Saturday, June 23, 2018
Business

He helped build his namesake bridge a century ago, now George Gandy Jr.'s house is for sale

ST. PETERSBURG — George "Gidge'' Gandy Jr. had just moved into the large wood-frame house on Big Bayou in October 1921 when a hurricane that already devastated parts of southwest Florida churned into Tampa Bay.

Gandy — who was helping his father build the cross-bay bridge that would bear their name — sent his wife and son to safety in downtown St. Petersburg, then rode out the storm alone. By the time it left the area, it had flooded much of Tampa, damaged or destroyed all four St. Petersburg fishing piers and left other parts of Pinellas County in ruins. Yet Gandy's house made it through the hurricane unscathed — "like a well-built ship," he would later say.

Gandy and his family continued to live in the home until his daughter Helen O'Brien died there two years ago at 92. Now, for the first time in nearly a century, the Gandy-O'Brien house is for sale.

"It's such a unique piece of Old Florida," broker Natalie DeVicente said of the cracker-style house, which sits on more than an acre of palms, pines and oaks fringed by a natural, sandy beach that opens to Tampa Bay.

Priced at $1.95 million, the two-story house needs major work that could easily run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. George Gandy's grandchildren realize it probably will be torn down as much as they would like to see it saved and restored.

"Our fondest hopes would be for someone who has the same keen interest in history and appreciates the qualities that are still there in that house that you don't find today," granddaughter Kim O'Brien said.

She lives across the street from the house in Driftwood, a secluded neighborhood two miles south of downtown St. Petersburg that was the site of Pinellas County's only armed Civil War conflict. Shipbuilder Barney Williams, son of the Civil War general for whom St. Petersburg's Williams Park is named, built the house in 1910 out of cypress and hard pine. A solid length of wood that had been a ship's spar formed the stairway bannister.

The Gandys were prominent builders, too, whose credits included the city's Plaza Theater, where such internationally known stars as ballerina Anna Pavlova and opera singer Enrico Caruso performed. By 1921, George Sr. and sons George Jr. and Albert were well under way with construction of the three-mile toll bridge that would link Tampa and St. Petersburg across the bay for the first time when it opened in 1924.

Shortly before the hurricane struck, George Jr. bought the house from Williams. George Jr. also was a boater and sailor at heart — he co-founded the St. Petersburg-Havana regatta and wrote for yachting magazines — and his granddaughter thinks that was a major reason he was drawn to the property on Big Bayou.

"What he loved most was water and sailing," O'Brien said. "He was always keenly interested in anything nautical, He had many boats over the years."

Gandy's wife, Edith, gave him a wooden ship's wheel that, according to family lore, might once have been on a Mississippi paddle wheeler captained by Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. Gandy painted an enormous compass rose on the ceiling of his den, then had the wheel hung from the center. When his grandchildren began clearing out the house for sale, it took four men to take down and dismantle the wheel, nine feet in diameter.

Shortly after World War II, the property was divided and a house built next door where Gandy's daughter Helen — described in the 1941 St. Petersburg High yearbook as a "curvaceous and vivacious" cheerleader — lived with her family. But the kids — Kim, Roby and Cindy — were often at their grandparents' place, sailing and fishing with seine nets.

"We spent our lives on the waterfront," O'Brien said. "Life in that bayou was unbelievable, and it's still amazingly good and amazingly clean."

So abundant was one type of fish that her grandfather dubbed the house the Mullet Farm — as he put it, ''You can hear the mullet jumping at night."

After George Jr. and Edith died, Helen moved into the house in 1983. The upstairs bathroom still had its original black and white Art Deco tile, but Helen added flowered wallpaper to both bathrooms, converted one bedroom into a huge closet, enclosed the front porch and put in central heat and air-conditioning.

"My mother was trying to rush some of the restoration that she wanted to make before the wedding," said O'Brien who was married in the house in 1983.

After her husband died, Helen stayed there alone although her daughter was just across the street and her son lived next door. On her death in 2015, they and sister Cindy, who is in Maine, inherited the 3,634-square-foot house and decided to sell.

"It's such a big piece of property and such a big house," O'Brien said. "We are all getting older and we are all perfectly ensconced in our own homes. It's just more than we wanted to handle."

In clearing out the house, O'Brien, a former curator at the Orlando Museum of Art, found a trove of memorabilia from the Gandy Bridge construction, the long-gone Plaza Theater, the St. Petersburg-Havana race (halted while Fidel Castro was alive; resumed this year) and the tag from the Cynosure, a boat on which her grandfather sailed to Cuba. She and her siblings are still sorting through the trove, but making available it to a writer who is working on a book about George Gandy Sr.

The broker, DeVicente, whose grandmother went to St. Petersburg High with Helen O'Brien, also came across yellowed receipts dating back to the 1920s. Among them: One for 53 hours of carpentry work at 65 cents an hour.

Though the ship's wheel that hung in Gandy's den is destined for his grandson's home, other artifacts will stay with the house including the compass rose and a brass sundial in the yard. The property, a little over an acre and a quarter, also has a separate carriage house.

As DeVicente of Southern Roots Realty showed two visitors around the grounds one recent afternoon, no mullet were jumping but a fat bluefish slipped through the clear waters of Big Bayou. Two night herons perched in a tall longleaf pine.

It probably looked much like George Gandy Jr. found it 96 years ago.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate

 
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