NEW PORT RICHEY — Call it the jewel of the Pithlachascotee River: the house that Gene Sarazen built.
In case you've never heard of the guy, he was the Tiger Woods of the 1920s, one of only five golfers ever to win the career grand slam: PGA Championship, U.S. Open, Masters and British Open.
Like other celebrities of the Jazz Age, Sarazen was drawn to New Port Richey at the height of Florida's 1920s real estate boom. He built a charming Mediterranean revival house home and designed a golf course on what was once a 40-acre estate along the Pithlachascotee River.
The golf course is long gone, but the house still stands: a barrel-tile roofed tropical beauty with a sleeping porch and dreamy river views where Sarazen invented his famous sand-wedge club in his workshop in 1930.
Enter Mike and Cheryl Geschke: They bought the house six years ago after admiring it for what seemed like forever.
"We used to kayak past it — just to look at it," Cheryl says of the house, which sits across the street from Jasmine Park along a particularly scenic stretch of the Pithlachascotee River. The Geschkes have since refurbished — and skillfully decorated — the house, long known around town as Villa Jasmin (eclectically spelled without an "e").
The couple will open their doors to the public from 4 to 9 p.m. Dec. 6 for what may be New Port Richey's most glamorous holiday home tour ever: The Growing Great Moms Second Annual Christmas Tour of Homes. The organization — a support group for stay-at-home moms — is spotlighting eight homes on this year's tour, several of which date to the town's halcyon years when it attracted an A-list Hollywood crowd.
The Geschkes say they agreed to open the 3,500-square-foot home for the tour because the organizers who approached Mike one day while he was outside trimming bushes, were, as Cheryl explains it, "so very nice."
The couple's three years of hard work was accomplished mostly by their own hands. Mike owns Wall-Tech of Tampa Bay Inc., a company that specializes in hotel renovation and high-end faux wall finishings.
Cheryl used to own an art store and picture frame shop. She also has a great eye for decorating. The rich, textural faux finishes on the walls are their own handiwork; the kitchen cabinets were preserved and refurbished by Cheryl who made wooden frames that fit expertly around each cabinet door.
"It doesn't feel the same to me when I don't do the work myself," says Cheryl, who left historical details like the large, sweetly beautiful angel fountain that dates to the days Gene Sarazen lived in the house. She managed to revive other historical gems like the original claw-foot bathtub that had been painted pink by a previous owner.
"When we first bought the house, we didn't know who Gene Sarazen was; we had heard of him, but didn't know much about him," says Cheryl, who, along with Mike, has since tracked down books about the famous golfer.
She was also intrigued by an old photo at the local historical society that shows Sarazen and Babe Ruth on horseback in front of the Hacienda Hotel in New Port Richey.
The Geschkes' neighbors Wanda and Ron Scott are also opening their historical home for the tour. The Scotts, who live along the river as well, own a home that once belonged to an aunt of 1930s child star Shirley Temple. When they bought the house five years ago, they discovered a collage of early photos of Temple left by previous owners.
Wanda, who is a huge fan of house tours herself, jokes that while on the annual Old Hyde Park House Tour in Tampa, it occurred to her that "if I were on a tour, I'd enjoy going through my own house."
Others think the same thing. After agreeing to be on this year's holiday home tour herself, Cheryl promptly sent tour organizers over to see Wanda's home "because it's really beautiful."
As for living in Sarazen's old house, Mike Geschke jokes that, unfortunately, the famed golfer's athletic skills didn't come with the real estate deal.
"It hasn't helped my game much," he says a little wistfully. "I'm still shooting over 100."
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.