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Man rebuilds home in Historic Kenwood after tragedy

ST. PETERSBURG — For 15 years, organizers of the Bungalow Fest in Historic Kenwood have stuck to a simple strategy when picking featured properties.

Usually, homes on the annual tour are existing ones that have been renovated. This year's event, which takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today, strays from that.

Two months ago, organizers asked Mitch Harrison if he would be willing to let hundreds of people trek through his home this weekend. The tan, Craftsman-style bungalow at 2635 Fourth Ave. N was completed just weeks ago.

"We seldom have new construction," said John Seibert, president of the neighborhood association. "It's a gorgeous home, though, a showpiece. The fact that it arose from tragedy is special, too."

A year ago, Harrison lived in a similar home on the same lot. But that house burned down — torched Sept. 30, 2012, by Michael Scott Norris, a prison inmate who escaped from a troubled, and now shuttered, Goodwill-run work release facility in Largo.

Before Norris set the home on fire, he robbed, shot and killed two of Harrison's friends — Bruce Johnson, 51, and Arthur Regula, 36, who were working on renovations. Firefighters found their bodies inside.

Police said Norris, who is now serving life in prison, chose Harrison's house at random. He'd previously gone to prison for breaking into homes.

Harrison, a 51-year-old medical software consultant who moved to St. Petersburg from Alabama in 2010, was shopping at the mall when he got the phone call about the blaze. He tried calling Johnson and Regula. But they never answered.

By the time Harrison pulled up, flames had fully engulfed the tan, 1930 Craftsman bungalow.

Harrison wandered around, dazed. He asked people where Johnson and Regula were. No one knew what he was talking about.

Then he spotted Johnson's truck. Soon afterward, police and firefighters confirmed two bodies were inside.

Harrison stopped sleeping.

"I still don't sleep a lot," he said Friday.

What happened at the bungalow that afternoon didn't just affect Harrison.

"It was a major, major blow," Seibert said. "We had had nothing like it before or since."

Several days after the murders, residents held a vigil in a park blocks away from the charred home. Harrison was too distraught to give interviews. But surrounded by a crowd of people holding candles, he spoke a few words about his friends. And he vowed he would come back to his home one day.

The house was torn down a day after Christmas. Harrison began rebuilding this summer.

The inside layout and footprint of the home are similar to the old one. The biggest difference is an added wraparound porch.

Inside, fixtures and furniture were designed to match the era of the old home. Three side tables and a few paintings Harrison salvaged from the fire fill the living room. Not far away, an art piece that features a cross and the word "peace" — made from salvaged iron from the old house — hangs in the hallway.

Harrison moved in a couple of weeks ago. He said he is honored to be on the tour.

"This is my home … but it's actually the neighborhood's too. We went through this together," Harrison said. "But it feels like I'm home. I'm home."

Contact Kameel Stanley at (727) 893-8643 or kstanley@tampabay.com. Follow her @cornandpotatoes on Twitter.

.Fast facts

If you go

The Historic Kenwood Bungalow Fest is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online at www.bungalowfest.org or in person at the Craftsman House Gallery, 2955 Central Ave.

Man rebuilds home in Historic Kenwood after tragedy 11/01/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 1, 2013 11:29pm]
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