Home & Garden

Beauty preserved: Historic homes and gardens in Davis Islands

The owners of this 1925 Mediterranean Revival home imported a 17th-c. village fountain and paving stones from Burgundy. Photo: James Ostrand
Luxury Living Tampa Bay

For these homeowners in Tampa’s Davis Islands neighborhood, historic properties offer both challenges and joys. 

If you’ve ever owned an old home, you know the drill: termite damage, root rot, metal fatigue, water intrusion and the thousands of other natural shocks that decades-old buildings can be heir to.

However, walls can be spackled and window jambs replaced with greater ease than our too, too solid flesh. With the right artisans (and yes, the funds to hire them), the job of caring for an older home and a mature garden is not only a challenge but a joy,

I speak from experience. In 1990, the day our youngest daughter was born, we moved into the home my grandparents had built more than 50 years before on Tampa’s Davis Islands — where, as it happens, there are numerous homeowners who have eschewed the ease of a brand new mini-manse in favor of homes that are rich in history and natural beauty. 

In hopes of encouraging others to consider the rewards of such stewardship, here are four Davis Islands stories — starting with my own.

Northern traditions, Southern charms

Mark and Linda Saul-Sena. Photo: Bryan Hunt

My grandparents moved to Florida in the 1920s. They chose Davis Islands because the commercial mix — sidewalks, offices, hotels, even a hospital — reminded them of their native New York City (and, unlike other Florida locations, Davis Islands promised to be alligator-free). 

In 1938, when they moved from a four-unit apartment near the Davis Island Bridge to build a home, they deliberately hired a Northern architect to design a brick Georgian house with no relationship to the Mediterranean Revival fantasy architecture promoted by D. P. Davis in his promotional materials. In deference to the semi-tropical locale, they did build a “Florida Room” — a screened patio with loads of windows for this pre-air-conditioned setting — and planted citrus trees.  

We purchased the home from my grandparents’ estate, adding a new master bedroom and removing wall-to-wall carpets to reveal the wonderfully intact hard pine floors. Several years later we built a library and the connecting room designed by Jan Abell, our skilled architect, who termed it a ”hyphen.”

Mark Sena created a series of garden “rooms” in the family’s back yard. Photo: James Ostrand

Our gardens evolved over time, under the skillful direction of Mark Sena, my husband, with a goal of creating a series of “rooms,” areas to sit in and enjoy different vistas. We built a gravel pathway around the perimeter and then developed the spaces which complement our house, which is oriented toward the garden. Opening our windows to the splash of the fountain on a balmy night is a joy.

Since Davis Islands is surrounded by water, it remains a few degrees warmer than the rest of Tampa, so we have a very old and tall royal palm which has managed to survive for decades.

The old and the new 

The entry pathway to the Harris home. Photo: James Ostrand

Across the street, but feeling as if it were a continent away is the home of Elizabeth and Chuck Harris. Tuscany? The south of France? Actually, this vine-covered manse sits mere minutes from Tampa’s bustling downtown. 

This Mediterranean Revival home was built in 1925 by D.P. Davis’s construction manager, and originally included tennis courts and a small grove. The current owners, Chuck and Elizabeth Harris, strategically added to the home and garden, importing a 17th-century village fountain and paving stones from Burgundy and expanding the home’s footprint so thoughtfully that one cannot tell the old from the new.

When the Harrises planned their return to Tampa after three years in Paris with three young children in tow, they selected this amazing residence knowing it required a lot of work. They needed to modernize their house for family living and began by restoring all the doors and windows and getting them to shut.

“We consider ourselves stewards of this marvelous place,” explained Elizabeth, as she pointed out the copper screens for the windows selected for their historical accuracy. She and Chuck upgraded the electrical systems, added air conditioning, and replaced the original hardware, seeking out great local craftsmen with knowledge of materials and sensitivity to working with an older structure.

The pool was one of the many additions the Harrises made to their vintage home. Photo: James Ostrand

The house had originally been located on eight lots; a previous owner who was addicted to purchasing polo ponies had sold off five of the lots to increase his string of ponies. The Harrises purchased the adjacent two lots and created a seamless addition which includes a modern kitchen, a laundry room, master suite, family room, pool and outdoor room.

They used original windows and matched the stucco and heart pine rafters. The antique front door was purchased from a neighboring home prior to its demolition. Unfortunately, Davis Islands is not protected by a historic district and a dozen of its original homes have been razed by developers heedless of their character and charm.

During the landscape renovation, the Harrises discovered a cistern tucked under the stairway for use in irrigation. They ripped up the concrete driveway and created a new stone courtyard, and a drive with good drainage and gates for both cars and people. Chuck collects early 911 Porsches and warehouses them elsewhere.

Mid-century magic

A custom-designed iron gate invites visitors into this 1964 Mid-Century Modern home. Photo: James Ostrand

Florida’s Gulf Coast was heralded internationally during the 1960s for its sleek modern architecture, and among its most respected local practitioners was Robert Wielage. In 1964, he was commissioned to design a home which epitomized the mid-century passion for indoor-outdoor spaces.

In 2014, Burt Mulford and Dean Hamric purchased this quintessential example of Mid-Century Modern memes directly from the original owners, John and Carole Guyton. While the structure was intact, Burt and Dean embarked upon an ambitious project of restoring all the jalousie windows, doors and floors.

Their home conjures up a lively dance between the rooms and the gardens which animate every vista. A solid stucco wall encompasses the property, providing both privacy and a backdrop for the curated gardens surrounding the house.

Beyond the custom-designed iron gate that invites one into this special realm, there’s a fountain and sculpted shrubs. Light plays on the seating areas, stone patio, lap pool and terrace. Years of careful gardening have resulted in complex layers of textured plantings overlooked by mature palms.

The orchid house/party room. Photo: James Ostrand

A wooden pavilion boasts a large orchid and bromeliad collection and can be transformed into a magical candlelit setting for parties. The couple’s impressive art collection is supplemented by a playful outdoor sculpture in the driveway by Mark Chatterley and an extraordinary urn in the courtyard by Mark Hewitt.

”We feel like we are the caretakers of the Guyton house and garden,” reflects Dean, “and it’s so important for us to protect its integrity. We feel honored to live here.”

True to the original

There are over 50 palms on the Farzanegan property. Photograph: Amy Martz

Their neighbors, Kathy and Fred Farzanegan, share a similar passion for their 1925 Mediterranean Revival home and garden, and all these friends trade tips on craftsmen and contractors. Amazingly, this residence has had only three owners in almost 100 years.

From carefully replacing the original Spanish barrel tile roof to refreshing the entrance to the original porch, the Farzanegans have taken pains to respect the original materials, scale and sensibility of their home.

“When we bought the house, Fred announced that every plant needed to perform in some way: it needed to flower, it needed to fruit or it needed to to be a specimen cycad or palm,” explained Kathy.

“Cycads are prehistoric, and Dr. U.A. Young in Tampa had a huge collection. When he dispersed his collection, Fred was able to acquire some rare examples. People who know cycads stop and ring our doorbell.”

The Farzanegans worked with Missy Schukraft, who has a masters degree in urban planning from the University of Virginia and specializes in landscape architecture with an emphasis on historic preservation, on their garden design. They also hired Jan Abell to help expand their kitchen and plan a family room.

“We went to Jan and Missy with a clear idea of what we wanted and they both changed our plans based on their expertise, a strong sense of what would work historically, be appropriate to the house and provide a fresh, clean design.”

The house has three courtyards, each with its own distinctive look. Photograph: Amy Martz

There are now three courtyards, each with its own distinctive look. Fred’s courtyard has a slate floor and a pergola where they can grill and dine. The center courtyard was inspired by a trip to France, where they were charmed by the crunch of gravel underfoot. French doors, awnings and a deck complete this cocktail party-friendly space.

The pool courtyard has travertine tile surrounding a pool and spa made private by layers of dense travelers palms. In fact, there are over 50 palms on their property of 20 different varieties and more than 20 cycads of seven types.

Time will tell

These fortunate owners share an appreciation for the original good bones of their properties and a deep commitment to protect and celebrate them. As Florida grows and changes, the patina of time only deepens the value of these original places.

Linda Saul-Sena is a former Tampa City Councilperson and city planner, and wrote a regular column on the urban landscape called “Transforming Tampa Bay” for the newsweekly Creative Loafing.

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