TAMPA — Seminole Heights is a neighborhood of tree-lined streets, where houses ranging from 1920s bungalows to 1950s and '60s ranch-style homes to new construction sit in harmony on ample lots. An impressive gothic-style charter high school opened in August and the Seminole Heights Library is set to be torn down and replaced with a bigger library.
Debi Johnson has been familiar with Seminole Heights for a long time.
In 1998, the Tampa financial adviser helped her daughter, a graduate student at the University of South Florida, buy a home in the neighborhood.
"She had a lot of friends who were buying property in this area. It was an up-and-coming place for young people," Johnson said. And the housing was affordable because the homes weren't being rehabbed as they are now.
"In 1998, the neighborhood was not as desirable," she said.
And then in March 2009, more families joined the neighborhood. Johnson's son and his wife, who were living in California, wanted to start a family and they wanted Grandma Johnson to babysit. She was tasked with finding them a house — in Seminole Heights.
So, her decision in late 2009 to join her children was an easy one; buying the house she wanted wasn't.
Johnson had her eye on a 1928 Colonial Revival in extreme disrepair. The first floor wasn't even habitable. But Johnson saw the possibilities.
The house was foreclosed on, then bank-owned, then investor-owned, but Johnson was finally able to buy it. She moved in and immediately put about $70,000 into its restoration, not a lot of money, she said, for all the work that was done. Johnson said she saved money in her remodeling efforts by repurposing old things instead of buying new.
Her kitchen cabinets came from a tear-down. Floorboards from inside the house were used to repair the outside of the house. The fireplace mantel came from an architectural salvage store. She calls her house "Miss Jewel."
Although rehabbing was new to Johnson, it is pretty much modus operandi for residents of the 21,000-resident three-neighborhood cluster — Old Seminole Heights, South Seminole Heights and Southeast Seminole Heights — that comprises Seminole Heights.
"There are a lot of homes in the neighborhood like this. A lot of people are doing this (type of restoration)," said Evan St. Ives, president of the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association.
Seminole Heights is a tight-knit community with active neighborhood associations that raise money to fund everything from cleaning the bricks on one of the community's churches to unclogging the sulfur springs that feed the Hillsborough River at the neighborhood's northern boundary.
Unlike newer neighborhoods, there aren't as many homes for sale in Seminole Heights.
"People have no idea what is here," St. Ives said. "People who live here absolutely love the neighborhood."
Patti Ewald is a freelance writer based in Gulfport. She can be reached at [email protected]