The building was in its infancy when a vintage Cadillac Eldorado rumbled up the construction path. Getting out, the driver demanded to know what the finished structure was intended for.
Told that it would be a private home, the driver scoffed. The unique design, he said, gave it away. Someone was building a mosque on this residential street north of Keystone Road in Tarpon Springs.
Later, when the construction manager told the property owner about the exchange, Gareth Whitehurst couldn’t resist. He commissioned a sign with a Middle East flavor and hung it on a wrought iron gate at the front of the property for a month. Written in Arabic, the sign read:
This is not a mosque.
"At least the people who spoke Arabic wouldn’t be confused,’’ Whitehurst later laughed. "Those other SOBs could construe it any way they wished.’’
The building is nearly finished now, and its intent is clearer. It is an homage. An homage to the Jefferson Memorial. To American ideals. And to a life dedicated to hope and wonder.
It took several years to design, eight years to build and heaven knows how long to conceive. It wasn’t exactly a lifelong dream, but it does harken back to Whitehurst’s childhood growing up near Washington, D.C., and exploring all its historic architecture.
From the outside, it is immediately recognizable for its nod to the Jefferson Memorial, although without the front portico. On the inside, it is a stunning mix of design and open space, of balconies and bookshelves, of crescent-shaped pathways and a dome patterned after the U.S. Capitol building.
It is a home, and it is a passion project. If he has his way, it may also be part of an educational outreach program, although he hasn’t yet contacted school districts because he has a few more months of finishing touches.
"To think I might sit in this building and hibernate when I retire is such a disgusting, selfish waste of time and money. So, it’s got to become something bigger than that, something for the community,’’ said Whitehurst, who was a Pinellas County School Board member about 40 years ago. "I want to introduce (school officials) to the building and see if I can get classes to come out here for enrichment programs. That would give me great satisfaction.’’
He is 76, and so the topic of retirement comes up often. Although his interest seems more obligatory and less enthusiastic.
If not for this project, he could have already retired to his 5,500-square-foot home a couple hundred feet down a crest from his domed building.
But that wouldn’t quite fit the pattern of a life spent creating and exploring. Of a man who taught math in Indiana, and supplemented his income by playing keyboards in a rock band and working part-time in a jewelry store. He eventually accepted an offer from Zales Jewelers to move to Florida and, growing restless under a corporate structure, opened his own store in Clearwater in 1977.
Tinkering with his own drawings, he eventually acquired the Jefferson Memorial architectural designs from the Department of the Interior and began this project in earnest more than decade ago.
It’s taken this long, he said, because he couldn’t afford to build it all at once.
"I could have retired if I hadn’t built this, and now I can’t quite afford to retire,’’ said Whitehurst, who is married and has five grown children. "What else would I be doing anyway?’’
The Pinellas County Property Appraiser’s office lists the Jefferson building and Whitehurst’s nearby house as having a combined value of nearly $2.3 million. That seems vastly underestimated, although Whitehurst does not want to reveal publicly what his new project has cost him.
Instead, he prefers to talk about the book collection that completely rings the upper balcony. The collection ranges from textbooks, to modern fiction, to philosophy, to history and even the complete works of the Far Side cartoons. He hired librarian Meredith Myers to begin cataloguing his collection, and she’s still at work recording the more than 10,000 items.
Pianos and organs are spaced throughout the bottom floor, along with vintage, and empty, safes and cash registers, artwork, and a Wurlitzer jukebox.
The upper level includes a more modest living quarters with three bedrooms, and an outdoor deck with a pool and staircases to a balcony around the dome.
But of all the features, there is only one that Whitehurst insists be included in any description of the property. It is another sign hanging on a brick wall outside the six-acre compound.
It is a quote from one of America’s founding fathers, Samuel Adams:
"If ever a time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.’’
More than 200 years later, standing in front of a building designed to honor another founding father, Whitehurst solemnly shakes his head.
"The first time I saw that quote, I thought ‘Aw, man if that isn’t Donald Trump, I don’t know who he is describing,’?’’ Whitehurst said. "It’s the second part of the quote, the part about ardent patriots needing to save the country, that convinced me to put up the sign.
"If I can put up a sign in Arabic, I can certainly put up one from Sam Adams.’’
Has he gotten any grief about the sign?
Whitehurst says no. The occasional passer-by will pull into the circular driveway for a better look, and some have been presumptuous enough to get closer than polite, but it’s all out of curiosity.
In the meantime, he still marvels at what has been accomplished.
"When I started this, I had no idea if I could pull it off,’’ he said. "My whole life, as far as I can interpret, has been chasing creativity. To me, it’s the one thing that makes life interesting.’’