ST. PETERSBURG — Some city residents don’t know Roser Park exists and many discover it by accident.
Hidden behind Bayfront Medical Center’s mass of hospital buildings and parking garages, those who make a turn down the steeply descending brick street of Roser Park Drive might feel they’ve entered an alternate universe.
Downtown’s flat, built-out urban landscape suddenly disappears beneath a thick canopy of green, leafy laurel oaks and palms, punctuated with bouquets of fuchsia bougainvillea along the concrete walls of Booker Creek.
Towering above this subtropical stream is the unlikely sight of early 20th century bungalows built into the sides and tops of hills — in south Pinellas County.
A century ago, this improbable landscape held special appeal to neighborhood founder Charles Roser, who by 1914 had bought numerous lots along the creek in hopes of luring others with the “joy of living in a park,” as an early brochure advertised.
One of those homes, a single-story Craftsman bungalow with a hillside view of the creek, caught the eye of Catherine Nivens and Michele Cardinal 10 years ago.
“This was one of the homes that was put on a postcard to send out and solicit potential buyers,” Cardinal said.
The pair has joined dozens of proud residents who have moved into this unusual neighborhood during the past two decades, intent on slowly restoring the lost splendor of these vintage houses.
Neighbors and visitors turned out en masse Saturday to admire the residents’ handiwork and mingle over snacks and drinks for Historic Roser Park’s centennial home tour.
As in other revitalized communities near the city’s core, that work has involved tearing boards off of windows, uprooting chain-link fences, even removing overgrown trees from kitchens; but, most importantly, it has meant eschewing Roser Park’s reputation as a rough, blighted south St. Petersburg neighborhood.
“South St. Pete doesn’t have the greatest reputation, even though there are tons of great properties,” said Debra Camfferman, whose two-story, Mediterranean Revival house was on the tour.
One of the neighborhood’s veteran homeowners, Kai Warren, says when he first moved here in 1981, about 85 percent of the homes were rentals and many were in disrepair.
Today that is reversed, with 85 percent ownership, he said.
By the time Nivens and Cardinal discovered the neighborhood, property values were on the rise and many people were pouring time and money into restoration projects.
During the next 10 years, they broke out walls to make extra closet space, refurbished the heart-of-pine hardwood floors and a variety of built-in cabinets and bookshelves and, sometimes, Nivens admits, the only part of the house that felt like home amid the chaos and dust was the deep front porch with its sweeping view of the lush landscape below.
Michael Baugh had to conquer even more chaos in his cozy 1923 bungalow on 10th Avenue South.
There was no glass when the Tampa pastry chef first walked through the door, only wooden boards covering the windows. He found needles and condoms, and a bullet hole in one room.
The city was ready to destroy it.
“When you got into the kitchen, there was a tree growing right here,” he said during the tour.
Baugh’s home was dubbed the “party house” Saturday, with a steady stream of mojitos and specialty sweets made by the chef himself, who runs ‘Let Them Eat Cake’ in Tampa.
Every room has been renovated meticulously, down to the smallest custom detail: newly laid three-quarter-inch oak floors, a pantry door that opens with a fold-out Murphy bed, a twisted staircase that leads to a cozy second-floor loft with a bed built into the wall, and a spacious marble shower.
That kind of attention to detail, especially in design, is something Roser insisted on early in the neighborhood’s development.
“He required people to show blueprints before he’d sell them a lot, so he could make sure he had a variety of architectural styles,” said Warren, the neighborhood’s resident historian.
That seems only fitting in this small slice of land that offers such a dramatic contrast to the flat, sandy topography which characterizes the rest of the city and much of Florida.
Like today, once people discovered Roser’s hidden sanctuary, they couldn’t see living elsewhere.
“It had a lot of romantic appeal,” Warren said.