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See a pure Federal family treasure

Marie Preston never got over her love for her grandmother's house and everything that went with it: playing in the back yard with its rose bushes and sparkling, storybook glimpse of Tampa Bay; the long hours spent building elaborate playing card houses on the big Oriental rug in the living room; the big family holiday suppers on the well-used 1800s dining room table.

"I always told my grandmother that I wanted to end up in this house," recalls Preston, a local Realtor who, along with her husband Mike, owns the real estate firm Preston and Farley.

"My grandmother was not one to go for material things - to her they were just things. But she really loved her home."

The Prestons have lived in the house since shortly after Marie's grandmother's death in the early 1990s at age 97. The house, which is pure Federal style, plainly elegant with generous rooms, an old-fashioned wooden screened porch and red heart pine floors throughout, will be showcased on March 4 on the fourth annual Historic Hyde Park Home Tour.

The tour, which offers a peek into the interiors of some of the most beautiful homes in one of Tampa's oldest neighborhoods, runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and features eight houses, all historically significant and of varying architectural styles.

Many have been painstakingly renovated over the years, and homeowners will be on hand to answer questions about their homes' history and their efforts to maintain and refurbish them, says Brooke Melendi, publicity chairman for the tour.

"It's a nicely paced tour, not too massive," Melendi says of the tour that drew at least 1,000 people last year, some from communities well outside the Tampa Bay area.

Many come to see homes like the Prestons', well-preserved architectural jewels that have weathered well the march of time. Built in 1935 by Marie and Bruce Robbins - Marie Preston's maternal grandparents - the house was designed by a then well-known Tampa architect, Elliot Fletcher. Economical in scale at just under 3,000 square feet, the home was one of the first that Fletcher designed in the Tampa area. The floors are made of red heart pine, the windows framed in cypress, and the ceiling in the pine-paneled den is mitered and patterned in a geometric design.

The family - still in the lumber business - once owned a sawmill in Willow, Fla., Marie Preston explains. "And my grandmother always said that although they didn't have a lot of money during the Depression, they had a lot of lumber."

Her grandmother also told the architect to "forget the frills" and make the rooms two feet bigger, something that made it unnecessary to renovate in later years, even when the Prestons were raising their two teenage children (now grown) in the house.

"She and Eliot got together and made wonderful plans - she had a real feel for what she wanted in a house," she says.

Over the years, the Prestons, both in their late 50s, have renovated the house only modestly and to scale. The kitchen, for example, once closed off to the dining room, has been opened up - with the addition of a wine cooler and wet bar - so that Marie can talk to her guests when she's cooking. (They also moved the kitchen cabinetry into the eating area and converted it to a bar rather than getting rid of it.)

When contractors knocked down the wall in the kitchen, they discovered the original 1935 millwork orders for the doors in the house - a treasure the Prestons have since framed and put on display for guests the day of the tour. The rest of the house is still very much the same as it always was, including the living room and master bedroom, both essentially identical and equipped with matching fireplaces.

"It's a very comfortable house," says Mike Preston. He wondered at first about moving into the house where his wife spent much of her childhood, but has since come to conclude that it was a wise decision. "It's well used, and we don't waste any rooms," he says.

The original Oriental rug where Marie once built card houses remains, as does the old dining room table. The rose bushes still bloom, tended to by Marie, an ardent rose grower who has taken her grandmother's interest in horticulture to another level. Marie Preston says that although she could have made significant architectural changes to the house over the years, she saw little need for it. She did almost succumb to temptation and redo the old wooden porch with its painted pine floor and bead board ceiling, but decided against it.

"I just like the way things are," she explains. "It's a comfortable house that I have a real appreciation for. Whenever I feel the need to change things, I just defer to my grandmother."

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