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Historical designation can’t save decaying O’Brien House

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Published:   |   Updated: March 30, 2014 at 08:30 AM

THONOTOSASSA — Within sight of Lake Thonotosassa and a dilapidated orange grove, the historical O’Brien House stands at Kingsway and Thonotosassa roads, its former splendor lost to time and a lack of money.

The vacant white wooden house with a wrap-around porch, bell-shaped gables and handsome brick chimney soon will be demolished.

Built between 1897 and 1905 by citrus grower W.S. O’Brien, it will be the first home designated a Hillsborough County historic landmark to meet that fate.

“We are always sorry to lose an important part of Hillsborough County heritage, but we understand the goal of historic preservation is for past and present to exist in productive harmony,” said Paul Jones, chairman of the county’s Historic Resources Review Board. “What we can’t save, we try to record and document. We know we have lost something important in the area’s heritage, but we understand we can’t save everything.”

A framed 11-by-14-inch photograph of the house when it was designated historic in 1994 hangs in the lobby on the 20th floor of the County Center in downtown Tampa.

But saving the house, an example of early Colonial revival architecture, isn’t an option at this point, said attorney Mark Bentley, who represents homeowners Margaret Petrie and her son, David Petrie.

That is evident in the long list of code violations presented by a county inspector in February when Bentley came to the board asking for the demolition permit.

The original wood floor is pocked with holes, and half the ceiling is gone. Piers that anchor the house are faltering, leaning toward the lake a half-block away. Salvors have removed a mantel, and they will be back for the demolition, Bentley said.

When the county designated the O’Brien House a historic landmark it was in decent shape, “in keeping with the historic integrity of the structure,” according to the county’s preservation plan for the homestead. But Margaret Petrie doesn’t have money to keep it that way, Bentley said.

She is 82, and her husband, Lester, died years ago.

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After the railroad arrived in Thonotosassa in 1884, citrus growers like O’Brien prospered, shipping their produce to markets in the Northeast. The 2,500-square-foot, four-room O’Brien House is considered a monument to the area’s rich history at a time when wealthy Northerners used the area as a winter retreat. Tampa residents visited on weekends to picnic and boat on the lake.

Lake Thonotosassa, two miles long and one mile wide, had white, sandy beaches and teemed with trout. It was considered one of the best freshwater fishing grounds in Central Florida.

The population swelled to more than 150 in those early days, and a schoolhouse and post office opened, county records show.

As citrus profits came and went with changing weather patterns, two general stores, two churches, an ice plant, a sawmill and a hotel were built in the area.

“Thonotosassa reveled in the Roaring ’20s with Florida’s land boom, beginning with the platting of Thonotosassa Lake Side Development in 1924. By 1925, the community’s population reached 300,” the county report states. But as the area developed, the lake suffered. Massive oak trees came down, land was drained and polluted runoff flowed into the lake, destroying the pristine beaches.

“Coupled with the bust of the land boom and the Great Depression, Thonotosassa languished,” the historical report notes. The local chamber of commerce and Methodist church fell silent.

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David Petrie recalled moving to the old house from Temple Terrace in 1969.

“My father retired from the Tampa Police Department and he wanted to get us into the country. There were five of us kids,” Petrie said. “We fell in love with it. At the time, I was 8 years old and I had a younger brother and a twin brother. We had the run of the groves and the lake and the woods. We had forts everywhere.

“There were maybe 10 houses in the area, so we were free to do what we wanted to,” he said. David ran through the woods, but his younger brother, Jonathan, was the family fisherman, spending most of his time near or in the lake.

“Eventually we got old enough to have minibikes and motorcycles,” Petrie said. The children took full advantage of their freedom. Their stay-at-home mom had no need for a farm bell to call them home.

“We knew when it was time to be home for dinner and we got there,” he said.

By the time his parents agreed to have the house designated an historical landmark, David Petrie was out on his own and married, he said, so he doesn’t know exactly how the designation came to be.

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More recently, Thonotosassa’s citrus groves have been uprooted, replaced with sprawling homes built along the shores of the lake that the Southwest Florida Water Management District has restored to a healthy state.

Much of the area has remained quiet and rural, characterized by oak trees draped with Spanish moss and rolling pastures atop ancient sand dunes. Reese’s Beach and Fish Camp still hosts weekend boaters and picnickers just west of the O’Brien House.

In 2011, Margaret Petrie moved out of the home, moving in with her son and putting the property up for sale, Bentley said. She lowered the price seven times, but had no takers. Offering the house with a designation requiring it be kept up to historic standards made it impossible to sell, he said. Appraisers estimated it would cost nearly $500,000 to bring the house up to accepted standards.

Like the county, Tampa also has a designation for revered historical structures. And also like the county, not every structure can be saved, said Dennis Fernandez, who heads the city’s program.

“In Tampa, locally designated structures can be demolished for various reasons, including economic hardship,” Fernandez said. “There have been landmarks here, and contributing structures, demolished. We would first try to identify some sort of funding mechanism” to save the structures, he said.

The county has a grant program allowing people with historically designated properties to apply for matching grants of up to $25,000 in a given year, Jones said.

But for the O’Brien House, it was too little, too late, Bentley said.

Herb and Jill Wax, who live in South Tampa, once owned an historical house in eastern Hillsborough, the Galvin-Carl House, at Mulrennan and Durant roads in Valrico. They declined the county’s historical designation for the 1900s-era house with an open “dog trot” between the main house and the kitchen. It put too many restrictions on what could be done with the house, Herb Wax said.

“We sort of looked at it as a hardship because we were limited with what we could do,” Wax said. “At one time, there was a lot of (grant) money available, but that has really dried up and there is very little available now.”

The Waxes sold the house in December 2012 for $95,000, far below their original asking price.

“It was difficult enough to sell it as it was, but it would have been a lot more difficult had it been designated a historic home,” Wax said.

Bentley said the Petries, at the county’s insistence, advertised the house and waited two weeks for any takers after the county declined to buy the property because of the extensive cost of repairs.

“You can’t get financing or insurance on it, so it would have to be a cash purchase,” and no offers came in, Bentley said. With the house still standing, the family might get $150,000 for it and the property, Bentley said. With the house demolished, they could sell the corner property for $200,000, he said.

Hillsborough County has 29 designated historic properties, including the Oakgrove United Methodist Cemetery on Sitka Street in Tampa, the Knowles House in Bloomingdale, a bungalow on Moon Avenue in Brandon and the Dickman AP House in Ruskin.

“There is a lot of cache value to being a county landmark,” said Jones, of the Historic Resources Review Board.

“It shows that your home or office is a significant part of Hillsborough County’s history. It may serve (an owner) well, like with the restoration of cigar factories in Ybor City.”

This time, however, it is not to be, Petrie said.

“It’s time for it to go, and we are not in a position to restore it. I hate seeing it go, but now it has really become a burden.”

yhammett@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7127

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