By JUDY STARK
© St. Petersburg Times,
That's what happens when you live in a 25,000-square-foot French chateau.
They call it the Chateau des Chenes, or Castle of the Oaks, a nod to the old trees they left standing on the property, which is inside the gated community of Avila in north Tampa.
And a castle it is, with a grand mirrored foyer, a huge formal living-dining room where they can easily seat 30 or more for dinner, a library and a theater that seats 16 in upholstered rocking seats with their own cup holders. (Recliners for six more viewers are on order.)
There are also a cigar room, two kitchens, a family room, an enclosed pool, six bedrooms and a game room plus terraces and gardens (including one that overlooks a lily pond, just like French painter Claude Monet's) and garage space for nine cars.
The house is the third largest in the Tampa Bay area, behind corporate raider Paul Bilzerian's 28,400-square-foot home, also in Avila, and NBA player Matt Geiger's East Lake home, with 26,000 square feet.
"We love what we're doing, and we do it with a lot of passion," Liz said. For 17 years she and her husband have operated RJL O'Connell, custom home builder. Their 16-year-old son, Ryan, is the R; Joe and Liz are the J and L.
It wouldn't be a surprise to find Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella or even Rumplestiltskin spinning straw into gold in this vast house, which the O'Connells built as a "spec house" to show prospective clients what they can do. The O'Connells live there now but plan to sell the house eventually.
The bedrooms and game room are painted in rich, deep colors: gray, dark red, dusty blue, rose, green so dark it's almost black, ochre yellow. "Old chateaus had every room a different color," Liz explained.
The floors are stone or mahogany, some of them with maple and walnut inlays. On the walls are mahogany panels, mirrors or faux finishes. In the foyer, four urns that stand on columns are echoed by the trompe l'oeil urns painted on the upper walls by artist Terry Klaaren. Elsewhere, walls are clad in white-painted wood wainscoting, all of it biscuit-joined for permanence. "Joe said he had 1,000 hours in the finish carpentry, and there was still more to go," Liz recalled.
Her favorite feature, Liz said, is "the way everything overlooks this," gesturing to the garden in front of the house, where roses climb and where, on a recent morning, the calls and quacks of a variety of birdlife echoed in the stillness.
"That's what I love the most," she said. "You look at the garden, the calm, the serenity, and you think that you are not at all in the city."
The O'Connells built in a space for an elevator, and they're hoping to get their hands on an old-fashioned cage elevator from Paris. "I want to see that elevator," Liz said determinedly.
The two years it took to build the house were "the most difficult two years for many builders," she said, coming at a time of high demand for luxury homes and for the workers to complete them. Many builders complained about the difficulty of finding labor.
"Joe doesn't like to call them workers. He calls them craftsmen," she said. "Even our plumber is artistic, and we listen to him!"
The couple are already on to their next project, a 10,000-square-foot mansion to be called Le Manoir de Versailles, which they will build just across the pond from their chateau. They've already got the library for that house, purchased from a castle on the Belgian-French border. The library arrived too late to be included in the Chateau des Chenes. That house will be roofed with slate they're importing from an old castle in France. Price tag for the Versailles: around $3.5-million.
Oh, and this house? Liz won't say what it would cost if she were to sell it -- now that it's done, she just wants to stay here for a while -- but winking like the Parisienne she is, she says, "Remember what I told you it cost?" (Originally the figure was around $6-million.) "Well, it would be around twice what I said before."
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