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Mistakes, accusations dim mansion's grandeur

TAMPA — In Avila, where houses grow large as museums and, even in a recession, yard workers may outnumber squirrels, a dream home has become a money manager's nightmare.

"The trim work is not lined up with the door," said John Bartoletta, pointing at the front entrance of his home. "See the seam?"

A medallion carved into the wall is too big, he said. The wood floor buckles under a bank of cabinets. Wires droop, absent their chandeliers.

"Unconscionable," his lawyer Todd Foster puts it.

An untrained eye wowed by the grandiose $2.2-million Tuscan-styled mansion with four columns and two driveways might overlook the flaws. But Bartoletta must live with them, and so the problems are like broken windows in the Sistine Chapel.

"Please don't get caught up," the 45-year-old chief executive officer of an investment firm warns a visitor. "It is beautiful, and people aren't used to seeing a house like this. But it's a massive amount of mistakes."

Who made those mistakes is a matter in dispute. Bartoletta has sued interior decorator Gage-Martin of Tampa Bay, Inc., and its founder Dee Marksberry, who was hired to decorate the home. He seeks $3-million plus attorney fees.

He wasn't the first to sue. Gage-Martin sued Bartoletta first, saying he failed to pay more than $200,000 needed to finish the job.

Bartoletta, who runs the HighStreet-Group investment firm, is a self-described homebody.

He sits behind a bank of computer screens in a home office that looks like a Star Trek set, busily checking the prices of oil, gas, gold, everything bought and sold. He loves his privacy and hired Marksberry to transform his modest $2.2-million manse into a Tuscan dream home, where he could have cocktails on the pool patio without ever needing to leave.

After the initial $600,000 quote, he said, Marksberry came back with a grand plan to remodel the entire home, eventually at a cost of $1.8-million.

He ended up with a litany of problems; among them, two $950 toilet brushes, flimsy closet shelves, an unfinished and mismatched bathroom, lackluster venetian plaster and artwork he never chose. There were messy matters involving liens and permits.

He learned Marksberry wasn't licensed as an interior designer nor general contractor, though she took on those roles, he said.

"I got taken," he said.

Previously, Marksberry had been warned by regulators to stop advertising herself as an interior designer, according to state records. "Designers" require a license to operate in Florida, while "decorators" do not.

Marksberry, whose client list includes Tampa Bay Lightning star Vincent Lecavalier, never identified herself as anything more than a decorator, her attorney Cheryl Lister said.

If Bartoletta has problems, he should take them up with the general contractor he hired, Lister said.

"If you got a case, bring it to court," Marksberry said. "If these are the things you're saying about me, prove it."

Marksberry managed the work on the house, and paid contractors and workers, but only after Bartoletta asked her to do so, Lister said. Bartoletta told Marksberry he was too busy to deal with details, Lister said.

"Nothing went in this house that Mr. Bartoletta didn't approve," Lister said.

She said her client can account for every penny Bartoletta paid.

Bartoletta said much remains unfinished in the house.

He left in place many of the accessories and books Marksberry selected for him, though he doesn't like them. He picks up a tissue box covered in an alligator pattern and turns it over.

Underneath is the tag: $275.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Mistakes, accusations dim mansion's grandeur 10/29/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 5, 2008 9:05pm]
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