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The first time John and Eva Forney laid eyes on the place where they would eventually live, they had no idea what they were looking at. They were in their son’s sailboat on Thanksgiving weekend in 2013 when he stopped at a sandbar in Tampa Bay with a view of a waterfront park they’d never seen before. Longtime residents of St. Pete’s Old Northeast neighborhood, they’d rarely if ever ventured to the Old Southeast and weren’t aware of its crown jewel, Lassing Park, or the row of gracious homes that ran along the park’s border.

“We really didn’t know this existed,” said Eva.

“We just thought this street looked really cool,” said John, “but really didn’t give it another thought.”

Eva and John weren’t yet married at the time, but they were engaged and looking for a place that would suit their blended family (eight kids in all, ranging from 14 to 29). A while later, Eva found an online listing for a property at 1803 Beach Drive SE that looked intriguing, but the main house had been divided into two rentals with no interior staircase between floors, and one of its two ramshackle garages had a second-floor apartment that was also occupied by a renter. The rehab seemed too complex to bother with.

But one day while John was on a business trip (he’s the president and CEO of UPC Insurance), Eva decided she’d check out 1803 in person — and realized when she got there that it was on the street they’d seen from the boat.

“Omigosh,” she remembers thinking, “this is where we were!” She immediately called John, who was in Bermuda, and said, “I think you need to see this.” Although the buildings were, in John’s words, “dilapidated and dangerous,” in December of 2013 they bought the entire property for $825,000.

WHEEL OF FORTUNE: Eva Forney found this ship’s wheel in a nautical antiques shop; it had been salvaged from a sunken sailboat in the Withlacoochee River. She had it installed on the master bedroom balcony as a surprise for her husband.

“You had to have imagination,” said John.

That’s for sure. But their imagination — plus five years and almost $2 million in renovations and improvements — transformed the property, which is more than 100 years old, into a uniquely beautiful waterfront compound.

And now it’s for sale, listed by Sotheby’s at $2,895,000.

Why would they sell such a home after putting so much work into it?

“John and I are both very much always ready for the next thing, the next period in our life,” said Eva. “And we’re excited about it.”

“We’re not attached to things, even things as beautiful as 1803,” said John, who said they would be moving to a condo on Bayshore Boulevard in South Tampa. “It feels like we did what we came here to do.”

Did they ever. Take a look:

OPEN HOUSE: The interior of the main house was essentially torn down to the studs, said John. “There’s nothing original except the floors.” Walls were removed to open up the space as much as possible, allowing views of the outside from almost anywhere one stands. “Our vision was God’s creation is crazy right here,” said Eva. “We didn’t want to disturb that.”
BRIDGING THE GAP: The Forneys renovated the second-floor apartment in the garage first so that they could live there while construction proceeded on the main house. One night in the summer of 2014, they were sitting on the apartment porch when Eva wondered out loud, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we connected these two buildings?”
SHELL GAME: The Forneys’ contractor, Joey Schultz, gave them the idea of using shell stucco in fireplace surrounds and exterior posts. The family gathered the sand dollars and shells from the same sandbar where they’d briefly anchored in 2013.
STAIRWAY TO PARADISE: Artisan Murray Fox handmade the main staircase “right in front of us,” said Eva, constructing it so that it followed the curve of the bay window.
RAISING THE ROOF: The home’s original roof was ripped off to create a vaulted master bedroom with a spectacular view of the water. “We send a sunrise picture almost every day to our kids,” said John.
EVA’S LADDER: “This is my favorite part,” said Eva about the ship’s ladder (far left) on the second floor landing, “but you have to be careful going up.” The steps lead to a charming little aerie (not pictured) with a banquette, a porthole window and walk-in attic access.
GATHER ʼROUND: Winding paths and indigenous plantings grace the backyard as well as a firepit, site of many a family conversation. The area was once so overgrown that the Forneys lost sight of their dog amidst the ferns.
WINE NOT? The couple transformed the ground floor of the former garage into a wine room, with reclaimed barnwood walls, wine-barrel bar and a TV/conversation area. “This is where the fun happens!” said Eva.
GARAGE MAHAL: The wine room/apartment (left) and gym (right), which also used to be a garage. The outdoor swim spa between the two includes an underwater treadmill.

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