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Homes: Front Porch

History, intact in Ybor

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 17, 2003

The two-story house looks hand-stitched into a patchwork of fruit trees, chicken coops and gardens on a drowsy street in East Ybor.

Inside, time stands still.

Hand-tinted family portraits hang by wire from old-fashioned picture rails. The upright pianola has hugged the same wall for 75 years in a front room the family still calls "the parlor."

The table is set for a noon lunch of ziti and Italian sausage in a traditional Italian kitchen as big as most studio apartments in South Tampa. Uncle Angelo made the built-in glass hutch a half-century ago, salvaging carved curlicues from the top of an abandoned circus wagon.

The shelves still cradle honeymoon china collected by Salvatore Giunta and his bride, who came to Tampa from Sicily in 1908.

"This is the way houses built in Ybor looked," says Del Acosta, who administers Tampa's architectural review program for historic districts.

"This was the style of what would have been a very nice suburban home in those days. This lifestyle was repeated over and over throughout Ybor. But the Giuntas are still living it."

Acosta believes theirs is the most "intact" home of its kind in Ybor.

He should know. His own Italian grandparents lived in Ybor City. Their classic bungalow still stands, although it was recently relocated to make way for a new building.

Acosta says everyone likes to talk about "mixed-use development."

But the recent expansion of the eastern Ybor historic district is a step toward the real thing. As the district expands, more historic buildings get a new lease on life.

Acosta can hardly drive through east Ybor without pondering how homes and businesses were once stitched closely together. He points to metal buildings and chain link fences, all strangely beautiful and gritty.

He turns a few corners and points to frame shotgun houses, where Italian, black and Spanish workers lived side by side.

Acosta currently is writing a set of guidelines for the city about how this industrial district can best be preserved. Over cafe con leche at the Tropicana, he explains that it will be published in the next two weeks.

Some days, he lunches at the Giuntas and he is struck by the feeling of home.

The Giuntas built their house at 11th Avenue and 24th street in 1925 on a block-long swath of land, once a celery farm.

The family never left.

Rows of basil, scallions, wild fennel and fava beans glisten in the morning dew. They will be harvested and sold to nearby restaurants and a local Italian market. The family grows escarole from seeds Salvatore carried to Florida from Italy at the turn-of-the-century.

On a cold Tuesday morning, Salvatore's granddaughter, Victoria, opens the front door. The smell of cooking spills out. Her sister, Tessie, still lives here, too.

Her father, Don, trudges in from the garden, swiping mud from his boots on the front mat. At 88, he cherishes "being together and sharing our meals together."

Victoria is the cook. Fresh vegetables, salads prepared simply with olive oil are a staple of family life. "The garden is such a godsend," Victoria says.

A brigade of 26 grandkids and great grandkids helps in the garden now. So does her brother, Don, Jr., who drives twice a week from his own farm in Lutz to ride the 1950-model International Harvester tractor and tend to the vegetables.

"My Dad has worked this property since he was a little boy," he says. "To us, the tractor the chickens, this is all normal. This is our home."

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