Heights home to restoration celebration

Purnell and Johns restored their Victorian home to its 1905 splendor, but sometimes used modern furnishings inside.

Published February 17, 2006

TAMPA HEIGHTS - Two years ago, David Purnell and Steve Johns saw a real estate listing for an elegant 1905 Victorian house in Tampa Heights. The house was a classic turn-of-the-century goddess with good bones, a graceful wraparound front porch and plenty of curb appeal.

It was also a mess.

"It looked awful, it had been stripped of all its character," recalls Johns, 44, a public speaking instructor at Hillsborough Community College and a Realtor specializing in historic home sales.

But the old maxim "love is blind" isn't limited to matters of the heart.

The two fell in love with the house and embarked on a two-year restoration of the 2,800-square-foot structure that includes a widow's walk and a parlor with original bifold doors and a coal-burning fireplace. Even their 90-year-old neighbor who had lived in the house as a child remarked recently that it "hadn't changed much" thanks to the work they'd done.

"We've tried to restore it, but also maintain its historical integrity at the same time," says Purnell, 41, who is also a Realtor specializing in historic properties.

On March 12, the public will have a rare chance to peek inside this prized two-story, four-bedroom, 21/2-bath house when it is spotlighted on this year's Tampa Heights Tour of Homes.

The annual event, which will be held from noon to 5 p.m., is one in a spate of springtime neighborhood house tours that has burgeoned in recent years. The tours offer an inside glimpse at the creativity of amateur rehabbers, many of whom have preserved some of Tampa's most beautiful old homes.

The quiet Tampa Heights neighborhood of stately and modest old homes, many with traditional front porches, sits on the edge of downtown close to Ybor City. Considered Tampa's first suburb, it attracted the likes of politicians, newspaper editors and successful businessmen who built the first homes in the area.

Originally nicknamed "the Highlands," the neighborhood boomed during the yellow fever epidemic of 1887 because many people believed that the area, one mile from the city's hub, was a healthier place to live due to its elevation.

There are 13 structures included in this year's event, including historic and new in-fill homes, the Sanctuary Lofts (urban lofts and artists' studios in the historic Tyler Temple building) and the Central City YMCA.

"I was attracted to the neighborhood for its diversity, location and the history of some of these homes - it's a very cool place to live," says Jennifer Frankowiak, a tour organizer, who bought her 1920 bungalow in Tampa Heights in 2000 when she was still single. Frankowiak now shares the house - featured on last year's tour - with her husband, Joe Solak, and their 18-month old daughter, Jorja.

"It has a great proximity to everything. It's close to all interstates and downtown," she says. "It's neither Carrollwood nor South Tampa in feel, just an eclectic mix."

Proceeds from the event go to neighborhood improvements in public spaces "like lights for the park and signage," Frankowiak says.

Last year about 800 people attended the event, which covers such a large swath of neighborhood that it provides tour visitors free trolley service from Phil Bourquardez Park on Tampa Street next to Stetson University College of Law campus.

"I think people like to get advice and ideas and see how other restored homes compare to theirs," Frankowiak says. "It's also nice to see the before and after pictures before biting the bullet and taking on the same thing at their own home."

As for Johns and Purnell, who are domestic partners, they snapped plenty of "before" pictures of their home when it was still painted Mother Goose blue.

"Every bit of woodwork, everything was blue," Purnell explains.

In addition to painting the exterior green and the interior in a Tuscan palette of warm autumnal colors, they also re-created all of the original woodwork in the house (most all of it had been stripped). They tiled the bathrooms and kitchen, and added a kitchen backsplash and work island that they topped with a 1940s slab of butcher block from the bakery at the old Publix on Nebraska Avenue.

"It fit perfectly into the existing kitchen space," Johns says of the piece that he loves because it wears a natural pattern of nicks and grooves from years of use.

They updated plumbing fixtures, coaxed the fireplace back to its original beauty and added a period art-glass chandelier in the hallway (a lucky purchase on eBay). They say that the house has come together nicely thanks to lessons learned after renovating several other historic homes, all in nearby Seminole Heights, where they still own an arts-and-crafts style bungalow.

Initially, they were reluctant to leave Seminole Heights, where they were firmly rooted and had made such solid friendships that they hosted a monthly neighborhood dinner - something they still do from their new house.

The lure of Tampa Heights, they say, is its up-close-and-personal relationship with downtown, so close that it's practically within walking distance. They like their neighbors, many of whom are 90-something lifelong residents of the area.

"And," Steve adds, "houses like this don't come along very often."