110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
Now a multimillion-dollar historic site
posted Aug 13, 2008 - 8:43:17pm
Five years ago, the Stetson Mansion was for sale.
An extraordinary landmark, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but was off DeLand’s beaten path, and cloistered in private ownership.
It was a community treasure, but it was not on the community’s radar.
That changed when J.T. Thompson and Michael Solari came from South Florida to buy it.
They meticulously, fabulously restored the mansion, and opened it for tours and parties. People came on buses from across the state to see it, and people came from across town to be married there and to celebrate other special occasions.
Now the mansion is for sale again.
As news of the $5.2 million real-estate listing traveled around the community, some expressed dismay that the magnificent home — which West Volusians had begun to think of as their own public treasure — could once again be a private pleasure.
Could Thompson and Solari actually plan to profit from the project?
“A scam,” one Beacon reader called it.
The Stetson Mansion has stood on the western edge of DeLand for 122 years. Here is a synopsis of the past five:
The former home of DeLand benefactor John B. Stetson, at 1031 Camphor Lane, was in fairly good shape when it was for sale in 2003, but not in great shape.
The landmark had been in private ownership for many years and, as with most homes, needed upgrades and repairs.
But not ordinary upgrades and repairs.
“It needed a buyer who could spend one-and-a-half to $2 million,” listing agent Maureen Kemp recalled.
The 1886 mansion was on the market then at $595,000, and at least one looker talked about the possibility of tearing down the rambling 10,000-square-foot, five-bedroom structure, and selling its one-of-a-kind architectural components for salvage, then using the land for something else.
Along came J.T. Thompson and Michael Solari. The South Florida men were armed with an idea they had gotten from an associate producer at HGTV, the home-and-garden cable-television channel.
They bought the Stetson Mansion.
“We really just fell in love with the house,” Thompson said. “We just wanted to do something wonderful with it.”
Following the plan suggested by the HGTV producer, Thompson and Solari would contact manufacturers and providers of building supplies and services — mostly national, but some local — and ask them to participate in the restoration by donating or discounting their products and services.
In exchange, when the restoration was complete, the home would function as a showcase to advertise the products and services.
“A lot of people use this formula, all over the country,” Kemp said.
In partnership with The Museum of Florida Art in DeLand, which loaned its nonprofit status to the endeavor, Thompson and Solari organized and supervised a multimillion-dollar restoration, contributing their own funds as needed. A manufacturer might donate materials, for example; Thompson and Solari paid to have them installed.
“I do believe that the mansion is a national and a community treasure,” Thompson said. “The only way, we thought, to protect it, was to make it so perfect ... so spectacular and magnificent, that no one would ever consider tearing it down.”
Take a video tour of the restored mansion.
Jennifer Coolidge, executive director of The Museum of Florida Art, said the Stetson Mansion partnership was wonderful for the museum.
Some 375 people attended the Arts in Autumn gala there in October 2007, and that fundraiser was followed by two months of tours and Florida-artist exhibits. Volunteer docents, many of them members of the Museum Guild, took more than 2,500 individuals through the mansion, highlighting the advantages of the various donated products, showing off the artwork, and detailing the storied building’s history.
The museum raised about $35,000, after expenses.
“We’re very grateful for the connection we had during Arts in Autumn,” Coolidge said. “It was a win-win.”
The partnership ended in late 2007, after thousands of people had been introduced to DeLand and The Museum of Florida Art, through interest in the mansion.
“A lot of people came through there who might not have known about the museum if they hadn’t become interested in the mansion,” Coolidge said.
The arrangement was always viewed as temporary, she said.
“We never knew what their plans were,” she said. “We were thrilled to work with the owners of the Stetson Mansion on a limited partnership.”
The museum checked with the Florida Association for Nonprofit Organizations before entering into the agreement, and got an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
“This is done all over the country,” Coolidge said.
She said Thompson and Solari deserve the community’s praise for preserving the Stetson Mansion.
“What they’ve done with it, it’s an incredible feat,” she said. “They did so much in such a short time, and they had the vision to carry it through.”
Solari, an urban historian, researched the history of the Stetson Mansion and its unusual combination of Gothic, Tudor, Moorish and Polynesian styles, put together by architect George T. Pearson to satisfy the tastes of the Stetson family, which used the mansion as a winter retreat.
Thompson spent a year lining up participants in the home’s rebirth. In all, 228 sponsors are listed on the Stetson Mansion Web site. They range from household names like Steinway and Strypeze to smaller firms like DeLand’s Intrinsic Hardwood Flooring Inc. and Tinker Graphics.
Promotional agreements with the sponsors committed Thompson and Solari to three months of tours and public exposure. They have more than complied.
Intrinsic Flooring co-owner Andrea Fiumano said she and her husband, Dante, didn’t get all the publicity they had hoped for by refinishing floors in the Stetson Mansion at a deep discount, but they have gotten additional work and good referrals from the publicity.
Some hoped-for television exposure didn’t come through, she said.
“Maybe we didn’t get the exposure we thought we’d get, but maybe there’s more to come,” she said.
“We always have it in our portfolio that we did it, and the photos that were taken,” Andrea Fiumano said. She said she and Dante remain “good friends” with Thompson and Solari.
In addition to the tours and museum activities, the sponsors have been exposed in magazine articles, newspaper features and television shows that focused attention on the mansion and its restoration.
“The house is now a multimillion-dollar historic site,” Thompson said.
It’s also a bit much house for two men with busy lives.
The home, Thompson said, is now ready to be taken to the next level. With eight bedrooms and other accommodations in the schoolhouse and carriage house on the 2-acre grounds, it could be a bed-and-breakfast, a scholars’ retreat, or a spa resort.
Thompson and Solari aren’t interested in a commercial undertaking; they are satisfied to have saved the home from further decline, and secured its future.
They, too, have heard the “scam” word, and it hurts a little that some in the community don’t understand how hard they worked to preserve a historic treasure.
Laughing, Thompson quotes his partner: “After all our hard work, and blood, sweat and tears — and, literally, tears — that’s all people think of us? That we got free toilets?”
But kudos weren’t their goal, Thompson said.
“I don’t want any recognition,” he said. “I don’t care if they think Bill Smith did this. If there’s nothing else we ever do in our lives, we know that we saved a spectacular home; we saved one of the top 300 homes in the country. That’s our joy.”
Thompson wishes other groups in West Volusia would use the Stetson Mansion method to assure the preservation of other important historic structures; he also hopes the mansion’s future use can bring valuable tourism to West Volusia.
“If it was brought to the next level, not only have we saved this house for the next 15 generations, it could be a giant thing for DeLand,” he said.
Setting a proper selling price for one of the 300 most notable homes in the country was a challenge.
Top real-estate agents across the country were surveyed, Thompson said.
“We have to open our minds, and see it in a league of its own,” said Kemp, who once again is the listing agent, working through Bill Mancinik, Realtor, The Home Team.
The property is side by side on the exclusive Dupont Registry with other multimillion-dollar homes and extraordinary parcels. Setting its value, Kemp said, is complicated by the fact that there are no comparable properties.
“It’s like a work of art,” she said. “It’s in the eye of the beholder. I think it’s going to attract a buyer who could live anywhere. It’s an amazing property. It’s not going to appeal to just anybody.”
She hopes the favorable foreign exchange rate for the dollar, and the property’s proximity to the entertainment industry in Orlando, will help.
Kemp, and Thompson and Solari, realize it may take five years to sell a property as special as the Stetson Mansion. Until then, the owners will continue to live in DeLand.
“This still is our home; this still is our investment,” Thompson said. “We’ve made good friends in the community.”
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