Once upon a time

Residents of the North Street Compound and its fanciful “fairy tale house” were as eclectic as the architecture.

click to enlarge HANSEL MEETS HACIENDA: The property dates back to 1925. - Daniel Veintimilla
Daniel Veintimilla
HANSEL MEETS HACIENDA: The property dates back to 1925.

Eleven years ago I lived in the North Street Compound, a fabled cluster of houses and apartments near the Hillsborough River, familiar to many Heightsians. The historic property dates back to 1925, and in recent decades, has been home to a slew of well-known locals, artists and musicians. It comprised a two-story house, apartment buildings in the rear, and, at the southwest corner of the lot, an enchanting if peculiar cottage known as the “fairy tale house” — my residence for two years.

Residents joke that less than three degrees of separation exist between one Seminole Heights resident and another, and the same goes especially for people who a) knew someone who lived in the fairy tale house, b) visited the house, or c) lived there themselves.

My old friend and onetime roommate at the Compound, Lee Devanas, used to close the bars and invite people to after-parties at the fairy tale house. On one occasion, he awakened me at 4 a.m. the night before Thanksgiving ’03 and introduced me to Stephanie Powers, now a frequent CL contributor. She was with Dumbwaiters’ Brian Repetto, her boyfriend at the time and a longtime friend of mine. I was half asleep and awestruck by how much she reminded me of Natalie Wood.

Many other new/old friends and acquaintances traipsed around the mosaic tiles by the koi pond, smoking cigarettes on the patio and taking in the idiosyncratic features of the Hansel-and-Gretel-meets-Spanish-hacienda dwelling — such as the ship engraving on a closet door (one of a handful added to Tampa homes at the time) and the “peanut butter staircase,” so dubbed by a member of the punk band Radon. Eyes would widen and people would say, “Wow, you live here?”

They wouldn’t have liked it so much when the house flooded. Both Lee and I suffered the loss of several rare album covers.

The charm, of course, outweighed the nuisances; unique and lovely touches, like the Spanish tiled floor, the large bedroom balcony with a view of the river and the tiny one by the stairs, with an arched door just big enough for a small child. French doors open to a side patio with fleur-de-lis stencils, a Bernini-like child bust and a spring-fed koi pond built in the 1940s. Current residents Tom and Joy Falahee, who have two young daughters, have spruced it up. They’ve cleared out the overgrowth by the edge of the pond to reveal cartoonish sculptures of a turtle and alligator head.

No longer there: a rusted metal equine-chicken hybrid in the front yard. Named “The Plug” (no one knows why), it was created by former Compound regular Mike LeMieux and Neil Carver. Friend Devon Brady, co-founder of LiveWork Studios with LeMieux (opening soon in the Heights), lovingly referred to the feathered mammal as “Chonkey.” Come to find out, the sculpture sits at Brady’s house on Fern Street now. Oh, and incidentally, Brady’s aunt lived in the home in the ’70s.

Inside, other unique details add to the charm: primitive Gaudi-esque limestone carvings around the fireplace and a rectangular oil painting/closet door in the stairwell.

I met several new friends while living there: my current coworker Mitch Perry, activist Alayne Unterberger, reporter-turned-TIA PR boss Janet Zink, all friends of my then-co-worker and roommate Rochelle Renford.

Past inhabitants include Barbra “Bobbi” Nealy, activist/political hopeful Kelly Benjamin and his partner, Kathy Morris, WMNF alum Jessica Noel. After Rochelle was transferred to a job in Louisville, my friend Lee moved in for a year. In 2004, I bought my current house, “Casa Ellicott,” in Southeast Seminole Heights, and Lee moved into the main front house with Bob Wieboldt (who died while living there last year).

Bud Mayhem moved into the "fairy tale house" after me. The 50-ish musician, artist and filmmaker, with white fuzzy hair like Andy Warhol, stands out in a crowd. During his tenure, he’d throw Dead Pool parties on Halloween, when he’d tally up predictions from the previous year of who would die that year, then collect a new round of names.

After I moved away, I returned occasionally to visit Bob and Lee and others, and attend “burn-barrel” parties at night. At one, I dorked out white and nerdy, singing to John Bain’s acoustic rendition of “Message in a Bottle.”

True to its transient, bohemian trappings, the compound has a strangely compelling history. Its first owner, I’m told, was an abortion doctor who operated a secret practice (because abortion was illegal back then). He housed patients in the apartments behind the main house and built the fairy tale house for his daughter after she divorced to cheer and comfort her.

The Falahees now host fun gatherings at the compound. Joy Falahee, a mother of an autistic child and a designer of environments that stimulate and soothe autistic children, shared her first reaction to the compound.

“I remember pulling up to the North Street home for the first time and knew this would be the perfect fit for our Alexa,” she said. “The first time she saw the enchanted house she instantly thought she was a princess in a small cottage. (It) has given my children the opportunity to run, play, and be outside, and it has truly been a blessing.”

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