“Keep Gulfport Weird” is practically a town motto, found on bumper stickers all over, so it’s fitting that a home listing there landed on the “Zillow Gone Wild” Facebook page.
Look past the marble countertops and waterfront view, and there is a giant tree growing in the kitchen with its top sprouting through the roof. Now that tree has new owners, Greg and Linda Simek, who bought the 2,874 square-foot waterfront house for $899,000.
Questions like “How did this happen?” and “What are you going to do with that thing in your kitchen?” can finally be answered.
The family of Michelle Pillucere Clark, 53, a hair stylist in downtown St. Petersburg, lived in the home from 1963 until 1983. She was not happy with snotty comments online about a house her father thought of as a piece of art.
She remembered when her late parents, Joseph and Lynn Pillucere, came up with the idea to build an addition by working around the tree on 31st Avenue South. Her father sought out special designers and engineers to add an enclosed porch and kitchen, which was finished in the early ‘70s. He kept a handyman on call to cut a wider opening in the roof when the tree canopy spread and added more sealant over the years to keep the rain out.
“It was beautiful,” Clark said. “The whole back of the house was floor-to-ceiling windows, bringing the outside in.”
New owner Greg Simek, 38, owns Body Nutrition, which makes and sells its own brand and private label nutritional supplements. He realizes most people would hesitate to take on a house with such an unusual feature. “I’m a little bit of a contrarian by nature,” the former Marine said.
“If you want to put the work in and take the risk, some great opportunity may arise,” Simek said. “Instead you have all the haters out there fomenting.”
Long-term plans call for removing the famous kitchen tree, lifting the house a few feet to meet modern flood standards and using the first floor, which contains the tree and kitchen, as a garage.
The tree is not particularly noticeable upon entering the house, but it juts out within view of the kitchen entry to the right. There’s a step down into the kitchen and the giant trunk steals any attention from the shiny stainless steel appliances and cherry-stained cabinets. It has a knobby bark, with scattered rocks across the base, and some days, a line of ants make a path from the trunk to the nearby dog dish.
The Simeks have moved in and are living with the tree as they aim to sell their St. Petersburg home to pay for the Gulfport house overhaul. They brought in an arborist who told them she was worried “the tree couldn’t respirate properly” being encased in a house, and she also saw signs of rot, Greg Simek said.
“I know people will be upset to hear we are removing the tree,” he said, “but you have to realize the structure is killing the tree and we are looking at it from a safety perspective.”
The couple had been looking at Gulfport for awhile, liking the town’s artsy nature and walkable sensibility.
Linda Simek spotted the listing after they lost a bid for a nearby house. She showed her husband, noting the lovely view of Boca Ciega Bay, then added, “But look at the tree.”
Not wanting to lose out on waterfront property in a hot real estate market, they quickly put in the first bid for the house. Their real estate agent Natalya Halprin said insurance proved tricky with numerous carriers not even considering coverage. HH Insurance finally found a policy for them contingent on the tree being removed.
They will be paying $6,500 for a policy that would have been $1,500 to $2,000 without such a curious kitchen feature. Greg Simek said he’s been assured the bill will come down once the tree does.
On their first night in the new house, Linda Simek said she had a hard time sleeping. Her new rescue cats from Friends of Strays seemed entranced by the tree and played with the pile of rocks at the base. There’s a small knot hole in the kitchen tree, and she worried the tiny felines might find their way in there and get stuck.
She’s still worried. But on the bright side, she said, the cats have a natural scratch post.
The tree adds issues to daily family living. Linda Simek likes to cook and finds the tree an obstacle in what is already a sprawling kitchen. She has to reach around it to get to the silverware and still finds it odd to give directions.
“I’ll say to Greg, grab me the plates, they are in the cabinet behind the tree,” she said.
“It’s bizarre,” Greg Simek says. “This is the highlight of the house, a giant live oak tree in the middle of the kitchen. It makes me realize people make some weird choices.”
On the drive to school after their first morning in the new house, their son Mark, 6, asked his mother the question everyone is asking: “Why do we have a tree in our house?”
He told his classmates about it at school that day. He said no one believed him.
Times staff writer Emily Mahoney contributed to this story.