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Homes

Step into 1920s charm Sunday

A mansion with all the original touches is among the 20 homes and businesses in the Tampa Heights House Tour.

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 14, 2003


TAMPA HEIGHTS -- For three years, Brenda Christian drove by the big yellow brick house across from Interstate 275 and dreamed. She didn't know what it was about the place, but she wanted to live there. Crazy, she thought, but maybe.

One day, four years ago, she knocked on the front door. As it turned out, the woman who opened it had lived there her entire life. Her name was Margaret Fernandez, and her father, Caesar Fernandez, an Ybor City merchant, had built the house for his family in 1928.

"Would you consider selling?" Mrs. Christian asked.

Margaret Fernandez said yes -- for $100,000. Mrs. Christian talked it over with her husband, Jim, and the rest is recorded in the annals of wildly emotional decisionmaking history.

The couple decided to sell their "very modern" home in Temple Terrace and buy the Fernandez place for the asking price. It was bigger than anything they had ever dreamed of: 4,000 square feet with six bedrooms, a magnificent front porch, a smoking room and a cellar. They were raising three sons -- now 14, 15 and 22 -- and the old house offered plenty of room for the family. But more than anything, the place had a legacy, something that intrigued Mrs. Christian.

"This house was Caesar's dream," she says. "And everything was still as original as original could be."

The Christians will open their doors to the public Sunday for the annual Tampa Heights House Tour. The neighborhood boasts solid old houses in a variety of architectural styles, many coaxed back to original beauty by new owners.

The neighborhood's boundaries edge toward downtown Tampa, with I-275 to the south, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the north, Nebraska Avenue to the east, and N Boulevard to the west.

One of 20 homes and businesses featured on this year's tour, the Fernandez house is unique because of what was left untouched. Mrs. Christian, who is 38 and works in real estate, is still taken with the lifetime of loving care that Margaret Fernandez gave her home.

A walk through the inside is a step-by-step journey back in time.

"When we first saw it, it was like walking into a museum," says Jim Christian, a seller of electrical supplies. "The lights, walnut woodwork, fixtures, bookshelves and floors were all original."

So was the generous -- and ornate -- crown molding.

"I thought it was wood, but it's plaster," he says. "They made it in molds right in the room, lifted it up and secured it in place."

Throughout the house, more surprises awaited. Original hanging iron lamps and sconces remained. The ceiling medallions were also original. So were the porcelain bathroom fixtures.

Best of all, the woodwork was untouched. Christian still marvels: "I do historic renovations and have never seen this much wood in a house that hasn't been painted over."

The couple has changed little, other than adding central air-conditioning. A new deck allows them to enjoy a large back yard lush with avocado, mango and plum trees.

The house looks exactly as it did when the Fernandez family lived in it, they say. The couple even bought some of the family's antique furnishings, including a buffet, china closet, chairs and lamps. The Fernandezes' old Victrola-style player -- a Gratonola -- stands in a tall wooden cabinet in the living room and works well enough for Brenda to play an original record, Pearl of Brazil.

On the wall of what's now a study hangs a photo of the house taken when it was built.

"If you stand out in front where the picture was taken, you'll see that structurally no changes have ever been made to the house," Jim Christian says. "It looks the same."

Sometimes changes are unavoidable. Rochelle Gross, another Tampa Heights resident with a building on the tour, had much more work in store for her when she bought a 3,700-square-foot Queen Anne style house. She paid $40,000 for the house in 1999 through an arrangement with the city in which she agreed to lease the building as office space.

After extensive renovations, the house catches the eye with its authentic Victorian colors -- light blue, green and terra-cotta -- and romantic details like the wrought-iron fence that wraps around the front yard.

But when Gross first laid eyes on the place, it was a wreck. Let her tell you:

"The house was a disaster when I bought it," she says. "Termites had eaten holes in the floors, vagrants were living in it and the outside had been sprayed with a sandy-white protective covering. It had been a boarding house at one time, and the rooms were closed and there was plywood over the doors. The front porch was gone and a colonial revival porch had been put on in its place."

Gross helps with her parents' real estate company, the Roal Group, and does visual effects for feature films. Like the Christians, the 39-year-old was drawn to the house, built in 1897, for purely emotional reasons.

"I had never done a restoration, and it wasn't something I was that interested in doing. I really just fell in love with it," she says.

Mrs. Christian likes to joke that every day she drove by the Fernandez house, she sent up a prayer: "God, this is what I want my mansion to be," she recalls thinking.

"Finally he just got tired and said: 'Here it is.' Now we feel that we are caretakers, not just owners."

More than anything, she says, she and her husband want to preserve the integrity of the house. "We want to keep it as Margaret Fernandez wanted it."

If you go

The Tampa Heights House Tour is from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Purchase tickets for $5 in Highland Park between Palm Avenue and Columbus Drive, one block west of Tampa Street. Vendors will sell food and artwork. Trolleys will carry visitors from house to house.

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