Fourteen years ago, Cynthia Williams paid $29,000 for an abandoned Mediterranean-style "airplane" bungalow in Tampa Heights.
She admits she was a bit of an urban pioneer.
Maybe even downright daring.
The blush-colored house, built in 1920 by the Taliaferro family (and known affectionately to neighbors as "Old Pinkie") was owned by an out-of-state bank and had languished unoccupied for years.
Vandals broke windows, stole crystal doorknobs and stripped the copper electrical wiring. Boards covered the front door. Thick, fuzzy mold sprouted unchecked on the walls and floors.
Oh, but the house was a grand old dame.
Williams knew it the minute she set foot in the place, wielding a flashlight and crowbar.
Despite years of neglect, the 2,000-square-foot structure somehow managed to retain its historic dignity.
Ornate, frilly molding made of solid, cast plaster adorned the interior. The original wrought-iron chandeliers still dangled from original plaster ceiling medallions.
Hand-painted tiles on the big, graceful front porch beckoned visitors inside.
The hardwood floors had blackened from age but were salvageable.
"I had heard that the original owners built the house as a wedding gift," Williams recalls. "And some of the same craftsmen who worked on the Tampa Theatre also worked here."
Williams, who for the last eight years has managed the Castle nightclub in Ybor City, didn't have the deep pockets necessary for an extensive and expensive restoration.
But that didn't quell her enthusiasm.
Her philosophy is simple: Fix what needs to be fixed for preservation purposes. And then live among the ruins. She calls it a "European" sense of decay.
Williams, 47, who has a great sense of style and loves to decorate, has filled the rooms with paintings and sculpture by local artists, including her boyfriend, Douglas Taylor, a 29-year-old glassblower deeply influenced by the works of Dale Chihuly.
In the lushly tropical city garden she's cultivated out back, Taylor's glass illuminates the night: willowy glass shapes like red cattails catch the starlight. Glass globes hang from the trees like fruit.
Flowering petals of glass are illuminated by a light bulb on the patio table. Winding paths take a visitor through an enchanted landscape of more colored glass. She displays a collection of Taylor's artwork throughout the house, including his sculptural ladder-back chairs and pottery.
The decorating is knockout eclectic. Walls are painted electric blue and lavender. Good antiques mix with the sentimental and unusual: The large green clock that once advertised her grandfather's Sarasota electrical shop hangs in the kitchen. In the front hall stands the broken concrete centaur (half man, half horse) that Williams discovered while walking in the woods.
An elaborate plastic wardrobe from a thrift store shares the same room with an ultra modern sofa. Her mother's childhood toys peer out from built-in glass cabinets. A massive chandelier from the old Ybor City union hall that is now the Castle hangs over the dining room table.
The wild-looking fixture is so "over the top" that Williams once threw a party in its honor, "just to pay homage to it."
In fact, Williams is known for her gorgeous, nightlong parties that attract a cadre of celebrities, artists and good friends from all over the country.
She jokes that the house is all "smoke and mirrors," a sort of nocturnal nest that looks best lit by candles and soft lights.
Still, it's stunning.
"My sensibility tends to run toward the rococo and Victorian," she says.
When combined with her boyfriend's clean, contemporary vision, "the look really works," she says.
As Williams explains it, the dignified old house has really become her "root system," filled with the most meaningful things from her family and friends.
"There's nothing contrived about it at all. I just fill it with what I love."
And what she can't fix, she doesn't mess with.
"To this day, I look forward to coming downstairs every morning and drinking my coffee," Williams says. "It's that kind of house."