TARPON SPRINGS — Trese Canham swung open her Brazilian oak front door, smiled at a woman who had come to look at her rooms for rent.
Trese, 42, took in the woman's glossy polyester top, her mousy looks. Trese had shown the bedrooms in her 7,000 square-foot home to quite a few women over the past three months. This one looked honest, kind.
They headed up one of two matching staircases in the towering foyer, past a blood red wall with a gold tapestry that hung for two stories like a table runner.
The woman followed Trese like someone walking through church, head bowed, steps tentative. Occasionally, she looked up to take in the pointed gothic arches, the gold paint on the ceiling, the gilded mirrors, the gold, black and crystal chandeliers.
Trese, flaxen blond and a size 0, headed into a large unfurnished mint-green room at the top of the stairs. It's where she used to homeschool her four daughters back when her family had it all. She pointed out the view of the pool and the cypress woods behind the house.
Then she moved to the other available room, which had belonged to her 9-year-old girl. It was furnished, complete with an ornate carved butterfly on the ceiling and cloth dolls on a flowered bedspread.
She explained that she'd already rented her three other daughters' bedrooms to college students. A single mother with kids now lived in the apartment above her garage. Each of them paid $125 to $150 a week to live in her home.
"This is all new to us," Trese said. "We're struggling, too."
• • •
If you stood outside the Canham home, you'd never know the distress inside. Their mansion, down the street from former basketball star Matt Geiger's estate, is still picture-perfect taupe stucco with an elegant white balustrade. The raised lawn is coiffed, even green.
The signs of strain are in the details. The gray patches where spring plantings haven't been replaced. The disappearing toys: boats, RVs, cars.
For the past two years, Trese (pronounced Tracy) and her husband, Tim, a general contractor, have been fending off foreclosure on their mansion. A few months ago, they didn't have money for groceries.
In 2005, their business was grossing $3 million to $5 million a year and they were building the 7,000-square-foot house on Old Keystone Road with concrete blocks left over from other jobs.
In 2008, Tim saw his business slowing, so they tried to sell the house. Once priced at $2 million, they dropped the price to $650,000. No takers.
Over the course of the next two years, as the economy spiraled, Trese and Tim saw their success slip away. Their savings could not hold up their lifestyle. And because they still owned all that property they couldn't sell, they didn't qualify for government help like food stamps or free health insurance for the girls.
One day eight months ago, Trese trudged to the YMCA and begged for a free membership so her once-active daughters would have something to do.
The woman at the Y surveyed Trese's unemployment pay stubs. On paper, they were still so rich. Their home was worth more than $750,000 in the tax records. They owned commercial property and other land.
Trese explained how her husband had gone from five to 10 jobs a week to maybe one every other week. How they'd sold the RV, the boat, the baby grand piano, the outside bar and stools, the golf cart, the pool table, his work trucks, his SUV, his tools, her gold jewelry, even his wedding ring. They'd cashed out their savings, IRAs, life insurance. Stopped paying their mortgage.
Their eldest daughter, Falon, 20, had turned over $7,000 she'd saved working during her teen years at a gymnastics studio. They'd gone through that, too.
The woman nodded sympathetically, told Trese she'd cut their membership to $40 a month for the whole family. Trese begged her to cut it to nothing, even threw in a "Pleeeease."
The woman shook her head.
Things got so bad that Trese's sister-in-law, who was on food stamps, brought them groceries. Then the short sale offer came in on their home: $450,000.
Dejected, Trese started thinking. Maybe there was another way they could keep themselves afloat and possibly save the house. She wasn't sure if zoning laws allowed it. And it was a crazy notion, especially for her. The neat freak who was so protective of her girls that she homeschooled them was considering letting strangers into her home.
• • •
Trese headed back downstairs with the potential renter, showing her the shared laundry room, the kitchen with the dark brown marbleized granite countertops, the family room with the custom silk and taffeta drapes, the long pool with the hot tub.
She paused in a dark room with a walnut and green marble dining room table that stretched endlessly beneath half a dozen black chandeliers and a beam ceiling. There were crystal glasses and candelabras on the table and gold paint on the ceilings.
"This is our formal dining room," Trese said. "We never come here, but you are welcome if you want to do something fancy."
Trese led the way through a skinny hallway with more pointed arches, past a wall of painted plywood to a door with a dead bolt.
"I want you to meet my girls," she said, popping open the door.
Four girls with long blond hair emerged from two tiny rooms.
Falon. Quincey. Tristin. Sharron.
Falon, a college student living at home, nodded politely. She shared a room with 9-year-old Sharron, who hopped excitedly from one foot to another.
Tristin, 13, and Quincey, 15, gave warm smiles that belied their anxiety. The family now lived in an area blocked off by plywood that included the girls' new bedrooms, Trese and Tim's master bedroom, their master bathroom and their formal living room, which was now quite a bit less formal.
Tim, 43, emerged from the master bedroom. He wore a sleeveless T-shirt and shorts. His arms were tanned, muscular. The Canhams had met as teenagers on Clearwater Beach back when he was a construction laborer and she was the daughter of a Burger King manager.
"My husband is the only male in the house," Trese told the woman. "I know you don't know him, but he's one of the best men I know. He's awesome."
Tim managed a half-smile.
• • •
In their makeshift residence, Trese found her family in Tristin and Quincey's new bedroom.
"Did she like it?" Tim asked, leaning back on the lower bunk.
"I couldn't read her," Trese replied. "I think so."
Tim sighed. He'd tried to find work, sent in applications to dozens of employers. Every now and then, he got a framing job, but it wasn't enough to support his family. He was depressed.
"This was supposed to be our retirement home," he said. "I never thought I'd lose on this. But the market is so bad."
One of his daughters, Tristin, put her hand on his shoulder. She was trying not to cry. Everything used to come so easily. Gymnastics and dance lessons. Coach bags. Designer jeans. Now Sharron was chewing on one side of her mouth and needed to see the dentist. Quincey had been having headaches. There was no money to take them to doctors. They were going to public school for the first time so their mom could look for a job. They'd seen their dad clipping coupons.
"It's just really, really hard," Tristin said.
Renting out the house had seemed unimaginable. Trese and Tim sat the girls down and told them they'd have to move into their father's tiny office and workout room downstairs. They would sleep two to a room. There would not be room for Quincey's collection of ceramic high-heeled shoes or Tristin's collection of angels.
"I didn't think they were serious," Quincey said. "I was mad because I didn't want to share a room. I'm okay with it now, though."
Sharing all that space with strangers was strange. Everyone pretty much stayed in their rooms, leaving the rest of the house unused. Trese sometimes felt like a traffic cop, trying to get all of the residents to stick to their designated laundry day and pay the rent on time.
But she'd come to realize they were helping a lot of people. Mothers of some of the college girls had thanked them for giving their girls a safe place to stay. The family over the garage had been in a domestic violence shelter before moving in.
The rental income had helped buy food, keep their cell phones on, pay the power bill and the water bill. They'd tried to get a loan modification. But they didn't qualify.
They were told they could write a hardship letter and pay the $26,000 they were behind within six months to get back on track. But they'd sold most of their big ticket items. Even with all the garage sales, there wasn't anything left to generate that kind of money.
They'd joked about sending Tim to Biloxi, Miss., with $200 to play blackjack. They'd discussed and discarded the notion of getting divorced. Trese would qualify for food stamps and health assistance for the girls better as a single mother.
"It's just what can we do to survive until things get better," she said, "to put food on the table and have water and electricity. But I would be dishonest if I said that's all my concern was. No, I want to keep my house. I don't want to lose everything we've worked so hard for."
• • •
Less than an hour later, the lady in the polyester top returned with her daughters. The girls were clearly impressed.
"I like it," the 18-year-old said, beaming. "I have friends on this street. I can tell them I live at the mansion down the street."
"I'd be delighted to have you guys," Trese said, trying not to sound desperate. "As soon as you make a decision, your mom can call me and let me know."
As they left, Trese waved, closed the heavy front door and paused.
"These doors cost me $14,000," she said. "It's really humiliating."
She wanted the money back. For all of it. The $10,000 for the designer drapes. The $4,500 for the ornate walnut dining room table and chairs. The $3,700 for the book cases. The $20,000 for the baby grand piano.
She'd posted the Brazilian oak front door on Craigslist for $4,000. She'd find another cheaper door.
She'd gotten one e-mail reply.
"Your doors are gorgeous," someone had written, "but are you crazy?"
Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8640.