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Where color accumulates

A room full of frogs is just for starters. How about a tangerine dining room? In this house, bold walls find themselves covered in quirky collections.

Published June 30, 2006

OLD SEMINOLE HEIGHTS - Who knew a person could paint a dining room screaming tangerine with orange accents?

That a mid-century pink bathroom actually looks good with tomato-red walls? That painting the family room eggplant works well in a quirky, offbeat palette.

Christoph Earnest, 45, and his partner, Johnnie Hurst, 43, believe in taking chances.

"I've always liked color," says Hurst, an accountant. "I especially like it in older houses because it really enhances the space. Everything has to be bright and vivid - no cream colors."

The tangerine dining room?

It's his signature color.

"I've always used the color everywhere I've lived," Hurst says. "It's also a food color so it works well. I said, 'Let's make this room look like a big dessert - like orange sherbet.' "

The two take the same kind of chances with real estate, moving from a beachfront condo in Clearwater to Tarpon Springs, then to Old Seminole Heights two years ago because they longed to be back in the thick of Tampa's energy.

"We love the eclectic feeling of this community, keeping in mind that this is still a transitional area," says Earnest, a nursing auditor who commutes daily to his job in Largo. "It's been totally a positive experience with only one exception: We don't have the Gulf of Mexico at our back door."

The trade-off: At 2,600 square feet, the 1920s bungalow on Suwanee Avenue in Old Seminole Heights offers much more space than the typical beachfront condo. They even have a detached garage and studio as well as a utility room big enough for a washer and dryer, pantry shelving and an extra refrigerator. Another closet off the hallway is large enough to accommodate a grooming table for their beloved Lady Marmalade, an inquisitive miniature schnauzer with a pink collar and her own extensive collection of toys that she likes to pull out and shake for visitors.

The rambling old house is perfect for a couple of collectors with a taste for everything from display-size gems and minerals, to artistic crosses, to antique pinball machine marbles, to funky frogs, to contemporary ceramics.

They display their treasures around the home, typically in groupings, though some, such as their collection of frogs, have grown and spilled into additional rooms.

Big glass jars contain their fortune-telling tokens, small gems and rocks, and miniature toys. Outside, an assortment of orchids and other indigenous Florida plants, including walking iris, plumeria, hibiscus and bromeliads, grow amid garden ornaments reflecting their indoor collections.

"I don't go by any rules other than whether it just looks right. This is our environment, and that's all that matters," explains Earnest, an amateur nature photographer whose works hang around the house. "It's really just organized clutter."

One collection, hung on the walls of the home's spacious hallway, was a gift from a Peruvian missionary to Earnest's father, pastor of First Baptist Church of Riverview for 40 years. A series of masks, a hand-carved paddle, and collections of butterflies and indigenous insects from the region adorn the walls.

In a built-in alcove in the den, they cleverly stuffed their collection of frog figurines that now numbers in the thousands. On the kitchen counter are frog cookie jars that Earnest, who worked for years as a pediatric and maternity nurse, picked up at hospital gift shops.

"For some reason, hospital gift shops are always great places to find frogs," he says.

His other inspiration for collecting?

Thrift stores.

And he's not choosy:

"I never drive by one without stopping," he adds with a grin.

Good haunts for collectors also include hospice thrift stores of any kind as well as the Salvation Army, Earnest explains, "because the prices are still reasonable."

Over the years, they've grown their furniture collection. The dining room table and chairs and the Italian, hand-burled birch bedroom set are treasured purchases from Galloway's Furniture. A collection of lamps, small, large and novelty-shaped, including one that looks like a martini glass, help create a relaxing mood in the house.

"We rarely - if ever - turn on overhead lights," says Earnest, who recently found a light-up chunk of rose quartz at Wally's Natural Wonders on Armenia Avenue.

"We also find great lighting at JCPenney," Earnest explains. "It's a good resource for affordable home goods like linens and towels."

They've also discovered a secret for scenting their home: candles from Bombay Company, including their favorite, "Havana Nights."

Outside, the plain, gray and white house offers no clue to the vibrant decorating and funky collections inside.

Or the size.

The pair, together 11 years, likes to joke that their house just goes "on and on."

A good thing considering their penchant for collecting.

"People are shocked when they come in - no one expects it to look the way it does," Earnest says with a laugh. "They expect it to be plain like the outside."

[Last modified June 29, 2006, 10:52:36]

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