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Roots aplenty in Driftwood

Dream of joining this weirdly wonderful 49-home burg? Unless you're a bat, you're probably in for a wait.

Published February 15, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - If people think of tiny Driftwood at all, they picture a quaint, stable neighborhood where nothing ever changes, ever bohemian and friendly.

And yet, just to look at the percentages, it is not as stable as one might guess. Yes, only 10 homes have sold in the past 51/2 years. But that's a turnover of 20 percent of the neighborhood. After all, there are only 49 homes.

Those who live in Driftwood, the quaint wooded neighborhood hugging Big Bayou, say homes in the tiny enclave of towering oaks, indigenous plants and wildlife rarely reach the open market.

News of available property tends to travel word-of-mouth to relatives, friends and occasionally to the tenacious outsider just dying to become part of the unusual southeast St. Petersburg community.

Sales were most active in 2000, when four homes changed hands.

Of the small number of homes in Driftwood, four belong to the O'Briens, who have lived in the historic neighborhood for four generations.

Helen Gandy O'Brien, 80, grew up in Driftwood and lives at the Mullet Farm, the 1910 Florida Cracker-style house on the water her parents bought before she was born.

"We all do love it and appreciate the fact that we are able to live here," said the daughter of George S. "Gidge" Gandy Jr., one of the men behind the construction of Tampa Bay's first bridge, which opened in 1924.

The cost
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Use the interactive maps located on the pages linked below show the rates at which prices have risen in neighborhoods throughout the 5-county Tampa Bay area:
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Roots aplenty in Driftwood
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Real houses, real prices

So, what does a median price house look like? It depends on the neighborhood. To view representative homes from south Pinellas County, see our photo gallery.

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"Driftwood is so dear to my heart," she said.

Former downtown residents Martha Loyd and her husband, William "Randy" Loyd, snagged their Driftwood home just a few months ago.

"When I first saw Driftwood," Mrs. Loyd recently reminisced, "it was on a garden tour. And I said, I hope that I can live here someday before I die. And here I am."

The Loyds paid $325,000 for their three-bedroom, two-bath home with an efficiency apartment and large yard, according to Pinellas County records. In 1995, the last time the house was sold, the price was $160,000, county records state. The house is among those in the neighborhood designed in the 1930s by local artist Mark Dixon Dodd. Mrs. Loyd recently discovered Dodd's name etched in concrete on the side of her home.

It is the house in which Marilyn Myers, 50, who had ovarian cancer and shared her final days with St. Petersburg Times readers four years ago, lived and died. Sometimes, said Mrs. Loyd, she feels her presence.

Finding the property was an important first step, Mrs. Loyd said, but acquiring it would prove a challenge. The house, she learned, occasionally had been rented. Would the owners be willing to sell?

"They had to come up with a price," she said.

"We tried to negotiate, but we paid the price."

The family is planning additions and renovations.

Meanwhile, said Mrs. Loyd, who has two daughters, Estill, 5, and Winfree, 2, "We hired an arborist, John Whitney, who's working on our yard. I call this property an Eden with a soul. Once I'm home, I don't want to leave. We have a sunroom that looks over the garden on three sides."

The neighborhood is quite a change for the Loyds, whose last home was a modern townhouse near BayWalk.

"I knew that with the children growing up, we needed a yard," said Mrs. Loyd, who works part time as a librarian for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Her husband, who owns a manufacturing company, Space Machine and Engineering Corp. in St. Petersburg, is becoming accustomed to living in an older home.

"He's used to things that don't need maintenance," said his wife.

The neighborhood, bounded by 24th Avenue SE and Driftwood Road S, from Florida Avenue S to Beach Drive SE, is tucked away behind an arched metal sign that bears its name. The community's natural habitat is a favorite of night herons and black racer snakes. Bat houses have been hung invitingly from the tall oaks. They were a neighborhood project to entice the bats to the area to get rid of the mosquitoes, Mrs. Gandy O'Brien said.

Besides its ambiance, Mrs. Loyd finds other qualities to savor about the neighborhood.

"It's very close-knit," she said. "And people are always willing to be available if you need them."

At the same time, residents value their privacy, she added.

"We do anything for each other, but we certainly do not live in each other's pockets," agreed Mrs. Gandy O'Brien.

"People who live here are very independent, very individualistic, poets and doctors and lots of artists."

Driftwood is proud of its bohemian reputation. It has a tradition for madcap community gatherings that include its very own Fourth of July parade and progressive New Year's Eve parties.

Once an outpost for Prohibition bootlegging, the neighborhood in recent years fought city plans for paving its narrow, winding roads. Residents also tussled with Florida Power (now Progress Energy) when the utility company sought to trim their canopy of trees.

The historic community boasts that it was the only area in Pinellas County to see armed conflict during the Civil War. As a child, Mrs. Gandy O'Brien's son, Roby, found a Civil War cannonball in the neighborhood.

"We sent it up to the University of Florida to have it dated and authenticated," she said.

Now grown with their own families, the O'Brien children have all returned to Driftwood. Kim O'Brien and her husband, Robert Morey, live in a 1950s home in the midst of a luxuriant garden. "They were all living away and gradually, just like, I don't know, homing pigeons, they've all come back," said Mrs. Gandy O'Brien.

"I think I'm the most fortunate woman in the world."

Driftwood also was the site of the county's earliest post office, school and store, and was a center for shipbuilding. The Mullet Farm was built in 1910 by shipbuilder Barney Williams, son of John Constantine Williams, co-founder of St. Petersburg, after whom Williams Park was named.

In recent years, Driftwood's less affluent perimeter has been undergoing a renaissance. It appears that those who can't buy in Driftwood are buying near it.

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