SEMINOLE HEIGHTS — Ann McDonald bought a 1926 bungalow eight years ago with her sister, added a bathroom and painted it inside and out. She fashioned a driveway and landscaped the lawn with Florida plants.
Over the hearth in her living room, she put pictures of her family. In one, a grandson is held by Barack Obama, taken before he was elected president.
McDonald, 74, a social activist and historic preservationist, devoted her last years to Seminole Heights. She died Feb. 28 after a sudden illness.
"She was a preservationist at heart," said her sister Martha McNamee. "But if she was proud of anything, it was her two grandsons, Sam and Lucas."
She was always busy, said Elizabeth Doxey, another sister. At the time of her death, McDonald served as a board member of the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association and chaired its historic preservation committee.
On a bright, cool day about a month before she died, her friend Evan St. Ives stopped by to visit. McDonald was working in her yard, wearing gloves and one of her signature floppy hats to protect her fair complexion. Her gray tiger-striped cat, Pie, chased butterflies.
"Pie was doing somersaults and flips, having a wonderful time," St. Ives said. He and McDonald watched and laughed. They had been friends 30 years, he said.
"She was a very active person," St. Ives said. "She was a firebrand when she got going."
"That's true," said McNamee, who bought the home with her. "She was very passionate about things that touched her."
McDonald was the oldest of four sisters, followed by one brother, who grew up in Orlando, when it was a small town. There, she danced as a teen at the Buddy Ebsen School of Dance. She spent summers in New York City and came back with a "glam look all made up," said Doxey. Later, McDonald taught dance until she was diagnosed at 31 with rheumatoid arthritis.
In the 1960s, she moved to Tampa and worked to preserve Hyde Park. Then she moved to Jacksonville and earned a bachelor's degree in art history from the University of North Florida. She also earned a degree in interior design, Doxey said.
In 2002 she was in New York City alone when she had an aortic aneurysm that ruptured. Strangers got her to a hospital, where a resident recognized her symptoms and saved her life, Doxey said.
"She got 12 more years," she said.
McDonald used that time to make an impact.
As she worked to preserve the character of her neighborhood, Hampton Terrace, with a historic designation, she said in 2010 to a Times reporter: "The fact that it's charming is a lot of it, but in the last analysis, it's the people."
In 2011 she got the Capt. William Parker Jackson House listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in the 1880s it was the rendezvous of social life in the community and its pastures and groves spread across Seminole Heights. She helped to design the new Seminole Heights Branch Library, worked with the Tampa Bay History Center. Her latest project was the Green ARTery, a 20-mile pedestrian loop.
Chairs on her front porch invited guests to linger under the shade. She had no time to watch TV but her bookshelves bulged with historic books.
"Once she moved to Seminole Heights, she had unending projects," Doxey said.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.