Michele Cardinal gripped the steering wheel as her truck scaled the Augusta brick-paved hills of St. Petersburg's first suburb.
Her truck barreled down Historic Roser Park's main drag, Roser Park Drive, rumbling past the rigid stone walls that frame the neighborhood. At dusk, homes perched on mounds seemingly foreign to the flatlands of Florida eclipsed the setting spring sun. Some homes look as if they were plucked out of a Tuscan village, others from Key West. A few channel Southern California charm. No two are alike.
"The only negative thing I've heard in 10 years is that it's bumpy on Roser Park Drive," said Cardinal, 45, owner of Cardinal Pool Care. "You come up, and it's like, 'Holy crap, Auntie Em, where am I?' "
She revved up a steep incline to the light canary yellow 100-year-old bungalow she shares with her partner of 11 years, Catherine Nivens, 53, a microbiologist, and their two schnauzers, Henry and Nelly.
Their three-bedroom home at 909 Prospect Court S has survived St. Petersburg's desegregation and the boom and bust of the housing market. To celebrate a century of history, the couple will open up their home Saturday for a tour of Roser Park's homes. It's considered a hidden gem in a treasure chest known as St. Petersburg's oldest historic district, where 129 homes are bounded from Fourth to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. streets S, and from Booker Creek south to 11th Avenue.
"It's a well-kept secret," said Nivens, who serves as Historic Roser Park's newest neighborhood association president. "People don't know where it is."
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In 1914, a St. Petersburg Daily Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) headline boasted "ROSER PARK PRETTIEST SUBURB IN STATE; A WILDERNESS TRANSFORMED SINCE JUNE."
The front page heralded the real estate success of Charles Martin Roser, an Ohioan whose fortune was amassed from his culinary invention, the Fig Newton cookie, of which he sold the recipe along with a factory to Nabisco for a hefty $1 million.
He capitalized on the natural beauty of Booker Creek. In 1911, he acquired 30 acres and built 80 homes, being one of the first developers in Florida to do so. According to Pinellas County property appraiser records, Roser Park Addition 1, where Cardinal's home is zoned, was platted in 1914.
At the time, Roser Park was considered to be on the outskirts of town, a "streetcar suburb." Roser also donated land for Roser Park Elementary School.
St. Pete Preservation president Peter Belmont rented a room at 909 Prospect Court S in the early '80s. He remembers that the neighborhood struggled with crime.
"The dream was that the neighborhood would be where it is today, that people would begin to invest in the neighborhood and renovate their homes," Belmont said.
Ray Arsenault, a noted history professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said the area has been slow in gentrification because of stereotypes of neighborhoods south of Central Avenue. However, though he said crime in Roser Park is part real and part mythic, that slow road to gentrification may have helped save the neighborhood because no one wanted to build anything else there.
Longtime resident Kai Warren moved to the neighborhood in 1981 after being drawn to its history. At 61, he has witnessed change in three decades.
"Preservationists say that there's two great enemies of historic districts, so that's schools and hospitals," he said, citing how Bayfront Medical Center tore down half the neighborhood north of Booker Creek and that the Eighth Street connector wiped out 37 homes around 1978.
He said the neighborhood's makeup has been converted from 85 percent of renters to 85 percent of homeowners by the late '90s. "When you own your home, you take better care of it," he said.
In the housing boom of the early 2000s, Warren said the rest of St. Petersburg saw 200 percent growth while Roser Park saw 300 percent.
Cardinal and Nivens bought their home at the neighborhood's peak — just before the economy plunged into recession a few years later.
Surrounding homes fell into foreclosure, and many developers walked away, inviting blight to the neighborhood.
Homes suffered decreases in value from 35 to 50 percent, said David Price, a Realtor who has worked in downtown and historic St. Petersburg since 2000. He remembers when homes that were bought for $600,000 couldn't sell for $250,000.
Roser Park, he said, "took a bigger hit just because it was a neighborhood in transition."
The neighborhood seems on the road to recovery, with homes selling for as much as $500,000. As of Monday, just one home was in preforeclosure within the district's boundaries, according to Zillow.com.
"Investors are coming in, painting, cleaning, bringing back the historic charm of those homes and it's really bringing back their value," Price said.
Cardinal and Nivens, who were financially pained by the housing market crash, can testify to the improving health of Roser Park; this is the first neighborhood tour in three years.
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With every bounce, Cardinal's work truck weaved through the narrow avenues as she gave quick synopses of her neighbors, as if introducing cousins, and the CliffsNotes histories of their homes. Each house was as unique as the characters living inside.
The new family renting in that house is nice, she said. The ones in that house have been there "for-ev-er" and keep to themselves. The families in those two houses are related through marriage, or something. An older man there just died. The folks on the next block have no central air or heat, so last winter a neighbor cut down some extra wood and gave it to them.
"It's a community," Cardinal said. "It's just like a family. You have your pain in the . . . but what are you going to do with them?"
She and Nivens found their bungalow while at a porch party in the neighborhood in 2003. The house had a for sale by owner sign in front.
"We just said, 'That's it. We're going to live in this neighborhood,' " Nivens said.
For the past decade, the couple estimates that they have poured $30,000 in renovations and many days of labor into their home, which is what they've been told was once used as a model home. They cleaned the floors, removed the floor joist strategically and redid the plumbing, fixed up the custom windows and remodeled the bathrooms.
"People love the hills, they love the history of the homes," Nivens said. "They're just overwhelmed when they see it."
Researchers Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Colleen Wright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.