St. Petersburg Times
Special report
Video report
  • For their own good
    Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
  • More video reports
Multimedia report
Print Email this storyEmail story Comment Letter to the editor
Fill out this form to email this article to a friend
Your name Your email
Friend's name Friend's email
Your message


A show house as showpiece

The Fechtels help turn cutting edge Villa Serena into a visual holiday treat to raise funds for Hope Children's Home.

Published December 10, 2004

LUTZ - The idea arrived unbidden last fall as if sent by angel courier.

Builder Jay Fechtel, his wife, Terri, and their four children mulled it over at dinner: What if they turned Jay's latest project, a 6,143-square-foot, custom-built home known as Villa Serena into a "Christmas House"?

What if they gave all of the proceeds to needy kids at Hope Children's Home?

What if they could somehow reach people with this idea, infuse them with the season's deeper meaning?

"It evolved from "What if we just decorate the house?' to "Hey, let's do a show house and charge admission,' " recalled Terri, who spent days bargaining for everything from evergreen swags and 15-foot trees to the chunks of glass candy dangling from the kitchen pendant lights.

"My hope was that it would be an overwhelming gift to people," Terri said, "that they would come in and not be the same."

She enlisted help from Holly Bieber Decorating, a group of volunteers from Heritage Bible Church, and two of her children, Sarah, 13, and John, 14, who helped hang decorations and burn holiday CDs.

"Even Hannah (who's 5) helped me shop and run errands, reminding me what I needed," Terri said.

The result is some old-fashioned Christmas decorating in a house that's up-to-the-minute in both construction and design techniques. Built in the gated Lutz development StillWater, which Jay Fechtel co-developed, the house echoes Mediterranean revival and Moorish themes. It draws on eclectic Spanish influences, said Fechtel, who counts among his muses everything from historic Jacobean houses in England to Pinewood Estate on the grounds of the Bok Tower gardens in Lake Wales.

The house exudes the attitude of a grand 1920s Florida house: The 13-inch walls are Venetian plaster, the creamy Turkish limestone floors feel heavy and the library bookshelves open to reveal a hidden staircase.

Visitors will find holiday ideas to take home. The best? The master bedroom's four-poster planter's bed, swagged around the top with an evergreen garland braided with roses and silver and crystal ornaments. The group decorated trees in the living room, great room, entertainment room and little girl's playroom in themes inspired by Christmas hymns that play throughout the house. The decorations, all acquired on a budget from places such as Big Lots, Old Time Pottery and 40 percent-off sales at Michaels, prove that it's not what you spend, but how you put it all together.

Said Terri: "Honey, I shop the Dollar Store."

Still, angels and trumpets burrow into evergreen boughs. Holly and ivy twine around the dining room. Christmas crackers hang from the backs of chairs. Snowflakes and ice skates decorate a snow-themed tree; feathers and birds nests peek from another. The Three Kings make an appearance in the boy's bedroom.

An antique donkey cart holds gifts so perfectly wrapped they're worth examining. (Terri used matte-finish red wrapping paper that almost looks like postal wrap. She tied the gifts with thick ribbon and tucked in bits of greenery and other surprises.) Gold lame and red ribbon cascade down the front of the living room tree; instead of poinsettias on the table, red amaryllis.

No matter where a visitor stands, the visual experience is intense. The home's unusual floor plan unfolds to reveal glimpses of beauty from every vantage point: a hint of dark blue pool and wetland in one direction, the curve of a railing in another, or the dark-wood ceiling beams of the loggia.

No detail escaped Jay, who studied art for a year in Italy as a child and whose mother, Joyce Schaffer, was a pioneer in Central Florida Montessori education. Even the design in a wrought-iron balcony was inspired by a bridge in the Italian town where the family lived.

Schaffer, now a licensed general contractor and real estate broker with a master's degree in business from the University of South Florida, works for her son: "The best way to describe the details and finishes in this house is true to the period," she said.

The house sold in August, but the Fechtel Co. is leasing it back through fall 2005, partly because it's unusual on another level: Villa Serena meets American Lung Association guidelines for its pristine indoor air quality.

A separate air-conditioning system was used during construction so that the real system isn't riddled with contaminants and dust particles. The finished floor is well above the 100-year flood level; radon vents were built into the foundation, and Icynene insulation controls climate and dampness and ultimately mold.

"So many people work at home, that these things will just be expected," he said. "And they're not hard to do, it's just that the industry moves slowly."

A special mudroom keeps the outside world - jackets and shoes - out of the rest of the house. Eating, drinking and smoking were strictly prohibited during construction, and the site was cleaned regularly. The humidity control keeps the house cool, and helps maintain an even temperature.

Still, Fechtel said, all that is "obvious."

He wants people who come to see it as the Christmas House to experience something different from what they're used to.

He hopes visitors reflect on the spirit of the season, the holiday and "the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ."

"Enjoy," he said. "Please the soul. Have a little bit of fun."

If you go

The Christmas House at StillWater is 1 mile east of Gunn Highway and 6 miles west of Dale Mabry on Lutz-Lake Fern Road. Proceeds benefit Hope Children's Home. The cost is $7 for adults, $3 for children, 5-12. Children younger than 5, free.

The Christmas House is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Open through Jan. 9.

For more information, call (813) 926-8899.

[Last modified December 9, 2004, 12:29:11]

Share your thoughts on this story

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Subscribe to the Times
Click here for daily delivery
of the St. Petersburg Times.

Email Newsletters