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Nothing to rumble about

Neighbors are reassured: A waterfront landmark isn't going anywhere. It's just a challenging facelift.

Published October 15, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - In a neighborhood where construction is constant and teardowns are routine, the transformation of a historic property on Snell Isle's scenic Brightwaters Boulevard is causing a stir.

Speculation about extensive renovations at the Snell-Bishop house has become a new pastime for nearby residents and those who frequent the downtown waterfront.

A St. Petersburg landmark for years, the place was distinctive because of its white walls, terra-cotta tile roof, yellow awnings and spacious grounds. It sold for $5.1-million in February, the third-highest price paid for a single family residence in Pinellas County so far this year.

The house has a basement, marble fireplaces and Italian tile floors, 570 feet of seawall and waterfront views from every level. When it changed hands, its kitchen was of another era and it had no central air-conditioning.

Neighbors figured there would be renovations. In the months since the sale, work on the property suggests an extensive overhaul. A waterfront fence has been torn down, the seawall replaced, windows removed and concrete stanchions erected. Earth-moving equipment is visible on the spacious, dug-up lawn.

"We got tons of phone calls just as soon as the bulldozers were there," said Barbara Heck, president of the Snell Isle Property Owners Association.

A representative of Worley Construction, which is overseeing the work, called to ask that the neighbors not jump to inaccurate conclusions, she said. The equipment was there to start work on the seawall.

City records show recent electrical, gas and plumbing permits plus paperwork for a foundation and other construction. Signs posted on the property list the names of a commercial contractor, a hardwood floor company, a sound and light designer, stucco and air-conditioning firms and an interior decorating business.

"We're delighted that it's not being torn down," Mrs. Heck said. "We realize what a historic house it is, and we also understand the challenges that they face. It's just such a beautiful house, and it's just so involved in the history of Snell Isle and St. Petersburg."

At nearly 8,200 square feet, the house sits on about 1.5 acres. It was built in the 1920s for developer C. Perry Snell. Artist Wally Bishop, author of the nationally syndicated comic strip Mugs and Skeeter, and his wife, Louise, bought it in 1939. Bishop died in 1982; his widow, in August 2005. The property went on the market several months later.

Mary Joan Mann, the Bishops' daughter, grew up in the house. She and Sam Mann Jr. had their wedding reception there in 1948. It was eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, but Louise Bishop did not pursue the recognition. Such a distinction might have prohibited changes necessary to updating the structure.

At the time of the sale, Mrs. Mann said the new owners were David and Michelle Rau. County documents show the purchase was made through a revocable trust.

Public records link the Raus to a business in Maryland. Several of their children attend private school in St. Petersburg. Neither they nor a representative of the trust returned telephone calls to the Times.

"We had that house for 67 years," Mrs. Mann said last week, "and you know, when I sold it, I walked out and that was it. I'd love to see it when it's finished. It was time for a new broom. There are things the house needs that they are willing and want to do. I'm tickled for the house."

Gene Rooney, a city building inspector who approved some of the recent permits, said he could not comment on the work in progress. He did say that the quality of the original construction was remarkable.

"It's a really unique old house," he said, "way ahead of its time for that type of construction. It's all reinforced concrete from the ground up. The house appears to be in really good shape, without any uneven settling. That is really amazing, to be predating the Depression era."

Mrs. Heck said she understands that the owners are trying to keep the exterior as true as possible to the previous design. Just the cost of replacing the windows to conform to current construction codes would exceed the price of most people's houses, she estimated.

"It's just a tremendous investment. It's expensive to restore a house that was built almost a hundred years ago, and for people to embrace that type of project, it's just so wonderful to see these days. We're delighted that they can save as much as they have. We appreciate the family for doing that. It certainly is unusual and difficult and very expensive."

"I think it's going to be lovely," Mrs. Mann said. "I'd love to go in there once it's done."

[Last modified October 14, 2006, 19:56:26]

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