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Back on the road to grandeur

A couple hopes to restore an architectural jewel that has suffered a decade of decay.

By DAN DeWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001


photo
[Times photos: Maurice Rivenbark]
The house, which was built in the early 1900s, has a unique feature -- a three-story high turret.
BROOKSVILLE -- Spence and Sheri MacKenzie have learned to look past the sagging ceilings, the peeling paint and the plaster rubble that litters their house on S Brooksville Ave.

They train their eyes, instead, on the intricately carved wood under the steep eaves. They focus on the porcelain doorknobs, push-button light switches with mother-of-pearl inlays and floors made from planks of pine hard enough to turn back swarms of termites.

Outstanding architectural qualities and signs of long neglect are both obvious in this house, called the Frazee House after the family that lived there for most of the past century. In buying this house and agreeing to fix it up, the MacKenzies took on one of the most difficult and potentially rewarding restoration projects in Brooksville.

The house was singled out for its significance when S Brooksville Avenue was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. But it also has been vacant since the last member of the Frazee family, Alys Campbell, left shortly before her death in 1990.

"We sort of walked her out of there and left everything the way it was," said her daughter, Jane Brown, who was born in the front room of the house in 1935 and now lives near Jacksonville.

Mrs. Brown turned down many offers to sell it, she said, "because it was more comforting for me to see it as it always had been. It made me feel that the people who had lived there were not as far gone as they really were."

George Whitehurst, a family friend who lives across the street, kept the yard mowed and the hedges trimmed. But the roof began to leak, termites feasted on anything that was not made of heart of pine or cypress and thieves stripped the interior of light fixtures, furniture and silverware.

"That was very upsetting to me," Brown said of the burglary. "I did not want to talk about it or think about it. I didn't even want to go back and look at it for a long time."

She finally agreed to sell it, she said, because the MacKenzies promised to restore it while other prospective buyers had talked about tearing it down.

Some people, Spence MacKenzie said, thought the house was too derelict to save. The paint had peeled and the hardwood floor was mushy with termite damage, as were the kitchen cabinets. The closets were filled with mildewed ball gowns, crumbling board games and ancient 78-rpm records.

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Jim Griffin replaces damaged wood rafters.
But closer inspection revealed something surprising -- that the house was mostly in pretty good shape, which the MacKenzies attribute to the high-quality wood used to build it.

The MacKenzies pulled up the hardwood to find solid, undamaged pine. Virtually all of the sash windows open and close easily. Last week, roofers removed tin shingles to expose a cage of rafters that had rotted only under the worst leaks. The floor is level, probably because the original brick pilings were replaced, the MacKenzies said.

The yard is overgrown, but it is overgrown with plants some homeowners would trade a three-car garage for -- tangles of wisteria vines, volunteer magnolias and dogwoods, ligustrum and azalea bushes that reach almost to the second-story windows.

Even after taking stock of all these treasures, the MacKenzies know they have a huge job ahead of them. Doing it, they say, requires them to appreciate what used to be.

This may come easier for Spence MacKenzie, 30, who grew up in Brooksville and is the grandson of former judge and citrus grower Ed MacKenzie. He wanted to move back to Brooksville, he said, after several years of working in the citrus business in southern Florida. He had always been curious about the house and its three-story high turret that, along with the home's age and elderly occupants, inspired rumors of haunting among other children.

"I always liked it because of the details, and it looked spooky with the tower," he said.

Sheri MacKenzie, 31, has no personal connection with the house, except that she and her husband were married at St. John's Episcopal Church, just across the street. But she has always liked old things, she said. She drives a 1956 Volkswagen Beetle. She and her husband recently sold an 80-year-old house they had restored in Lake Wales.

"I guess I just like to make old stuff look new. Well, not completely new, but to bring it new life," she said.

The MacKenzies, who are temporarily living in his mother's house on Howell Avenue, expect to move in with their two sons in a few months. But completing the work may take as long as five years and add as much as $100,000 to the purchase price of $48,000.

The first jobs -- which mostly involve staunching the decay -- are the most expensive because they require specialists.

Exterminators tented the house to rid it of termites, the wings of which are still scattered around some rooms. The roofers replaced the shingles with treated steel. The MacKenzies also will have to hire a contractor to install heating and air conditioning and an electrician to replace the archaic wiring.

The MacKenzies will rip out the plaster walls, a job they have already started, and install insulation and hang drywall. They will refinish the floors and turn their attention to the interior and exterior woodwork that helps make this house special, according to architectural experts.

The tower, gables and decorative touches around the windows and under the eaves were highlighted in a report by Leslie Stalcup, the architectural historian who helped prepare the application for the street's placement on the historical register.

About 100 years ago, a worker, probably using no guide other than his imagination, cut a cluster of diamond shapes into the panel under the eave facing S Brooksville Avenue. Small figure eights have been carved into the windows and door jambs, a process called keyholing, said Spence MacKenzie. The corners of the front doors have a hand-carved series of rings that resemble bullseyes.

None of these touches, including the tower, serve any purpose, said Barbara Mattick, the National Register coordinator with the state Division of Historical Resources.

"They just thought it looked neat," she said. The Queen Anne style promoted decoration for its own sake, and asymmetry as an expression of whimsy.

"Queen Anne was a reaction to the precise and even Classical and Colonial styles," Mattick said, adding that it was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The MacKenzies also can point out elements of another form popular about the same time: stick-style architecture, characterized by exterior wood trim that echoes the interior structure of the house.

The MacKenzies say the house is older than the estimated construction date on file with the state -- 1915. They have a deed showing that a woman named Mattie Raiford and her husband, M.W., sold it to M.A. Carpenter in 1909, who then sold it to Roland and Katie Frazee for $2,500 in 1913.

Mrs. Brown said this period in the home's history, as far as she knows, is documented by only one picture, the most striking aspect of which is the lack of trees in a neighborhood that is now famous for its big oaks.

The house, she said, didn't have the porches and side rooms that were added later.

"It was just this funny, tall, skinny structure," she said.

Her grandfather managed the train depot on Russell Street, just two blocks south of the house, she said.

"He was the agent for the Atlantic Coast Line," said Joe Weeks, who, like Brown, was born in his family's house on S Brooksville Avenue.

"I think that's why he bought that house, so he could walk home for lunch," Weeks said.

One of their daughters, Mary E. Frazee, never married and taught school for nearly 40 years.

"She was my first-grade teacher," family friend and neighbor Whitehurst said.

Alys Campbell married briefly, but returned to the house to raise her daughter and also taught school. The two sisters were avid bridge players, Weeks said. And his memories of the home are not of it as falling down, closed up and spooky; he remembers it when it was welcoming and well-tended.

"There never has been anything mysterious about it," Weeks said. "It's not a haunted house. It is an old-style, beautiful, warm house, and I'm glad somebody has bought it and is taking care of it."

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