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History, up in smoke

A fire guts the interior of a storied, Victorian-era house in Clearwater. The owner hopes to salvage it.

Published July 25, 2006

CLEARWATER — An overnight fire on Tuesday added to the storied life of a historic, Victorian-era house. But if the owner has her way, it won’t be the final chapter.

The blaze started at the back of the century-old home, burned through a crawl space and gutted the interior. Fire officials estimated the damage at $200,000, saying the structure was a “total loss.”

But owner Trina Sears, who bought the home last year with plans to restore it, said she thinks the house can be salvaged, with help from friends and other people who love history enough to preserve it.

“We will rebuild,” she said. “People love this house. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing with people asking, 'What can we do? It can’t be gone.’ ”

Officials think the fire burned for a half hour before someone reported it at 1:14 a.m. Firefighters arrived moments later to find it full of flames and smoke. One firefighter, a 36-year-old man whose name was not made public, fell through the second-story floor and suffered minor burns and a broken rib. He was treated at Mease Dunedin Hospital and released by late morning.

“It probably could have been a lot worse,” said Clearwater Fire Marshal Steve Strong.

No one was inside the home at the time of the fire, which took about 30 minutes to bring under control. Strong said its cause was related to a newly installed electrical system.

Sears, who lives in Clearwater, bought the house last summer for $1, with the understanding she move it from 1324 S Fort Harrison Ave., to make way for a parking lot. She then shelled out more than $100,000 for it to be transported to its current site at 622 Belleview Blvd.

Over the past year, she said, she has spent another $15,000 for plumbing, the electrical system and a new kitchen.

“It’s not real to me yet, so much love and TLC,” she said.

Railroad tycoon Henry Plant originally had the house built in the 1890s to house Louis Ducros, brought from France to photograph the construction of the Belleview Biltmore hotel.

Ducros, who took the first picture of the house in 1896, was a familiar sight to the neighborhood as he wheeled around town on his “boneshaker” bicycle with his camera strapped to his back. He never left Clearwater. He died in 1919 and is buried in the Clearwater Municipal Cemetery.

In the early 1900s, the house was moved from what later became the resort’s golf course to Fort Harrison Avenue. Rocco Grella, one of the original members of the John Philip Sousa band, later moved into the house at that site. He became a band instructor at Clearwater High School and held concerts for the town in his back yard.

In the 1970s, the house was owned by John and Kay Sloan and Jim Thornton, who renovated it and turned it into an antique furniture and crafts boutique. They named it the Strawberry Walrus on a whim, after a figurine they found at an art show.

The house was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, right around the time it was painted a shade of it’s-a-girl pink. Now, only one other home in Clearwater, the Donald Roebling Estate on Orange Avenue, is listed on the register.

“It’s a blow to Clearwater history,” said Mike Sanders of the Clearwater Historical Society. “Without our historic sites, you lose a sense of identity, a sense of place and a sense, in this case, of the history that passed through those doors.”

It is for those reasons, Sears said, that she must try to restore what was lost Tuesday.

“I love saving old things,” she said. “But for this I need help. I’m hoping somebody will step up to the plate and help us put it back together.”

Jacob H. Fries can be reached at (727) 445-4156 or

[Last modified July 25, 2006, 22:43:07]

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