Designer had vision that felt like home
Although he dropped out of architecture school, Gabriel Fernandez's sketches often became noted homes.
By MARTY CLEAR
Published January 6, 2006
GABRIEL C. FERNANDEZ, 1931-2005
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HISTORIC HYDE PARK - In early December, Gabriel Fernandez was making plans for his Christmas party. He called his longtime buddy, Judge E.J. Salcines, and told him to buy plenty of Italian sausage because all his friends were going to be there.
A few days later, on Dec. 10, Mr. Fernandez died from complications of cancer. He was 71.
His funeral was scheduled for Dec. 18, the same day as the planned Christmas party. All his friends came.
Mr. Fernandez, who lived virtually his entire life in Tampa, was best known as the designer for some of the Tampa Bay area's largest and most luxurious homes.
But he didn't make his career in home design until later in life, when he opened Gabriel Fernandez Designer Inc. about 30 years ago.
Mr. Fernandez was born and raised in Ybor City. As a child and young man, he worked at La Naviera, the Ybor coffee mill founded by his grandparents and still owned and operated by his brother and cousin.
He always showed an aptitude for art and longed for a career as an architect. He studied architecture at the University of Florida but dropped out for financial reasons. He came back to Tampa and lived with his parents while he finished his education at the University of Tampa, earning degrees in history and design.
After college, he taught for several years at East Bay High School.
"He was a dynamic history teacher," Salcines said. "He could bring life to the history stories, sometimes kicking a chair to simulate the sound of a cannon firing."
A pharmaceutical company recruited him for a sales position, and Mr. Fernandez spent the next 20 years or so as one of the company's most successful salespeople.
It seemed to be far from his dream of designing homes. But that job brought him into contact with doctors and pharmacists who sometimes mentioned that they were renovating their homes or building an addition.
"He'd pull out a coffee-stained napkin and draw something on it and say, "You ought to do this, and you have to make sure to do it this way,' " Salcines said. "Pretty soon that napkin became a blueprint."
Eventually, those doctors and pharmacists started asking him to design homes. He started doing it as a sideline but eventually opened his own business at Bay Villa and MacDill avenues.
He designed some of the area's best-known homes, including the largest home in Hillsborough County at the time, the Avila home of financier Paul Bilzerian.
His passions for art, history and travel showed in homes, friends said. There was no stylistic trademark to his designs, but his work was influenced by details he had seen in his European travels, and many of the homes he created had a rich sense of history.
A client in Avila wanted a house that recalled antebellum Southern plantations, and the home Mr. Fernandez created ended up being featured in Architectural Digest. In St. Petersburg, a home he designed won an award for historic preservation, but the homeowner returned the award, explaining that his house was only a year old.
A few months ago, Mr. Fernandez suffered a seizure while driving and got into an accident, breaking some bones. While he was in the hospital, doctors discovered advanced lung cancer.
With treatment, they expected him to live until this spring. But he suffered another seizure and died suddenly at his home near Old Hyde Park Village, where he lived with his second wife, Anita.
Mr. Fernandez is also survived by his children David and Sharma and his brother Danilo.
[Last modified January 5, 2006, 08:50:08]
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