Saturday, December 16, 2017
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Neighborhood Profile: A genteel jaw-dropper in the Plant City downtown historic district

PLANT CITY

the door of the beautiful Victorian opens and out pours the enthusiastic greeting of a woman with an accent so thick that for a minute you think you've just arrived at Tara for tea with Scarlett. • But Donna Jean Crocker, owner of the beautiful home in the middle of Plant City's downtown historic district, isn't from the Deep South of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. She's from an even deeper south: Plant City.

And her heart is as deeply rooted here as Scarlett's was in Atlanta.

The city was named after Henry Bradley Plant, a railroad tycoon in the 1800s who brought a rail line to Tampa, in part because there was a port to Havana, Cuba, here.

Two enormous and lavish resorts — the Tampa Bay Hotel, now the main building of the University of Tampa, and the Belleview Biltmore, being eyed for renovation in Clearwater — were built by Plant for rail travelers.

Crocker was born and raised in the 27-square-mile Hillsborough County city of about 34,000, which is known for its strawberry fields and is between Brandon and Lakeland off Interstate 4.

And that drawl? "It's a unique accent, indicative of Plant City," the businesswoman said.

It was her love of the city that convinced her in 2000 to buy the dilapidated house — "with a lot of potential" — that was divided into four apartments and tilting slightly on its foundation.

"The house was in such disrepair that it would have to be saved or soon torn down. It seemed like a challenge to save it and make it beautiful and functional," she said.

The price: $110,000.

So, acting as her own general contractor, she set out restoring the 4,500-square-foot house with a wraparound porch and more than 20 rooms. The house has five working fireplaces and the original wrought-iron fence surrounding it.

Her first task was making the house level, no small task. She replaced the porch ceiling and lifted the columns to repair the rotted wood beneath them. She put in new windows, refinished the floors and landscaped the corner lot, which includes a separate one-bedroom building also completely remodeled.

Eight months later, the major work was done and she was able to do the fun stuff — decorating and filling it with antiques from the period. She is a real estate agent and a design company owner, so who better to do the task?

While farms and new housing developments dot the outlying area of Plant City, the houses in the historic downtown were built by the businesspeople who rode a horse and carriage to the stores they owned.

You can almost see those horse-drawn buggies on the narrow picturesque streets in the quaint town. It's hard to believe busy I-4 is just minutes away.

There's more to Plant City than historic buildings, though. It's the place to be if you want some land at a reasonable price — and a reasonable distance from Tampa. There are also newer housing developments, like Walden Lake, to satisfy buyers looking for new-home amenities.

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