When entrepreneur Samuel Merhige built his home overlooking Boca Ciega Bay, he was a trendsetter in more ways than one. Not only was he a member of a pioneering St. Petersburg family, he was among the first to settle in a sparsely populated area far from downtown.
Now, nearly a century later, homes and businesses stretch in almost every direction. Treasure Island, across the bay, is no longer the unspoiled beach it was in 1925. But the Merhige house still looks much as it did back then, a classic example of Italian Renaissance Revival style that was briefly popular during Florida’s 1920s land boom.
The house, a designated landmark that recently sold for $2 million, “has been updated but they kept it in the original style, which is hard to do,” said Helle Hartley, the listing agent. It still has all of the original windows, doors and floors except in the kitchen, which was redone by the sellers at a cost of about $80,000 but also in keeping with the style.
The four-bedroom, 3 ½-bathroom house hearkens back to an era when St. Petersburg was seeing its first big growth spurt. In the early 1900s, an investment company bought 4,000 acres west of the city including an area called Davista, billed as “The Gem of All Florida Developments.” The original plat showed residential neighborhoods south of Central Avenue, a park along Boca Ciega Bay and a waterfront street, first labeled Beach Drive, then Sunset Drive.
In 1925, Merhige purchased a lot on the nearly empty waterfront street. His father had emigrated from Syria to St. Petersburg, where he ran a store downtown selling imported laces, kimonos and “silk shawls of every description.” After his father’s death, Merhige combined his own import company with his mother’s import company to form a clothing store called Lady Fashion. With business flourishing, Merhige hired prominent contractor Charles DuBois to build a house that would accommodate not only his wife, new baby and mother, but also friends and relatives coming from Syria.
Eschewing the more common Mediterranean Revival style then in vogue, DuBois designed the two-story house with a barrel tile roof, widely overhanging eaves and a recessed arched entryway. French doors paned in clear glass opened onto two terraces with sunset views. The initial cost was $12,200 with another room built on a year later for $2,000.
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In 1929, Merhighe sold the house and moved closer to downtown, where he opened the Orange Blossom Cafeteria. That year’s stock market crash wrecked the tourist trade and local economy, and many of the lots in the Davista subdivision remained vacant throughout the Great Depression. But the area began to flourish again with the 1939 opening of the Treasure Island Causeway. The increase in traffic on Central Avenue improved the visibility of Davista and other nearby neighborhoods to tourists as well as to St. Petersburg residents making day trips to the beach.
The Merhige house changed hands several times — from a couple who owned a Massachusetts shoe-manufacturing company to a Chicago family who let friends use it when they were wintering elsewhere and on to a contractor who added a room and a carport and remodeled the front porch. In 1955, he sold the house to a doctor and his wife, who stayed there into the ‘70s.
In 1974, the home hosted a Designers Show House, “the first on Florida’s West Coast.” In what would become a popular annual fundraiser for the Florida Orchestra, several designers each decorated a room: Themes that year included “New England Nostalgia” for a bedroom and “Sanctuary for the Mistress of the House” in the kitchen.
“Set amid graceful palms and hedged in red hibiscus, this classic home has undergone few changes,” the show house brochure said. “Built of terra cotta tile ... high ceilinged ... northern oak floors whose only fault is to grow more beautiful with time, the house is spacious, seven rooms on the main floor, with powder room, classic stairwell and foyer leading up to four sleeping rooms and two baths.”
In 2008, the St. Petersburg City Council voted unanimously to designate the Merhige house as a landmark. According to a filing by city staffers, the home was historically significant because of its architecture, as evidence of the city’s westward expansion and the contributions of “one of the first ethnically diverse families to make St. Petersburg their home.”
This fall, the house was featured on an episode of “American Dream TV” as part of a series hosted by Hartley, the real estate agent, that highlights interesting local places.
Although close to primary routes to the gulf beaches, the house sits on a quiet street with little traffic — perfect for the new owners, a family from Atlanta with young children.