The Scarborough House — on a billboard-worthy hilltop just east of downtown Brooksville — isn't just a building. It's an announcement.
And what it tells incoming drivers on E Jefferson Street isn't good.
It says we're a place with a potential landmark, a house old and majestic enough to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. But we haven't capitalized on it or even taken care of it. We've let its walls sag and its paint peel. Nobody's gotten around to fixing the hole in the roof, pulling the potato vines off the trees in the yard or trimming the front hedge that looks like the Great Wall of Ligustrum.
Maybe we don't have much money circulating in the local economy, it tells drivers. Maybe we aren't that resourceful. Maybe we just don't have much pride.
But as I wrote two weeks ago, things seem to be changing. Longtime business leaders in Brooksville are finally pushing downtown revival. And now, an outsider with a local connection, Dorothea Stephens, has bought the Scarborough House and plans to make it presentable enough to serve as a venue for weddings and other events.
There is a Christmas connection, by the way. The previous owner of the Scarborough House was Weiland Rogers, who inherited it from his aunt, Margaret "Weenie" Ghiotto. She, of course, was the founder of the nearby Rogers' Christmas House Village.
And as sad as it is for another holiday season to pass with the Christmas House closed, and as great as it would be to see somebody take an interest in that property, a revival of the Scarborough House could be even bigger for the city and the east-side business district. It's more historic, more impressive looking, more visible.
Stephens said she loves antiques so much that she built her new home in north Tampa to look Victorian. She saw the Scarborough House on trips to the nearby Mallie Kyla's Cafe, and decided to buy it — for $120,000 — because it's the real deal.
Frank Saxon, a state legislator and clerk of the circuit court, built it for his second wife, the former Tulula Hope, in the early 1870s, local historian Virginia Jackson said after Ghiotto bought the house in 1992.
Its name comes from a later owner, Annie Varn Scarborough, who lived there for about 70 years. Ghiotto, who restored many old homes in Brooksville, never was able to complete the work on this one.
It used to be the most elegant house in town, Ghiotto said after she bought it. But that was so long ago that even Ghiotto, a lifelong resident who died in 2006 at age 89, had to rely on an elder cousin to tell her about the chandelier that could be seen through the tall windows on winter nights.
Tour the house, as I did just before Stephens closed on it Wednesday evening, and you can still see signs of those times: high ceilings; original, wavy-paned windows; wrap-around porches; fireplaces in every room; a view from the second floor of Hope Hill — the original settlement of Talula's family — several miles to the south.
In new houses that are built to look old, any shove will make the banisters sway. Good luck with that in the Scarborough House; the spindles are as big around as Louisville Sluggers.
Stephens sanded a patch of the stairs and revealed deep-brown stripes in the grain.
"You can see it's going to be beautiful," she said.
It's also sturdy. The studs, banister and floors are heart pine — resin-rich wood from mature trees. The siding is cypress. And despite the leaky roof, there is very little visible rot.
She and her family — including husband, Greg, and sister, Sylvia McMorrow, who lives in Hernando County — have been working on the house for several weeks already, pulling three dumpsters worth of debris out of its rooms and hallways.
But there is still work to be done. Tons of it. The drooping south side of the house has to be jacked up and supported with new piers.
The crumbling plaster walls and the laths beneath them must be pulled and replaced with insulation and drywall. The house needs to be wired, reroofed, wallpapered and painted. And, yes, Stephens plans to trim the trees, pull off some of the moss and cut back the monster hedge.
Stephens, 52 and a 28-year veteran of the U.S. Postal Service, said she doesn't know how long it will take or how much it will cost. But it helps that her husband is a cabinetmaker. He can do some of the work himself, she said, and trade his labor to get people with other skills to work on the house.
McMorrow and her two adult daughters, April White and Angie McMorrow, will also help with the repairs and, once they're completed, with the wedding business.
If someone from outside of Brooksville is willing to take this much trouble with one of our old buildings, that's another kind of announcement — not to visitors, but to us. Maybe this city has more promise and more to be proud of than we realize.