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At Vinoy showhouse, chaos precedes beauty

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2001


The Florida Orchestra Guild Designer Showhouse was down to the wire, literally and figuratively. Less than an hour away from Friday's opening party, Phil Burgess of Ethan Allen conceded that the wiring for the Italian sconces was not going to work and instead hung pictures to cover the holes in the wall.

It has been that kind of month for the designers who signed up to transform a three-story city home at Vinoy Place into an incubator of interior style ideas.

"This was crash and burn," said Susan Nice, the interior designer who coordinated the project. "They didn't have drywall in a month ago."

Orchestra guild member Maritza Smith, general chairman, is a veteran of four showhouses. "Darling, this one is the craziest," she said, walking around in casual shoes, her formal high heels at the ready nearby. "They just finished two hours ago with the painting."

"So don't get too close to the staircase spindles," Nice said. "They're still wet."

Showhouses are usually old homes that are glamorized for a few weeks. This city home was a new, never-been-occupied pad that recently sold for $1.2-million. The usual chaos that accompanies a showhouse in the final days of preparation had the added frisson of a lagging construction schedule. The result, said Mary Shuh, Florida Orchestra Guild president, was that the guild ladies were on a first-name basis with construction workers.

"Hi, Brian," Greta Myers, dressed in evening clothes, said to Brian Bolton, the jeans-clad project mananger, after she was irrigated, along with the newly installed sod, while walking up to the house. Bolton hustled outside to get the sprinklers turned off before anyone else was wet down.

Developer Craig McLaughlin hovered nearby in a hard hat. With two towers being finished and two more breaking ground this week (the former having sold all but one unit and the latter being 50 percent presold, he said), the area remains a construction site.

Descending the staircase that winds through three levels of the city home, the smell of fresh paint and a Chopin sonata in the air, I was reminded that Vinoy Place is a told-you-so triumph to those who said downtown St. Petersburg could never support three luxury condominiums. (The other two are Florencia and the Cloisters.) And this showhouse is stunning.

Of course, it's meant to be fantasy. For example, the downstairs powder room, done up by Susan Taylor with a custom mural, has no door. "They took it off," said Betty Sowers, a guild member, "so no one could use it."

The "artist's retreat" by Suzan Decker Ross is a serene study with the whimsy of a wall hung with vintage evening bags, though no serious artist would paint on the pale gray carpet.

The upstairs rooms have little terraces that are fitted out with pots of flowers and burbling fountains. I was temporarily stuck outside on one -- the door jammed -- until a worker heard me banging on the door. I didn't mind.

Fanitsa Meehan's "collector's room" is stuffed with exotic stuff from her new Beach Drive shop such as monkeys embracing on a chaise as a Venetian harlequin looks on.

"This doesn't look like you," I said to Carol Laughlin, who was setting apricot roses and parrot tulips around a little sitting room painted in darker colors from her shop, Anastasia. "This is what my house looks like," she said. "I like this Raj look."

The biggest jolt came from Marvin Meeks, whose rooms gave me a back-to-the-future feeling, with their combination of retro references and contemporary touches. I loved his use of silver leaf.

In the party crowd getting a first look were Peter and Susan Betzer with their mothers, Marjorie Betzer and Mary Beers, visiting from Wisconsin; Adele Mattingly; Christa Whipple; Peter and Lorraine Danna; Suzie and Grover Wrenn (who headed up the selection committee for the new Eckerd College president and said he is now ready to relax); Lloyd and Louise Chapin; Carl and Betty Bowley; Mike and Joann Barger; John Murphy and Edie Spies; Dr. Joe and Joye Burns; Dr. Royce Hobby and Priscilla Young; Frank Blandford and Cary Bond Thomas, twinkling in a pink silk pant suit covered with iridescent sequins, and Jean and Ian Irwin, the Vinoy Place developer who did a fast change from business clothes to tuxedo.

Also nice to see were Lloyd and Caroline Horton. If you think life slows down upon retirement, you should talk to Horton. The former head of the All Children's Hospital Foundation now works as a consultant, recently finishing a project with Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church that raised $7-million for a capital campaign.

After trooping through the showhouse, everyone repaired to the Vinoy Place common room in one of the towers for the party. Party chairwoman Celma Mastry was waiting and presided over a buffet by the Vinoy Resort that included sushi bar, pasta station, crab cakes, little Beef Wellingtons and a dessert table.

The showhouse continues through April 14, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. It is open on Wednesdays until 7 p.m. Tickets are $10. Lunch is available daily except on Sundays, when tea is served from 2 to 4 p.m. for $5. A boutique is open daily. For information, call 866-2371.

Who knew? Dr. Gordon Gilbert says that more than 700 Harvard University graduates reside in our community, but the Harvard Club of the West Coast of Florida, in which he is involved, claims only 150 members. You can change that. If you are a Harvard grad, you are invited to join the club for its 75th anniversary celebration on April 14 at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort. Dr. Gilbert says the day includes presentations and talks, afternoon tea with music by members of the Florida Orchestra, a private docent tour of the Museum of Fine Arts and a 1920s-themed dinner and dancing. You can sign up for afternoon events for $35 or the full day for $95. The Vinoy is offering special room rates. Suggested evening attire is black tie. For information, call (813) 604-1207.

LOOKING AHEAD

April 4

SOME BUNNY LOVES YOU: St. Petersburg Women's Chamber of Commerce annual luncheon and card party during Festival of States week features a fashion show by Jennifer Lynn Boutique. 11 a.m. St. Petersburg Yacht Club, 11 Central Ave. $30. 866-0202.

April 6

EVENING WITH A PROPER STRANGER: Cystic Fibrosis Foundation hosts its ninth annual bachelor and bachelorette (we still using that word?) auction. Billed as an opportunity "to bid on the area's most eligible singles," who provide their own date packages. Evening includes hors d'oeuvres and dancing. 7 p.m. Don CeSar Beach Resort, 3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach. $40. (813) 258-0266.

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