When it comes to old houses, Jo and Bob Larkin have never been afraid of a challenge.
For several years they ran a popular local bed-and-breakfast — the Lark Inn — in a three-story, 5,700-square-foot Victorian house they restored themselves.
They've since moved on to the house next door — a late 19th century Florida cracker house converted to more elegant digs by a local doctor who bought it in the early 1900s.
The two-story, tin-roofed, pumpkin-color home with its lovely old camellia bushes, wraparound front porch and graceful pergolas is considered a knock-out beauty along Church Avenue — one of Dade City's most historic and sought-after neighborhoods.
From 4 to 8:30 p.m. Dec. 7, the Larkins will open their doors to the public for the Dade City Garden Club's "Hollyhock Circle" fifth home tour, which occurs every other year.
For a $25 donation, visitors can tour the home and gardens, sip wine, nibble hors d'oeuvres, enjoy live music and bid at a silent auction. People interested in buying tickets should call garden club member Cheryl O'Berry at (352) 588-3408.
No doubt, the house, which has had only four owners including the Larkins since it was built in the 1890s by an Iowa woman who named it "Idle Hour," has commanded its share of local interest.
"It used to look like the house Donna Reed threw a rock through the window and made a wish in It's a Wonderful Life!" says Sally Redden, a Hollyhock Circle member, who calls the Larkins' restoration "magnificent," adding that "everyone in town wants to see this house."
The garden club tour, held every other year, typically focuses on a single home that is both outstanding architecturally and well-decorated.
The Larkins bought the house in 2003 from the previous owner, the late Earl McKinney, who bought the house in the early 1970s and added the wooden picket-style fence, the porches and the gazebos on the home's most visible corner at 14th Street and Church Avenue.
"When Earl saw what we had done with the bed-and-breakfast, he said, 'That's what I always wanted to do with this house,' " recalls Bob.
McKinney, who died six months before the renovation was complete, was a colorful fixture in the home's history: He cooked legendary biscuits on the potbellied stove in the kitchen and hung a large "Bah Humbug!" sign out front every Christmas.
The Larkins sold their bed-and-breakfast in 2005, the year they began restoration work on the 3,400-square-foot McKinney house. They lived in a two-story garage and carriage house that Bob built on the property to match the main house.
Bob, a local residential, commercial and restoration contractor, oversaw all of the remodeling. He salvaged and, in some cases, expertly matched the original heart pine floors, woodwork and molding.
He replaced all the wiring, insulation and plumbing, utilized elegant stained glass windows throughout, rebuilt the front porch, remodeled the bathrooms, even transformed the kitchen into a cozy but highly functional workspace for Jo, a serious Southern cook who loves to entertain.
Jo's passion for antique collecting and keen eye for interior decorating is also evident throughout the house: She found the exquisite and massive dining-room crystal chandelier at a junk shop in Plant City; designed the elegant window treatments herself; incorporated paintings by her sister and daughter throughout; even had a custom dining table made from the lions' paw feet salvaged from an antique "square grand" piano that had been in a barn on the property.
Everything in the house has a story, from the 7-foot headboard bed imported from Texas to the antique wedding gown hanging on the guest bedroom door to her collection of antique perfume bottles on the guest vanity.
"I collect things I like," explains Jo, who says she has no interest in antiques for their monetary value, but is simply drawn in by their aesthetic appeal.
Throughout the house, the Larkins tried to use rich colors, historically accurate reproduction light fixtures and authentic antiques that might have been around at the time the house was built.
"I really tried to keep the house in the period," says Jo, who works full-time as a real estate paralegal.
Neither she nor Bob hesitated, she says, when they were asked to open their doors for the Garden Club holiday home tour.
The club's long-standing local philanthropy.
Founded in 1947, the Dade City Garden Club is divided into six circles, including Hollyhock, which organizes the holiday home tour as a major fund-raiser. The club lends its support to major civic and philanthropic projects around Dade City, from public beautification efforts to Habitat for Humanity projects to send-offs and welcome home events for National Guard troops serving in Afghanistan.
"Some of the nicest people you'll ever meet stayed in our bed-and-breakfast," says Jo. "I really miss that. I'm completely immune to the idea of strangers coming through my house. And this is a really good cause."
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at email@example.com.