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Nature nurtures a cottage clan

Amid 120 Old Florida acres, a big, rustic house wraps its arms around a family whose favorite neighbors are frogs, the moon, horses.

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 24, 2003

CITRUS PARK -- When Carolyn and Jack Wilson moved to their historic cottage at Bay Tree Farm, they planned to live in it just long enough to build an authentic Southern home that honored the property's traditional Florida landscape.

They lingered for 10 years.

Thinking. Tinkering. Perfecting.

The Wilsons weren't building just any old house. They created a home for themselves and their four grown children and their families, all regular visitors. They call it a "Creole cottage," though it conceals some 8,000 square feet of living space, much of it porches.

"It is what it is," says Mrs. Wilson. "A cottage all grown up."

From the moment a visitor navigates the winding dirt drive into the heart of the 120-acre property in Citrus Park, the glut of shopping malls and fast food restaurants feels as distant as the rumble of traffic on Gunn Highway.

The scene is so serene, so breathtaking, so out of whack with Florida's glitzy McMansion image, it's best described as photographer Clyde Butcher meets Architectural Digest. Cypress trees draped in scarves of moss rise from a pond thick with cattails and sunbathing turtles.

Live oaks, pecan trees, crepe myrtles, a lake and an old boat dock provide only part of the backdrop. The farm is also home to the family's thoroughbred racehorses, which graze in paddocks ringed by handsome white board fence.

The 40-stall cedar barn, restored historic cottage and detached garage work in near-spiritual harmony.

Designed by Tampa architect Stephen Smith, the house, with its tin roof and columned wrap-around porch, looks as though it has been here a century.

"We sat with the architect on the porch swing at the cottage and showed him pictures of how we lived and what we wanted," Mrs. Wilson explains. "We're just very casual people who go around barefoot in the house and spend a lot of time as a family in the kitchen."

High ceilings keep things cool. Porches invite cross breezes. The porches were designed "for every season and every occasion," she explains. They allow for spectacular views of the farm that the couple originally bought in 1981 as a weekend retreat, in part so that two daughters could ride horses.

The Wilsons originally liked the land because it was "dry" -- sprawled on one of the highest points in Hillsborough County. When they moved here permanently from their waterfront Culbreath Isles home in 1993, the setting began to inspire Mrs. Wilson in a more profound way. She felt nostalgic about it, protective, as if she had gone back to her grandmother's farm in Alabama.

She taught her four children to treat the property as a refuge, a place inhabited first by the alligators, rattlesnakes, pileated woodpeckers, lizards, butterflies, great blue herons, sand hill cranes and wood ducks. The cacophonous tree frogs provide steady background music.

"You should hear all the frogs at night," says daughter Susannah Smith, no relation to the architect. "It's a symphony out on the pond."

And they still take nothing for granted. "The moon is unbelievable because of the cypress trees," Mrs. Wilson says. "I don't think I ever thought about the moon until I came out here."

Completed three years ago, the house is a constant work in progress for the artist and sculptor. Her primitive and whimsical depictions of animals are displayed throughout with the same frankness as antiques collected in her travels.

Jack Wilson provided ideas, too. He's president of the Wilson Co. in Tampa, best known for building the Hyatt Regency Westshore and Legends Field. The metal lantern lights in front of the cottage once illuminated gas pumps at his grandfather's filling station in Fort Gains, Ga. The charming wooden fence bears his handiwork.

But the decorating is mostly his wife's magic.

She continually strives for the offbeat. Custom art stained glass was recently installed in the front door and adjoining window panels. A leopard patterned carpet runner climbs the traditional front hall stairs. Formal lamps crowned with rope shades tease the eye.

The kitchen was meant to inspire and welcome: A twig chandelier hangs over a farm-style table where kilim rugs warm the honey-colored, hardwood floors. Dining chairs came from a Phoenix flea market. And one of Mrs. Wilson's most memorable artistic creations, a colorful pencil and charcoal drawing of the family cat, Benny, hangs on the wall.

"I cook a lot, and I think the kitchen is the real focal point of the house," she says. "Everybody gathers in here. We live in here. We like the smells and we usually have something going all the time, home cooking stuff, soup, spicy foods."

Gardens outside the house provide her with cooking herbs, lemon grass and fresh basil.

When not in the kitchen, the Wilsons are likely sprawled out watching videos in a casual family room decorated with whimsical touches like the two sculptural camel heads that peer from the wall near the sofa. It's a relaxed environment. Even Cosme, the mutt, spends most of his days draped on a wicker sofa on the front porch.

"You think it's going to be more formal," says Susannah Smith, who lives in South Tampa but makes the drive to the farm almost daily. "But when you really look around, you see that Mom's not taking things too seriously."

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