BROOKSVILLE — At one time, travelers from across the country rolled up in busloads at all times of the year, ready to enter Florida's own winter wonderland, complete with a banana tree out back.
"Christmas, 364 days a year," the old signs said. Because, of course, it was closed on the actual Christmas.
Years after this heyday, Rogers' Christmas House Village now sits off Saxon Avenue near downtown Brooksville with chipped paint and stray strands of garland hanging from the rafters.
But its era of neglect ended Friday when Lutz residents Dorothea Stephens and her husband, Greg, closed on the sale of the former site of Brooksville's world-famous Christmas store.
"We're going to fix it up," said Dorothea Stephens, 54, who paid $230,000 for the property. "And it's going to be beautiful."
After near sales that fell through and an unsuccessful auction, Brooksville residents are relieved the rundown collection of houses will be resuscitated into a new business, said City Council member Lara Bradburn.
"It's been a long journey to get someone to step up and buy this piece of property," she said. "You couldn't ask for a more prime location for a business."
The building will serve several purposes. Stephens said she will use it to store decorations from Saxon Manor, a once-decaying historic home that she bought about two years ago and turned into a wedding venue.
She also plans to clean up the courtyard of the Christmas House property to use for wedding ceremonies and designate a prep room inside for brides. And she'll rent out space in the front to the Tilted Teacup Tea Room & Boutique, which has outgrown its building on Fort Dade Avenue.
On Tuesday, Tilted Teacup owners Aimee and John Gans walked through the house, pointing out the early stages of renovation. The carpet had been ripped out to reveal wood floors, broken glass and wood debris were swept into neat piles. The scent of sanded wood had started to overtake the musty smell of an attic filled with old holiday decorations.
"It has so much potential," Aimee said from the kitchen, which is more than twice the size of the one at the restaurant's current location.
Both the Ganses and the Stephenses are familiar with renovations. The early 20th century home that currently houses Tilted Teacup was in even worse shape than the Christmas House is in now, the Ganses said. And with Dorothea's vision and Greg's carpentry skills, the Stephenses took Saxon Manor from a dilapidated eyesore to a white Victorian beauty with gardens and reception space out back.
The prime years of the Christmas House ended when the owner, Margaret "Weenie" Ghiotto, passed away in 2006. Her nephew, Weiland Rogers, took over the business. He maintained ownership of the property, but leased the business to a succession of owners. In 2010, it closed and the inventory was emptied. Earlier this year, the property went up for auction but drew no bids.
"I'm glad someone is going to go in there and improve it," Rogers said. "And Brooksville ought to be glad, too."
Councilwoman Bradburn said the purchase is a good sign for the city's economy. Saxon Manor has already brought people into the city for weddings, and the addition of the Christmas House property will attract more.
"Obviously, they see the investment potential," she said. "They're optimistic that their business is going to keep growing here."
For Bradburn, the sale has personal meaning as well. She remembers venturing into the Christmas House as a child and especially remembered the vibrant owner, a "one-woman Chamber of Commerce."
She said Ghiotto used to fix up the outside of rundown houses in Brooksville to preserve the city's beauty.
Now, someone is doing the same for her.
Kathryn Varn can be reached at (352)754-6114 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @kathrynvarn.