Underground, the stars are twinkling when Tom Simpson says, "Watch the sky," and with a tap of his iPad the sapphire ceiling erupts in a haze of colored clouds. • We are watching opera on a 159-inch screen in his subterranean replica of the Tampa Theatre, lushly adorned with red curtains, wrought iron and baroque statuettes. Another tap, and the clouds disappear, leaving 1,700 stars hand-drilled to precisely mirror the nighttime sky over eastern Hillsborough County.
Perhaps it's the music, but everything in this massive theater feels epic, otherworldly, maybe a little insane. All the high-end hardware in this 20-foot-tall theater — the flown-in-from-Germany speakers, the "Mercedes-Benz" of screens, the professional-playhouse lighting — has been precisely aimed at a single point, Tom's plush theater chair.
Yet, at nearly the size of the average American home, this theater is only "the basement in the basement" of Mision Lago, one of Tampa Bay's newest and largest ultra-mansions. Among cow pastures and trailer parks, Tom, 68, and his wife, June, 65, recently unveiled a 25,000-square-foot hacienda even larger than Derek Jeter's Davis Islands estate.
Over four years of construction, this reserved multimillionaire couple has custom-built one of the most unusual, sumptuous and delicately designed mansions this area has seen in years.
A memorabilia Hall of Fame — Elvis' .38 special, Liberace's stage jacket, John Lennon's newsboy cap — flows into a sports lounge modeled after the infield at Tropicana Field and featuring old seats from Yankee Stadium, a baseball signed by Babe Ruth, Shaq's size-22 shoes. Dalí and Picasso originals stand sentry outside a 900-square-foot replica of the president's Oval Office.
The Simpsons buzzed a few Tampa Bay Times journalists past the gatehouse one afternoon last week for an exclusive tour of their Spanish-colonial villa, which pours down 11 acres of felled orange groves toward the shore of Lake Thonotosassa, 20 miles northeast of Tampa.
June seemed giddy to show it off. Vivacious in gold kitten heels, cat-eye glasses and a leopard dress, she whisked us past both mammoth kitchens and into the great room, near a hearth of shimmering blue fire glass. "If my parents were alive, their heads would be spinning," she said.
In 2006, after the Tampa native and her husband built their small Medicare cost-containment service into a powerhouse, the couple sold Health Advocates Inc. to a pharmaceutical giant for $83 million in cash. They bought a beachfront mansion in Malibu but couldn't stay away from Tampa Bay, which their two sons still call home.
They decided to bring California back with them, hiring Gary Brown, a West Coast-trained luxury builder in South Tampa, and basing designs after the Spanish missions of Santa Barbara. They were particularly inspired by the Adamson House, an ornate Pacific Coast Highway mansion known as the "Taj Mahal of tile."
From the air, their $7.5 million Mision Lago resembles a palm-ringed fortress of white stucco, arched windows and red-clay tile roofs. Out back sprawls a 27-foot-tall cage shading a two-level lagoon pool linked by a waterfall. A 5,000-square-foot courtyard stands at the compound's center, with a koi-filled lily pond and fake potty grass for their pugs, Macy and Puggy Sue.
Unlike the prefab mansions of football players, bolted-on in bulk, builders said the home has been designed with a microscopic sense of detail: the 18-foot-tall, 650-pound chandelier with onyx-topped candelabras; the rafters of Ponderosa pine, harvested from a Colorado forest and hand-scraped to fashionable distress.
As June whipped down the echoing halls, it was hard not to wince at the back-breaking amounts of work needed to complete the estate. A craftsman hand-colored intricate "rugs" of glazed tiles with brushes and paint-filled syringes. Workers dug out 100,000 cubic yards of dirt over three months for the theater. Artists hand-painted the tall wooden ceilings from atop scaffoldings, lying on their backs, eliciting jokes of the Sistine Chapel.
And, of course, there were the logistics of moving in the Simpsons' vast collections of art and antiques. Some of their furnishings, like a hand-carved Italian bed, were flown in from Las Vegas furniture expos, while others were loaded aboard an industrial shipping container that launched from Mexico. June seemed still exasperated by the rigors she, Tom and the workers faced during years of design and construction: "When we went through hell," she said, "we did it together."
So far, they said, the work has paid off. Mision Lago just took top honors as the best one-of-a-kind custom home over $3 million at the Southeast Building Conference in Orlando. And a California builders' conference chose it over three Los Angeles-area palaces as this year's best custom home bigger than 12,000 square feet, with judges celebrating the design's "restraint" and "livable scale."
Some extravagances, however, were thrown in simply because. The Simpsons' wine cellar was built mostly to showcase a stained-glass church window they found at a Miami salvage yard, and because "everybody says you've got to have a wine cellar." (They're not much into wine.) Passing a bronze loveseat that looks antique, June said to herself, "Who knows where I got that."
In one of their guest casitas, embellished with a cowhide rug and dozens of Mexican folk charms and crucifixes, June shows off a California king bed the couple bought in Malibu from Cher. When asked why she bought it — she doesn't even like Cher — June was unequivocal: "Because I wanted it."
Two full-time "estate managers" handle all the household chores, but June said living across six bedrooms, 12 bathrooms and a seven-car garage is not always a cakewalk. Their power bill is $2,000 a month. They had to install "S" monograms on the doors of their walk-in shower because Tom kept walking into the glass.
And though each room holds touchscreens controlling lights, music and intercoms, it is all too easy for the two empty-nesters to lose each other across three floors. Once, June said, when she was looking for Tom she "had to go to each and every room and call his name. By the time I found him, I wasn't happy." (He had been on the front lawn.)
The typical suburbanite would be forgiven for seeing the mega-mansion as gaudy: the alligator-skin chairs in the dining-room; the Spanish art galleries domed with 14-karat gold leaf; the classroom-sized closets of automated hangers and shoe carousels.
But the estate's size, June said, is exactly what they need to host their philanthropic events and charity galas. Except for a few weddings she has hosted at her nearby private "orchid estate'', their first test run will be in October, for a special gathering of local builders.
"This is my way of thanking Tampa for allowing me to be the way I am today," she said. "Everything we did, we were trying to give back."
Though Tom has lost 40 pounds just from moving, the Simpsons are still not fully settled in. After the tour, June had to prepare for an upcoming flight to California for lunch with Lisa Vanderpump and Brandi Glanville, two of TV's Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
But the Simpsons said that, despite their grandeur, they have already begun to fit in with the community. One day, when June was piloting her Land Rover down the winding driveway and out through her compound gate, she noticed a man and woman at a mobile home across the street look over and begin to wave.
"We were just neighbors, waving at each other," she said, smiling beneath her glasses. "I thought, okay. We're no different."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or [email protected]