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Old mansion set for renewal

Published Oct. 1, 2005

Nobody lives at the two-story wooden house at the end of Parkin Court anymore _ except, perhaps, the ghosts of a century ago.

Weeds consume the shattered concrete entrance walk. The whitewash peels off the verandas where big brown spiders cast their webs. Glassless second-story windows gape like empty eye sockets.

The large front doors creak open in classic horror fashion. Inside, the floorboards have treacherous holes in them. The walls have been stripped of almost all wood, leaving the rotting skeleton of the structure showing.

And suddenly, into the silent building come . . . Tarpon Springs Community Affairs Administrator Kathleen Monahan, local architect Ed Hoffman Jr. and historian Ed Hoffman Sr.

You were expecting someone else, maybe?

For six months, the trio has been plotting how to snatch the circa 1883 residence, known as the Safford House, from the jaws of dilapidation and destruction.

The house is haunted _ by years of neglect.

"It's not your everyday fixer-upper," Monahan deadpans, and everyone laughs. The Safford House needs a lot more than "TLC."

It is hard to believe from looking at it, but the house at 23 Parkin Court is one of Tarpon Springs' most historically significant buildings. At least 114 years old, it is the city's oldest known structure. The most famous resident was Anson Peaseley Killen Safford, the founder of Tarpon Springs.

The four-gabled residence was once a swank spot where Safford entertained millionaires, American celebrities and British royalty. Now it sits in a state that probably makes Safford toss in his grave.

Monahan, the Hoffmans and a few others have formed a task force to determine how the house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, can be preserved. It was donated to the city by a Clearwater businessman in 1995.

Although plans are still preliminary, the top floor would become a museum dedicated to the lives and times of the turn of the century. The second floor would be renovated as meeting rooms for local civic groups. An official presentation of how the house will be restored will be ready this spring.

Anson P. K. Safford was a former territorial governor of Arizona who struck it rich in politics after leaving his native Vermont for the California gold rush.

"The Governor," as the short, mustachioed Safford was better known, owned much of the land _ some 20,000 acres _ in what is today southern Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

Safford created the Lake Butler Villa Co. (named after the body of water that is today called Lake Tarpon). He made deals with the founders of many municipalities in the area, including Port Richey, Pinellas Park and Gulfport. He also helped chart the path of the railroad through the area.

"A lot of this dealing was done in his house," said Hoffman Sr., who has documented the house's history. Hoffman leads the Tarpon Springs Historical Society and has an interior design company, E. C. Hoffman Designs.

Another famous Safford lived in the house with "The Governor." His sister, Mary Jane Safford, Florida's first female physician, arrived in 1884.

Dr. Safford had been a Civil War battlefield nurse, received a degree from New York Medical College and studied in Vienna. She also taught at Boston University Medical School before moving to Florida.

The Governor's third wife, Soledad Bonillas Safford, also achieved local celebrity. She helped found the city's Women's Town Improvement Society and the Woman's Club, which still exists.

When Tarpon Springs was incorporated in 1887, the Governor became an alderman.

But both Dr. Safford and the Governor died in 1891, a week apart, according to newspaper obituaries. Since then, the house has deteriorated slowly and been damaged by unwise renovations.

"It's not like we're going into this preservation to save a work of art," said Hoffman Jr., whose architectural firm is doing the plans. "It is important to preserve a structure of its age, but more so because of the people who lived here."

The mystery lies in how to restore the house.

"This is like detective work," said Hoffman Sr. "We don't know a lot of things for 100 percent certain, although there are plenty of clues about how the house has been changed over the years."

The house was originally a one-story dog trot house, a typical Floridian design in which two large rooms were connected by an open-air breezeway. When Anson Safford moved into the 1,000-square-foot home, he disassembled it and added a second floor, increasing the size to about 4,000 square feet. He added an observation tower, dormer windows and gingerbread railings to the porches.

After 1900, when Soledad Bonillas Safford sold the land around the house, the residence was jacked up on wheels and moved about 100 yards by teams of mules to where it currently sits. At that time, the house had a view of Spring Bayou. Now it looks out at a back yard.

Soledad married a man named William Warwick Parken and the house was refinished by 1903. That is the period that the house will be returned to, project architect Bob Ray said.

Since then, the Safford House has been a rooming house called the Miramar, a cigar factory (briefly), a badly renovated apartment complex and eventually an eyesore.

Preservation, of course, will cost lots of money. The Safford House is in such disrepair that rough estimates put restoration as high as $700,000.

The city has received an $18,000 state grant to pay for the architectural designs. The city matched that.

Another state grant of $204,000 could be awarded by the Florida Legislature by August. That would pay for major repairs to the exterior and lower floor, Monahan said. A panel of state experts ranked the Safford House No. 14 on a list of about 40 projects that can be funded by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources, this year. City commissioners are going to Tallahassee on April 1 to lobby legislators.

Some residents of Parkin Court, who have watched the house sink into its ramshackle state, would love to see it fixed up.

"I have a dry sense of humor, but I'm just hoping I'll live long enough to see it completed," said Georgia Sloan, who has lived on the street for 45 years. "When I bought my house up in here, (the Safford House) was just beautiful. We're hoping it will be just as beautiful as it was someday."

Until then, the children who play on Parkin Court can continue to wonder if the Safford House is home to anything more than spiders.

"I talked to two young boys who were out there the other day, and they actually were wondering if it had ghosts," said Catherine Leonard, 80, who has lived on Parkin Court for almost 50 years. "I told them it isn't haunted, but it sure does look like it."