ST. PETERSBURG -- If only walls could talk.
They might reveal whether a certain Beach Drive house really was built for an ambassador's mistress. Perhaps tell of the eight children for whom a landmark Snell Isle estate was simply home. Or whisper of elegant gatherings in a Historic Old Northeast version of an Italian villa.
Author and photographer Justin A. Nylander is telling what he knows in a new coffee-table book, Casas to Castles: Florida's Historic Mediterranean Revival Architecture.
It showcases four St. Petersburg homes. They are among 41 Florida houses culled for the book and extolled alongside the storied estates of Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach and John and Mable Ringling's Cá d'Zan in Sarasota.
"Something had to speak to me artistically to attract me to the home,'' said Nylander, who spent a year wending his way from St. Augustine to Miami in search of architectural gems.
His interest lay specifically in the historic Mediterranean revival homes built during the heady land boom years preceding the Depression.
How did he merit an invitation to Trump's magnificent Mar-a-Lago?
"I just called his office,'' he said.
That gave entrée to other exclusive Palm Beach estates, six of which ended up in his book due out in March.
In St. Petersburg, he was drawn to a home commanding two corner lots on Beach Drive NE. Elegant arches lead from a large foyer to the living room, and original Cuban tiles cover the dining room floor.
Dr. Vinay Badhwar, a heart surgeon, and his wife, Jen, bought the house at 1730 Beach Drive NE and restored its 1920s style.
"We saw through the shag carpeting,'' Vinay Badhwar said.
They also might have an interesting history, Nylander learned. Word is that former U.S. ambassador and New York Gov. William Averell Harriman built the Mediterranean revival home for his mistress.
For Nylander, who grew up in Southern California — where Mediterranean revival architecture was favored by the Hollywood elite in the 1920s and '30s — the style has been "a longtime passion.''
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Nylander said he got the idea for his book after he moved to Ormond Beach a few years ago and began restoring a three-story, castle-inspired Mediterranean revival home of his own.
The St. Petersburg homes and two in Sarasota — including the Ringlings' Cá d'Zan — are the only ones from Florida's west coast in his book. Three of the St. Petersburg houses are on the market, with price tags of $1.5 million to $3.3 million.
Nylander came upon the Snell Isle home of Dr. Elizabeth Crist Hyden by accident. Hyden — Gov. Charlie Crist's sister — had seen a Web site he had created in the early stages of his book. She was interested in a home on the site designed by Kiehnel and Elliot, the same architects who designed her home and the Snell Arcade downtown.
"She contacted me to discuss the architects, restoration and my photography,'' Nylander said.
Hyden said her goal was to preserve the home's craftsmanship and history. Built in 1925, Casa las Brisas on Brightwaters Boulevard originally was the home of early developer Howard L. Schooley. Later it became the home of successful businessman Robert W. Roberts of the Milwaukee Forge and Machinery Co. and his wife, Helen Derse Roberts. A patron of music and community causes, in 1959 she was named St. Petersburg's Woman of the Year.
The Gargoyle House at 1400 Beach Drive NE, so named because of four gargoyle statues on its facade, also made it to the pages of Casas to Castles.
"The best thing is the front porch,'' said Greg Hill, who owns the house with his mother, Helen Hill. It's perfect for doing crosswords and watching the promenade of passers-by, he said.
The 1923 home was designed by Renaissance Vinoy Resort architect Henry Taylor. Painstakingly replicated from an Italian villa the original owners, Dr. Walter and Flora Wylie, saw in Milan, the house features wrought-iron railings, balconies, high ceilings and a foyer with a fireplace. For Flora Wylie, immortalized in a nearby waterfront park named in her honor, the house was the perfect setting for elegant gatherings.
On Snell Isle, Mary and Tim Bryant are flattered that their sienna-colored waterfront home has made it into a second coffee-table book about Mediterranean-style homes. Built by Howard Schooley, the home at 307 Brightwaters Blvd. NE is oriented toward the water, rather than the street, Mary Bryant said.
"Often what people find is really unique is the detailing and towers,'' she said.
Also striking, Bryant said, are the "echoing arches'' presented by the doorways and windows of the five-bedroom, 4 1/2-bath home.
The houses Nylander features aren't average properties, though it wasn't his intention to focus on the well-to-do, the author said.
As he gathered material for his book, Nylander did more than tour grand mansions and estates. He heard their stories. He now tells one of his own about a visit to the St. Petersburg home of the governor's sister. Until then, he had been unaware of the relationship.
"He did show up to visit her. … I said, 'You look just like the governor,' Nylander recalled.
"I am,'' was Gov. Crist's reply.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.