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If these walls could talk

Published March 8, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - A house nearly a century old is bound to hide some secrets. Ed and Jill McGrath discovered several in their house on Sixth Avenue NE, just a long golf drive from the Renaissance Vinoy Resort. They found a hidden stairway, old bathrooms behind walls, windows concealed by cabinets inside and boarded over outside, for example. There was one in particular that interested them, one telling of the dwelling's past as surely as its building history.

Built in 1910, when Pinellas County was still a part of Hillsborough, the exquisitely redone Key West-style house sits in one of St. Petersburg's oldest neighborhoods.

The property itself was platted in 1906 as part of Bay Shore subdivision; the Bay Shore Land Co. was formed in 1905, according to historians, by development pioneer C. Perry Snell.

But those dry facts didn't speak to the remaining mystery.

When the McGraths began renovating the house after buying it in 2003, the concealed stairwell was among their early discoveries.

It is steep and narrow, the steps made of pine.

And on the facing of each of the seven steps is written one word, and taken together, from top to bottom, they deliver this message:

"Thomas Louis Craven Will You Marry Me".

On an eighth step, a smiley face is sketched, also in yellow paint, between two hearts.

Who, the McGraths wondered, painted the message? And when?

Who is, or was, Thomas Louis Craven?

His name has been, and may remain, a fixture on the stairs.

"It's part of the history of the house," said Jill McGrath.

To no avail, the McGraths looked in records, called Cravens, and searched the name nationwide through Google's Web site. They found a Thomas Craven in Maryland, a judge who had never been to St. Petersburg.

Because of the smiley face, they guessed the proposal might have been sketched in the 1970s, roughly the era in which the pop icon began spreading widely.

In addition, that decade was one in which the Vinoy was closed and some of its immediate neighborhood became "hardscrabble," Ed McGrath noted.

The house, in fact, had been subdivided and turned into a complex of small rental units.

"My guess is it became a hippy pad of some sort," Ed McGrath said.

He wasn't too far off.

After a chat with the McGraths, Neighborhood Times looked up the mystery name in Circuit Court records.

A Thomas Louis Craven appeared as having lived at the house during the late 1980s. Records also show that he was married close to the time period that he lived on Sixth Avenue NE.

Neither Craven nor his bride of 1989 could be found this week to shed light on the days there.

But now part of the story is out. The McGraths are still interested in the rest of it.

"Absolutely," said Jill McGrath. "We have our curiosity already piqued."

[Last modified March 7, 2007, 22:41:32]

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