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Laboring over a landmark

People who take on the job of restoring a historic house on the brink of condemnation look for even the smallest signs of hope.

"There were only seven pieces of broken glass when we purchased it, which was a pleasant surprise," said John McFarlane, who along with his wife, Merry Jo, is fixing up the house on Howell Avenue where retired banker Alfred McKethan was born in 1908.

It had once been a handsome house, the residence of McKethan's father, William, the chief executive officer of the only bank in the county and the owner of one of the first cars in Hernando. However, it was anything but handsome by the time the McFarlanes bought it in December.

The house had stood abandoned for a decade. The corroded pipes needed replacing; so did the antiquated wiring. Water flowed through the leaking roof and down interior walls that were covered with peeling paint. The exterior had been sheathed in asbestos tile. Termites had feasted extensively though selectively _ reducing one section of wooden flooring to dust, for example, while sparing the rest, probably because it was built with resin-rich heart pine.

"You have no idea how cruddy it was," said Merry Jo McFarlane, 57, a music teacher at Suncoast Elementary School in Spring Hill.

They have restored just enough space to move in, which they did two weeks ago. They are expecting to spend at least another year on the project and many times the purchase price of $25,000.

"I suppose some people make money on these (old) houses, but I never have," she said. "And it's never bothered me, either. . . . Our best friends think we're crazy."

"We wanted to save an old house," said John McFarlane, 58, the technology resources teacher at Pine Grove Elementary, west of Brooksville.

"This one was really at the point where it was going to be torn down. When I called the Property Appraiser's Office, right after we bought it, the first thing they asked me was, "Has it been condemned yet?' "

The couple recognized that the house had features worth preserving: wood floors, interior walls of flat boards rather than plaster, wooden columns supporting the roof over the front porch and decorative stars carved in the wood above every door and window. Through cracks in the exterior tiles, they point out apparently sound shiplap wooden siding.

And because Alfred McKethan ruled as the most influential man in the county for most of the last century, the house also qualifies as a local landmark, they said.

"Just an ordinary, two-story house'

The house was quite new when McKethan was born there. Brooksville was plagued by fires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and in January 1899 one of the worst destroyed several houses north of downtown as well as the Baptist church, John McFarlane said.

The house was probably constructed as part of the rebuilding of the neighborhood the following year, he said, and originally it was quite small.

"It was just an ordinary, two-story house," McKethan said.

The kitchen was a separate structure, attached to the back of the house. Because there was not yet a city water system, McKethan said, "my daddy had a tank built in the back yard so we could have running water." Howell Road was unpaved, and the yard was big enough to support chickens and a grove of citrus trees.

"As a kid I was well satisfied with that house," said McKethan, whose family moved to his current residence on Orange Avenue in about 1920.

By 1941, however, when Della and Thomas Deen bought the house on Howell, "it was not real pretty," said their daughter, Verona Markham, 60, who now lives near Atlanta.

The house was generally rundown and had no interior stairs and two back porches that have since been removed. With her father away, serving in the U.S. Coast Guard, her mother was the force behind buying the house and improving it.

"I remember two things about the house. One is my mother's absolute, total and complete love for it. She loved it more than anything, I think, in the whole world," Markham said.

"The other thing is, in the 1950s, she had it immaculate. You could have eaten off the floor in any room in that house. It was just such a pretty place."

"A part of (mother) was going to be alive'

Howell Road was by then U.S. 41, a major north-south highway. But the yard still extended down to Lemon Avenue and behind what was then the Tangerine Hotel and is now the Tangerine Cove assisted living facility, Markham said. The family maintained the citrus groves, Markham said, and kept horses and cattle.

"I had a huge pet bull. The man at the Tangerine Hotel used to feed it, and sometimes at night it would butt its way into the lobby. They'd call me to come get it, and I've always wondered what those truck drivers thought of this skinny little blond-haired girl walking down the highway with a 2,000-pound bull."

Della Deen continued to live at the house until about a decade ago, when she went to live with her daughter. Markham opposed the sale of it as long as her mother was alive, she said, even though she was distressed about its deterioration.

"I didn't want the house to be sold until my mother's death (last year)," Markham said. "I was kind of adamant about that."

She expected the house would have to be torn down, she said. "When that man said he was going to restore it, I was just tickled. It's almost like a part of (mother) was going to be alive in that house."

The McFarlanes say Della Dean would at least recognize the house when they finish.

"This is a restoration, not a renovation," John McFarlane said.

"Our last major project'

The living room and dining room _ which cover most of the first floor of the original house _ give a view of the house from its best days.

The original pine floors have been refinished. John McFarlane, whose hobby is woodworking, has cut wood trim to match the original, and refitted the original sliding doors. The rooms are stocked with antiques collected by Merry Jo McFarlane, who also owns Antiques at the Corner, at Howell and U.S. 41. The traffic on Howell is visible through wavy glass in the front windows that survived the 10 years when the house was vacant.

The McFarlanes have also fixed up a bedroom, a bathroom and a temporary kitchen.

The amount of work remaining, though, seems awesome: installing a permanent kitchen, finishing the bathroom and all the interior walls on the second floor. They must also remove the tiles, repair any damage to the siding and paint it.

Though they both love old houses, and have fixed them up before _ most recently a bungalow on Irene Street in Brooksville _ the size of this job has convinced them that "this will be our last major project," John McFarlane said.

"They are going to take us to the old folks' home from here. Although, of course, we did say that about the last one."

_ taff writer Dan DeWitt covers Brooksville, politics and the environment and can be reached at 754-6116.