding in the living room, Perez didn't add any electrical wiring to the room's ceiling. Instead, she put a French wire candelabra in the center of the room, and another candelabra hangs over the fireplace.

"Parties are great here because the whole house is ablaze," Perez says. "I love candles."

Two sets of stairs, one from the family room and another from the vestibule, lead to the second floor. On the landing, a French 1920s armoire holds linens.

Perez turned the sleeping porch upstairs into a laundry room, incorporating some of it into the adjacent master bathroom to double its size and make room for a jetted tub, glass-enclosed walk-in shower and double vanity. Beadboard cabinets and glass knobs on the vanity give the master bath an aged look.

The closets in the master bedroom and second bedroom were minuscule, but there was a dressing room between them so Perez knocked out the dressing room walls to create a large walk-in closet with his and hers sections.

Now that Perez has worked her magic, the neighbors are no longer afraid of the house, and people often stop by to share their memories of it.

"Everybody in the neighborhood has a mom or someone who's been here and partied," Perez says. "There's so much history."

Perez is now researching the house, trying to discover all the souls who called it home. A thick folder catches all the notes she's collected from the library, legal documents and interviews with previous owners as she constructs the house's family tree.

"I have never been in love with a house before," says Perez, whose first home was a 1926 Mediterranean bungalow. After that, she lived in two houses custom built for her and her husband.

"But I am in love with this house."

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