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On Snell Isle, a Cat 5 curiosity of a home stalls, but few mind


The spiral staircase and three-story steel beams rise behind a curtain of oak, bamboo and palm, a dream home in the making in one of St. Petersburg's toniest neighborhoods.

Fourteen months ago, however, construction came to a halt. The partly completed house now sits behind a chain link fence and no-trespassing signs, with a stack of concrete blocks, a driveway overrun by weeds and an air of desertion.

Yet most of those who live near the unfinished Snell Isle home on meandering Brightwaters Boulevard NE — 1648 to be exact — appear surprisingly unruffled by the neighborhood curiosity.

"There is no impact to us," said Linda Hess, who lives a few doors away. "It's too bad it's taking so long. At least everything is hidden. Because of all the bamboo, it isn't as much as an eyesore as it might be."

Nancy Burgess, who lives next to the unfinished house, praises the owner and builder, businessman Robert Tornello.

"He was smart enough to put the landscaping in before he even started his building,'' she said. "If the landscaping wasn't there, I don't think the neighborhood would be tolerant. It's a steel object just waiting to be finished.''

Barbara Heck, president of the Snell Isle Property Owners Association, says she has not heard any concerns from residents.

And Gary Bush, director of codes compliance assistance, said the city has had no complaints and issued no citations for the property, where construction began in 2007. Tornello had allowed the building permit to lapse but renewed it last week, said Rick Dunn, the city's building official.

At least one neighbor is unhappy.

"I'm very disappointed that the construction has been stalled for such a long period of time,'' said Sarah Williams, who lives across from the property two houses down.

For those impatient to see the completion of what eventually will be a glass-front, five-bedroom, five-bath home, the unveiling could be near.

"Probably six months at the max,'' after construction begins again in October, Tornello said.

Tornello, 55, said he temporarily halted construction of the dream house to fulfill another aspiration — establishing a multimillion-dollar organic, hydroponic farm in Ruskin.

Most of the major work is complete on the Snell Isle house, he said. "We made sure when we walked away from the site that everything was ready for when we came back.''

Tornello said he pulled off the construction crews from the St. Petersburg job to work on his 3 Boys Farm in Ruskin, named to honor his sons.

The modular house, being built in midcentury modern style, is bound to stand out on Snell Isle, where Mediterranean and ranch-style homes are traditional. Tornello said he and his wife tried renovating the house that sat there before. But the structure couldn't support a second floor, he said, and it had termite damage.

A main feature of the new house, which Tornello said will withstand a Category 5 hurricane, will be its welded steel frame and concrete floors and decks. "It is designed to last 100 or more years even in the most adverse conditions,'' he said.

"While we worked 60-hour weeks for 18 months taking it to its present state, for those who live in wood, stucco and block homes that only take 6-12 months to complete, it's impossible to understand the time frame involved in building such a home,'' he said in an e-mail.

"All guttering is welded in place with stainless downspouts that capture all our rain water for irrigation and is hidden but completed. … So while the untrained eye sees only the unfinished primed structure, all the details and painstaking work are hidden from plain view.''

The house also will have solar panels and a roof deck. Three-story "glass" walls facing the street will be constructed of an optical grade acrylic said to be 120 times stronger than glass. Tornello, who also owns a commercial bamboo nursery and is general contractor for his new home, declined to disclose its cost.

Neighbors are fascinated.

"This is his dream house and I can't wait till it's done, because it will be fabulous,'' Burgess said. "He's checking in with us every once in a while and he's gracious enough to let us go up on top of the house to see fireworks if he's there. … He has not alienated himself from the neighbors.''

"When you do stuff on your own, it takes more time,'' said Bill Condon, Tornello's next door neighbor. "I'm not bothered by it at all.''

This hurricane season will pass before the dream house is complete, but Tornello has issued an open invitation to neighbors to hunker down with his family as future storms approach.

"It will be the best hurricane party in town,'' Condon said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at (727) 892-2283 or

On Snell Isle, a Cat 5 curiosity of a home stalls, but few mind 07/13/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 13, 2010 2:56pm]
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