Arsonists blamed for fire

Though it's bittersweet comfort, the Stanberry House was about to be demolished anyway.

Published May 25, 2007

DADE CITY -- Arsonists destroyed a century-old home on 14th Street where Republican elites used to mix and mingle, authorities said Thursday.

But it turns out the 5,200-square-foot Stanberry House would have met its end soon anyway.

The current property owner is Blanton Creek Development Corp., headed by Rob Burkett of Orlando. Burkett said Thursday he is working with another developer to put 150 to 200 homes on the 48-acre ranch where the house sat.

Knowing the building's historical significance, Burkett said he sought several avenues for preserving it but that all proved too costly.

"We looked at every possible way to save that house," he said.

Lt. Gov. Milton H. Mabry, father of Tampa's Dale Mabry, built the two-story colonial in 1889. It was later the home of Lowell Stanberry, a power broker in local Republican politics long before the GOP became Pasco's majority party. Stanberry hosted numerous strategy sessions and fundraisers at his home, including ones for Gov. Jeb Bush in 1994 and 2000.

In 2003, after losing his wife, Evelyn, and falling on hard times, he sold the home and surrounding land, broken into five parcels. He died in September.

Former Sheriff Lee Cannon's voice went quiet and sad when he learned that the house had burned down.

He remembers it fondly. Stanberry's house was the venue of Cannon's first big campaign event.

Cannon was one of the very few Democrats who enjoyed Stanberry's support. Fiscal conservatism was a big deal to Stanberry, and he believed Cannon had it.

The one good thing about Wednesday's fire, Cannon said, was that Stanberry didn't have to be around to witness it.

On Thursday, all that was left of the house was a charred hull. But even the ruins were majestic.

Two brick pillars with broken lamps flanked the front walk. Tall white columns lay in the rubble, blackened and sagging. The rich red brick walls held holes for large picture windows and narrow vaulted ones.

The view from the rear -- a pristine panorama of picket fences and trees -- remained intact.

Cars on 14th Street slowed as they drove past. Some turned their noses into the driveway, lingered a few moments and then moved on.

Pasco County Assistant Fire Chief Mike Ciccarello would not say how the fire was set or release any suspect information, citing an open investigation. He said 38 firefighters needed more than an hour to extinguish the two-alarm blaze. The age of the house made the fire hard to fight.

"It had no type of fire protection in it or fire stops in the construction," Ciccarello said. "You've got older timbers that are dried. That building had been abandoned for a while and it wasn't maintained very well."

Restoring the house -- with warped floors, rotting wood and extensive termite damage -- would have cost up to $400, 000, Burkett said. He had hoped to keep it as a clubhouse for the future neighborhood he wants to build.

He also considered having it moved to the nearby Pioneer Florida Museum, an idea with a $50,000 price tag. And the museum couldn't commit the funds for the upkeep of the house, according to Burkett's Dade City attorney, Seth Mann.

Another possible site was a downtown lot owned by Mann. But that move, which required removal of power lines and traffic signals, would have cost $180,000, Burkett said.

With all those options exhausted, Mann said, the idea was to save pieces of the once-grand estate, such as windows, doors and molding.

Now, not even those remain.

Times staff writer Chuin-Wei Yap contributed to this report. Molly Moorhead can be reached at 352 521-6521 or moorhead@sptimes.com.

Any leads?
If you have information about the Stanberry House fire, call Investigator Donald Campbell at (813) 929-1250 or toll-free 1-800-877-NOARSON.