ST. PETERSBURG — In buying the Snell-Bishop mansion in 2006, David Rau said he wanted to keep a developer from subdividing the stunning waterfront parcel near downtown St. Petersburg and putting up additional houses.
"I thought it was a piece of history and part of the agreement of buying it was to restore it,'' he recalled in a March 26 interview.
But now, with mounting financial problems and no buyers for the entire parcel, Rau wants to split up the 1.6 acre property — selling the house and two lots for $9 million and the third lot for $3.95 million.
It's a plan that has surprised, and saddened, many who value the city's heritage, including the previous owner.
"Oh, that would be awful,'' said Mary Joan Mann, whose family acquired the Mediterranean Revival home from the man who developed Snell Isle in the 1920s. "When we bought from Perry (Snell), we never, ever thought of separating the property. I think that would be a shame.''
Will Michaels, immediate past president of St. Petersburg Preservation, noted that the house derives much of its grandeur from its location on a point with sweeping sunrise-to-sunset views of Tampa Bay and Coffee Pot Bayou.
"The house is a treasure, of course, and the setting is half the treasure,'' Michaels said. "I think that's something that should be very carefully considered.''
But Rau said he had little choice but to try to sell the house separately from the westernmost lot because the entire parcel, originally offered at $18 million, had languished for six months with no takers.
"We bought a home, we fixed it up and if people are upset about it, they can buy the lot and let it sit there and don't build on it,'' Rau said. "You look at the whole downtown district, people are building all the time. There's nothing historic about the land whatsoever. It's just a piece of land.''
Rau paid $5.1 million for the property, then spent millions more rebuilding 350 feet of seawall and completely overhauling the interior of a home that has seen little upgrading over the years. He put the house on the market in November, shortly before his Maryland-based computer training school collapsed and left him mired in legal action that includes a $1.6 million judgment filed in March by Branch Banking & Trust Co.
Rau also owes nearly $100,000 in delinquent property taxes.
Pinellas County records show that the property, at 375 Brightwaters Blvd. NE, includes three lots and 50 feet of a fourth. The nearly 10,000-square-foot house sits on the two easternmost lots and has the best view of Tampa Bay. The remaining lot, now a lush lawn with magnificent trees, faces more toward Coffee Pot Bayou.
Rau said activity has picked up considerably since the house and lot were offered separately last week.
"We've had six people to look at the house and four people to look at the lot,'' he said. Though the buyer of the lot conceivably could erect a starkly modern structure, "it would probably replicate a smaller version of what the house is now,'' Rau said.
Precella Wallace, a real estate agent and past president of the Snell Isle Property Owners Association, said she thinks the asking prices are still too high.
"With the entrances the way they are onto the properties, I really don't quite understand how it could be laid out attractively enough for people who want to pay the kind of prices they're asking,'' Wallace said.
And, she added: "I hate to see that property separated because it's such an iconic part of the neighborhood. Everybody recognizes it before they cross the bridge (to Snell Isle). But then my option is to buy it if I don't want to see it separated.''
St. Petersburg city officials said they would require a survey and review of plans before any building took place.
"As long as the lot is big enough and met other requirements for lot design, subdividing may be an option,'' said Philip Lazzara, the city's zoning official. "There are rules for lot area, how the lot lines are in relation to the street, utility connections — it's a very long list.''
Once home to syndicated cartoonist Wally Bishop, the house is such a local landmark that it is guarded by the original Snell Isle panther, used as a mold for the island's other panther statues.
"We thought that was a very appropriate place to put it,'' said Barbara McCormick Heck, president of the property owners association. "As a third-generation resident here, I'm sad to hear what might happen. That's a beautiful parcel of land and it's very historic and it's always been there on the point. We'd love to remember it that way.''
Times staff writer Mary Jane Park contributed to this story. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.