Battle lines drawn over unique home in traditional Tampa suburb

TAMPA

In an alternate reality, "Splice House" is Jonathon Lawrence's home and legacy.

High-end materials make it sturdy and environmentally green. A glass atrium, narrow in front and wider in back, provides views of the moonlight, the stars, and the woods.

Wedged into an odd-shaped lot left over when Lennar Homes developed his deed restricted neighborhood, the house reflects the passionately held beliefs of the 49-year-old Lawrence — that builders should place people over profit, with designs that value honesty and simplicity.

But in real life, Lawrence is drowning in code enforcement fines and has become the scourge of Charleston Corners. People call out obscenities, he said. They leave little bags of dog poop on his doorstep.

Stalled in construction after 10 years, the home looks like a fire scene, with torn plastic wrapping affixed to unpainted, weather-beaten plywood.

Neighbors have called it an "eyesore," a "horrible eyesore" and a "monstrosity" in letters to Hillsborough County officials. There is a lien, a foreclosure and a bankruptcy.

"Maybe he is waiting for better times," said neighbor Leo Jasiulevicius, a member of the homeowner board. "We've said, "let us paint the wood. We can't find him."

Lawrence isn't hiding. He'll talk to anybody. "I'm not shirking anything," he said. And he hasn't gone far.

He is coordinator of capital projects for the city of St. Petersburg.

He could have built anywhere: Hyde Park, known for artistic expression; or out in the woods where no one would care.

But Lawrence, trained as an architect, wanted to make a statement about cookie-cutter subdivision norms.

He chose Charleston Corners, a mid-priced enclave northwest of Tampa. Just outside fashionable Westchase, it has 417 homes, good schools, swimming and tennis.

He said it irks him to see ornamental flourishes on the front of a house, yielding to cheap and less attractive views from the side and rear. It bothers him that builders pour slab-on-grade, even in flood-prone areas. "You should come up, into a house."

Homebuyers are not getting what they deserve, he said, and he was willing to take risks to prove it. His intention was "to positively influence my neighborhood through a built work."

So he bought the lot on Manassas Road, got a permit in 2000 and started building. For a while, he served on the homeowner's association board. County inspectors signed off on the foundation and sewer tie-in. He installed a bathtub to their satisfaction.

But by the date of that inspection in 2007, Lawrence had been through numerous contractors and subs. Lutz remodeler Harry Felsenthal, who worked for Lawrence briefly, found him nice enough, but very exacting.

"He would say, 'Put this screw there,' and it had to go in that spot and nowhere else," Felsenthal said. "He had all metal studs for the interior. No one could figure out the reason."

That one's simple, Lawrence said: Termites don't eat steel. Water doesn't rot it. And yes, he used an unusual siding for Florida — zinc, from Europe.

"They put zinc on French rooftops 300 years ago," he said. "It does not need paint. The maintenance is zero."

From the street, he insisted his house would not look out of place, that the gray and white exterior complements others nearby. Less conventional features — a staircase made of perforated steel, for example —would be visible only inside. And he made concessions to get Lennar's approval — such as a sloped roof. "I would have loved to do a flat roof," he said.

Still, neighbors had doubts. "It's more of a Miami Vice kind of place," said Mark Pendergraff, who also called it a haunted house.

Appearing at homeowner meetings — sometimes he was the only one in the audience, he said — Lawrence gave updates. A setback came when his siding installer moved abruptly to Kentucky. The holder of his construction loan was taken over by an out-of-state institution, making it far more difficult to access the funds he needed.

"As long as he had an open construction permit, he could take as long as he wanted," Jasiulevicius said.

That all ended in 2008 with the mortgage crisis. Lawrence had to shift gears professionally. He took the job in St. Petersburg, a move that had nothing to do with the house, he said.

The permit expired. He was hit with a lien and then a foreclosure notice from the association, which accused him of falling behind on his $170 quarterly dues.

Code enforcement cited him for untended scaffolding, failure to protect the exterior walls, and unsafe conditions in general. Lawrence said he took care of all problems except the unfinished exterior.

The board ordered him to pay $250 a day, starting in January 2009.

Not getting the results it wanted, they passed the case to the County Attorney's Office. There, it languished as attorneys tried to figure out how their collection efforts might be affected by a 2009 bankruptcy petition filed by Lawrence's wife.

With fines exceeding $80,000 early this year, neighbors peppered County Commissioner Rose Ferlita's office with e-mails.

Brett King called the house "a disgusting mess that I see every day on my way in and out of the neighborhood."

Added Carissa Pecora: "We do not deserve to be left with this guy's problem house."

Neighbor Stacie Segal considered putting her own house on the market two years ago, when her marriage was ending.

But an appraiser asked her "What's up with that house?" It was just one of the reasons, she said, why she did not sell.

Others have grown used to taking guests into the neighborhood through alternate roads.

Lawrence said he visits the place regularly. "I still pay the water, the electricity, I pay to cut the grass," he said. "I am there every week. I still visit to make sure it is secure."

The fines are now more than $90,000. "I could finish everything for $90,000," he said.

And, yes, he intends to finish it.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or sokol@sptimes.com.

Battle lines drawn over unique home in traditional Tampa suburb 07/03/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 3, 2010 1:24am]

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