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Old Rutland Mansion offers a glimpse at past grandeur

The Farleys plan to spend their lives there, but there's work to be done. And on Dec. 5, they'll hold an open house benefit.

Published November 28, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - For years it has stood majestically against a waterfront backdrop, at times aloof behind a curtain of overgrowth.

Alternately cherished, abused and neglected, the Rutland Mansion is being treasured again, reclaiming a stature tainted in recent years.

For Philip and Michele Farley, this almost 10,000-square-foot gabled French country-style home is where their young children will build memories. This home of their dreams, they say, is where they will settle.

"After looking at houses for a year and a half, it was the best house we'd ever seen," said Mrs. Farley, who grew up nearby and recently moved back from Chicago.

"The house is inherently spectacular," her husband said, continuing to describe it in superlatives.

"It's got the most spectacular layout. It's got the most spectacular, unique design to it. It has an elegance that is timeless."

Since summer, when they bought the mansion at 5030 Sunrise Drive S for $2.3-million, the Farleys have been striving to restore its past grandeur. On Dec. 5, they will hold an open house to benefit the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

In the meantime, the house and grounds bustle with work crews. On a recent morning, as church bells pealed in the distance, pool renovation trucks rolled down Sunrise Drive and through the wrought-iron gates. Men were already at work building a retaining wall on the east side of the property. Tilers arrived shortly after. Through it all, Farley, 40, answered workers' questions, cuddled his 20-month-old daughter and gave a tour of his five-bedroom home, complete with carriage house and guest quarters, pool house and expansive grounds.

A real estate entrepreneur who also recently bought the nearby Coquina Key Plaza shopping center, Farley found pleasure in pointing out the finer points of his new front door. It has a cast aluminum exterior panel framed in beveled leaded glass. Its sculpted lion's head complements a pair of stone lions that flank the entrance.

Inside, the balcony of a grand staircase overlooks the entrance hall, appearing much as it did in a St. Petersburg Times photo essay previewing a 1956 charity tea hosted by past resident Betty Bussey. In the den, the Farleys have added woven leather inserts to the walls of the partially wood-paneled room. Gargoyles, sconces and other light fixtures have been restored. In the den, a mural of the ninth hole at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort golf course has been painted by local artist Diane Tonelli. She also repainted corbels carved in the shape of monks who appear to be holding up the mahogany beams in the formal living room.

"They just came to life after Diane Tonelli painted each one differently and painted their faces flesh tones, their hands and their toes," interior designer Bruce Johnson said.

The artist also will paint the ceiling above the circular stone-walled passageway leading to the formal dining room, smoking room and back hallway. The dining room itself features sumptuous drapes and coordinated silk wall coverings. There's also a fireplace, one of six in the house.

The Farleys have given new life to the mansion's original pine and Cuban tile floors, in some cases rescuing sections from beneath inches of concrete and newer tile flooring. They restored the mahogany panels in the living room, stripped upstairs doors and are putting back original hardware. They've also added accent lights to built-in display cabinets. In the kitchen are sage green granite counter tops.

Upstairs, the Farley children - Sage, 6, Philip Joseph IV, or P.J., 4, and Kendall, 20 months - have their own bedrooms with adjoining bathrooms. P.J.'s large room has been converted from the former two-bedroom servants' quarters.

Among the mansion's unique features is the linen room, with rows of horizonal compartments, each with its own door, that once were designated for the linens of family members and guests. For the Farleys, it will be a modern-day laundry room.

The grounds, a little more than 4 acres, are being landscaped. Trees have been trimmed and, so far, 75 sable palms have been planted along the property's border with the new Banyan Bay town home development. Newly trimmed banyan trees form a lush canopy near the mansion's Fourth Street entrance and offer a scenic framework from which to view the property.

The mansion, which county records show was built in 1925, but which some say actually dates to 1913, has had several incarnations. Until recently it was part of an extensive estate of more than 14 acres. The house is said to have been built for Charles Hall, developer of Lakewood Estates, and to have been a country club during Prohibition.

Banker Hubert Rutland bought the property in the 1930s. His family and his daughter Betty Bussey's family lived there for about 50 years. Banker John Kearney bought the property in 1983 and defaulted on the loan. In 1988 it was bought by Charles Spector, an investor and Eckerd College professor, who spent 16 months renovating the place.

The property has had a less illustrious past in recent years. In 1997, developer Robert Swain bought it for a residential project. He divided up the property and sold the mansion and several acres surrounding it. The remainder of the wooded property was designated for townhouse development. The project failed early in construction when Swain declared bankruptcy. Today the Banyan Bay townhome project, developed by another company, is rising on the land and is almost finished.

The mansion was sold again in 1998 to Annette Martino. She was involved in a Canadian nursing home scandal and also ended up in bankruptcy. Two years ago, a woman named Angela Sweet started a faith-based school in the house without obtaining proper permits.

The Farleys say they're restoring it to a family home.

"We plan to spend the rest of our lives there," Mrs. Farley said.

"I just think it's perfect for us, especially having three children."

The couple have relied heavily on Johnson, the interior designer, for the renovation project, which is expected to continue for at least a year.

The Farleys don't want a museum piece, Johnson said.

"They have three children. They are going to live there. They want everyone to enjoy their home," he said.

The couple think they might have saved the historic property from being razed for another project.

"I think it would have been an atrocity for the neighborhood, for St. Petersburg," Farley said.

"I've seen other houses that are more grand. This is the house I've most wanted to live in, ever."


Christmas at the Rutland Estate with the Farleys, 7 to 9 p.m. Dec. 5, 5030 Sunrise Drive S, St. Petersburg. Individual tickets are $75. Call (727) 894-9394.

[Last modified November 28, 2004, 00:42:21]

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