Cou­ple trans­form his­toric home

Cou­ple re­store judge’s de­cay­ing 1925 Ybor City home and con­vert it into a stun­ning ‘Rain­bow Plan­ta­tion.’

Tampa Bay Times - - Front Page - BY PAUL GUZZO Times Staff Writer

A cou­ple has re­stored the 1925 plan­ta­tion-style home of Judge Leo Stal­naker

Sr. in Ybor City. The home fea­tures win­dows, col­umns and stairs that the judge sal­vaged from the orig­i­nal Hills­bor­ough County Court­house. “We call this the Rain­bow Plan­ta­tion,” one owner says.

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.”

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 re­pur­posed 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 the 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.

“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 six­legged 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 gift — 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.”

TAILYR IRVINE | Times

Gianna Russo is gifted a piece of the stair­case where her par­ents made an en­trance dur­ing their wedding re­cep­tion. Mark Bias and Car­rie West bought and re­stored the home built by Russo’s grand­fa­ther in 1925. TOP: The Stal­naker fam­ily at their Ybor City home in 1935.

Cour­tesy of Gianna Russo

Pho­tos by TAILYR IRVINE | Times

From left, Mark Bias, 62, Gianna Russo, 63, and Car­rie West, 66, sit in the Tampa home built nearly a cen­tury ago by Russo’s grand­fa­ther. West and Bias in­vited Russo to see the ren­o­va­tions.

Photo cour­tesy of Gianna Russo

A 1953 wedding day pho­to­graph of Lula Belle Russo, Doris Stal­naker, Vi­vian Law, and June and Lance Stal­naker in the home at 3510 E Eighth Ave. Lula Belle mar­ried Joseph Russo on that day.

West plays a pi­ano on Jan. 30 that was placed in the Tampa home by the man who built it nearly a cen­tury ago.

Bias and West in­cor­po­rated orig­i­nal pieces of the Ybor City home that was built in 1925 into the new de­sign.

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