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Palatial proportions

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[Times photos: Fraser Hale]
The Chateau des Chenes in Avila, inspired by the royal residence of a French prince, includes six guest suites, a 1,000-bottle wine cellar and three laundry rooms.

By JUDY STARK

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 2, 2001


The third-largest house in the Tampa Bay area, the 25,000-square-foot French chateau boasts a formal living-dining room that seats 30 for dinner, a library and a theater. The cost should it be for sale? Perhaps $12-million?

TAMPA -- Six hundred people came to Liz and Joe O'Connell's house for an American Heart Association benefit, but they barely filled the place up.

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.

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A mahogany arch opens off the grand foyer, with its 35-foot ceilings, leading into the “public” side of the house: formal living and dining rooms and catering kitchen. The wrought-iron staircase is one of two that Liz O’Connell is hand-embellishing with bronze.
Then there are the details, like the four iron gazebos they brought back from Paris (Liz is French), the 18th-century fountain that was delivered in May, the twin staircases with black wrought-iron scrollwork, which Liz is hand-highlighting with bronze, and her two-story closet: The upper level will be reachable via a rolling library ladder.

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.

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The master bedroom is paneled in gold-toned mahogany. It opens to the enclosed pool. Through the door at right is the master bath, with whirlpool and steam shower.

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.

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The formal living-dining room easily seats 30 for dinner. The mahogany floor is detailed with maple and walnut inlays. The walls above white-painted wood wainscoting were faux-finished in a four-step process.

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.

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Hand-carved painted panels on the bar came from a bar in California. They tell the story of winemaking.
"It's a lot of house to do all the finish work," she said. Down near the end, when they were racing a deadline to complete the house in time for the Heart Association benefit in February, "Joe and I tried to work too many hours. There is so much detail involved."

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."

The summer kitchen, which opens to the enclosed pool area, is where Liz O’Connell likes to prepare meals for her family. It is equipped with warming drawers, freezer drawers, a wine cooler and an icemaker. The granite-topped island is fitted with water and gas lines if a future owner wants to add another cooktop or sink. photo

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