TRILBY — The Tudor-style stone cottage nestled on a bluff on a bend in the Withlacoochee River looks like something straight out of Harry Potter. With its English garden, tower, sun-faded blue columns and heavy front door handmade from 1,000-year-old pecky cypress hauled a century ago from a Florida swamp, the cottage sits on 9 acres off a limestone road where Pasco and Hernando counties rub shoulders.
Historian, author and developer Frank Laumer lives here with his wife, Dale Anne, an artist and antique dealer. For nearly 40 years, the couple, along with their brood of six children and extended family, built this house literally by hand.
"When we say, 'We built this house ourselves,' most people assume we went and hired a contractor to do it. What they don't realize is that we mixed the mud, broke the rocks with sledgehammers and laid the rocks by hand," says Frank Laumer, now 81 and still lean and athletic.
Laumer built the main house from the Georgia-quarried granite used to construct Tampa's early curbstones around 1900. He bought the discarded granite for 25 cents a slab and paid to have it hauled to his front yard. Each slab weighed about 1 ton. Laumer bought thousands. He and his son and son-in-law broke the slabs up with wood-handled sledgehammers.
These days, Laumer is still breaking slabs of granite with his sledgehammer, adding granite touches off the laundry room and a back patio.
"We're still building it," he explains. "People ask when I'm going to finish it and I say, 'The day I drop dead.' It's an ongoing hobby."
Laumer says he wanted a structure "big and blunt" and castlelike, built from stones and timber. He designed the 4,000-square-foot house himself on a sheet of notebook paper.
"Things were simpler in 1970," he says jokingly.
He built all the door and window frames from discarded railroad ties — he bought a half-mile stretch of them for $75 when he saw a crew tearing up old rails in Lacoochee. He made equal use of old power-line poles. He created stair treads, living room and kitchen beams, stair spindles and the farm table in the kitchen.
Laumer isn't known for just his carpentry skills: He's considered an expert on the Dade Massacre, the opening battle in the Second Seminole War. He's the author of two histories and the editor of two related books on the subject. His fifth book, Nobody's Hero, a work of fiction about Ransom Clark, a survivor of the Dade Battle who was attacked by Seminole Indians, was just published by Pineapple Press.
Laumer needed a place to store his stash of reading materials, so he built a library into his house that is the envy of any writer or serious reader: floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in a cozy room with a large pine table that he bought at a junk shop in Dalton, Ga., and carted home on the roof of his car. The library houses his vast collection of books and serves as the headquarters for the Seminole Wars Foundation.
Laumer writes his books at an old desk in the second story of the home's tower. The tower's first floor houses an art studio for Dale.
The kitchen, with its working — and very much used — fireplace is partly floored in old bricks from early Tampa streets. The old wooden drawers that hold everything from cooking gadgets to wine corks once held screws and nails in an old hardware store. Laumer says he like "big, real natural pieces of wood and stone" things that remind him of childhood books about castles and moats.
The fascination is generational. It's the kind of place boys love.
"It's like going to a really cool museum," said the Laumers' grandson, Jake Laumer, 13, a student at Pasco Middle School who visited one afternoon last week. "All my friends say it's so awesome, it's so cool, and I have to remind myself that it's really my grandparents' house."
A natural tour guide, Jake knows the house inside and out: He points out the guest bedrooms filled with antiques and quilts, the 1938 radio in his grandfather's study that's been rewired and really works.
He knows the stories and the family tree, too, and points out photographs and paintings and the accompanying tales. Laumer, a great raconteur himself, tells the stories from an upholstered antique chair in his library.
In 1947, two years after graduating from St. Petersburg High School, Laumer went to work for his father, a developer in Largo. His first job was working as an assistant to a carpenter. "At the time, I didn't know which end of a handsaw had a handle on it," Laumer said.
Laumer was a quick study and soon his dad gave him the excess lumber from his business. His first house "wasn't much bigger than a phone booth. I built it for $200 and sold it for $2,000. Not a bad deal, so I decided to build houses for a living."
He built his first houses — modest, post-World War II suburban-style homes in Largo — then began building in Pasco after his dad bought 100 acres along the Withlacoochee River and offered to let him purchase half. Eventually, Laumer bought more land for a total of 400 acres. Laumer began building his stone house on the bluff in 1970 because he loved the high ground and the gentle bend in the river.
Laumer is still very much in the land business.
To the right of the front door is the office for Talisman Estates, Laumer's development in the surrounding neighborhoods. The office safe is a century-old relic left behind by a Lacoochee lumber company.
"People think because I'm home all the time writing and building furniture that that's all I do, but the land business is what sustains us."
The Laumers have dabbled pretty seriously in the car business, too. For a while the family manufactured Model A Fords out in the barn. They made a Model A coupe and 11 roadsters before moving on to other things.
The Laumers' incredible life together — building houses and cars — isn't lost on Dale. "It's a great story," she said. "It all happened to us and it's all real."
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.