Couple convert judge’s decaying Ybor City home into a stunning ‘Rainbow Plantation’

Judge Leo Stalnaker Sr. built the plantation-style home in 1925 and later added windows, columns and stairs that he salvaged from the original Hillsborough County Courthouse.
Published January 31
Updated February 10

TAMPA — Through the years, Gianna Russo has nearly broken into tears as she watched parts of her grandfather’s old home on the outskirts of Ybor City splinter and rot away.

Leo Stalnaker Sr., a judge remembered for battling crime in an era of corruption, built the plantation-style home in 1925 and later added windows, columns and stairs that he salvaged from the original Hillsborough County Courthouse.

But after Stalnaker died in 1986, the house passed from one owner to another five times and fell into disrepair. "It was heartbreaking to see," said Russo, 63, who lived at the house until she was 3 and later spent holidays and birthdays there.

Last month, during a visit to the 94-year-old home at 3510 E. Eighth Ave., Russo finally did break into tears.

But they were tears of joy.

The old Stalnaker home has been restored by a Tampa couple who bought the house nearly three years ago and share Russo’s passion for the place.

"I can't stop crying as I walk through it," she said. "It is incredible. It is really incredible."

Carrie West and Mark Bias, leaders of the Tampa Pride organization and the area’s LGTBQ community, invited Russo for a tour of their home Jan. 30.

West and Bias built 1,800 square feet of new space onto the original 2,200-square-foot home. Perhaps the most obvious new feature is the LED lights shining the colors of the pride flag on six, two-story square columns supporting the front of the residence.

"We call this the Rainbow Plantation," West, 66, said with a laugh. "It will be known."

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Still, the home retains its original look.

"He picked a great era to build a house," said Bias, 62. "We love the 20s."

Wood dating to the 19th century that originally was part of the roof has been re-purposed for interior walls.

At the back of the house, Stalnaker added stained glass windows from the courthouse erected in 1882 and razed in 1953. The windows have Moorish crescent moons and stars in the top corners above an archway of colored blocks.

"I remember when he put the windows in," Russo said. "I was probably 8."

Much of the addition is at the back of the home, and West and Bias made sure it included these windows.

Another feature from the courthouse: four interior square columns that once flanked a judicial bench, two inlaid with the county seal and two with the Moorish symbols. Stalnaker built them into the wall of his home office, now the office of Tampa Pride.

The interior staircase, also from the old courthouse, was restored to Russo’s delight. Her parents, Joseph and Lula Belle Russo, descended these steps during their wedding reception at the home on Aug. 1, 1953.

"There was no air conditioning, so everyone was sweating, I'm told,” she said. “There was no alcohol because my grandfather did not drink. He was a fundamentalist Christian."

He brought his beliefs with him when he assumed the bench in the 1920s.

It was during Prohibition, but that hardly stopped others in Tampa from indulging.

Speakeasies were common. Organized crime figures bribed law enforcement, city officials and judges to look the other way.

But Stalnaker had a reputation as a man who couldn’t be bought. He was known to quadruple fines, give out stiff jail sentences and even published his own newspaper, Tampa Life, exposing those he believed were corrupt.

Russo knew another side of her grandfather.

Before he became a judge, she said, he wrote mystery stories for pulp magazines and later continued his storytelling through his grandchildren.

"My grandfather was always going on about little people who lived in the yard and things like that," Russo said.

He enjoyed taking his grandchildren on walks through the neighborhoods of Gary, the community on the outskirts of Ybor City where he built his plantation-style home. He was raised just blocks away, at 3210 E Eighth Ave. — a building preserved as the oldest home in the Tampa Bay area and moved last year to a property in Hyde Park.

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"My grandfather was a great big person with a great sense of humor," Russo said. "He had a big hearty laugh and he loved to sing."

His songs often were accompanied by piano music.

Stalnaker purchased a six-legged baby grand piano for his wife Judson Stalnaker shortly after they moved into their home.

She used it as she taught music to local children. It has remained in the house ever since.

"And we love it,” said new owner Bias.

During her tour, as she peered into the second-floor bedroom where her grandparents slept, Russo squealed in delight. The space now is a guest room with a Wizard of Oz theme for nieces and nephews of West and Bias.

"Wizard of Oz was my mother's favorite movie," Russo said.

She plans on bringing West and Bias one of her mother's Wizard of Oz collectibles as a housewarming gift.

But first, West and Bias presented Russo with a present — the light fixtures that once hung outside the front door plus original caps from the stairway banisters.

"My parents' hands touched these," Russo said, holding back tears.

"And yours too,” West replied, “probably a million of times. We thought you should have them."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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