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A different kind of ‘houseboat’

A Florida couple relocates their historic Queen Anne Victorian mansion by barge

A Florida couple relocates their historic Queen Anne Victorian mansion by barge

Lamb Mansion, a Palmetto, Fla., landmark for 96 years, is a survivor of hurricanes, changing times, waterfront renewal — even a brush with waterspouts during a Sept. 26 barge trip to a new location. And it looks like the old, blue house, built in 1910 on west coast Florida’s Manatee River, will make it into its second century.

Thanks go to historic preservationists, an owner who loves old houses and a moving company that jacked up the 220-ton Queen Anne Victorian mansion, rolled it onto a barge, and towed it out to the Gulf of Mexico, under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and up Tampa Bay to Ruskin — 27 miles altogether. The three-story house now sits on an idyllic 5.2-acre plot on the Little Manatee River, across from a stand of mangrove trees — part of the 8,583-acre Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve.

“It’s a beautiful spot,” says owner George Corbett, of Winter Haven, Fla., who — with his wife, Nancy — has been semiretired from refurbishing historic houses for most of 20 years.

The couple couldn’t resist the rambling 7,000-square-foot wood-frame house, with its tin roof, multiple gables and three-story turret with porch wrapped gracefully around it. Corbett doubts there are more than a handful of waterfront homes in Florida of this size and condition that have survived nearly 100 years of hurricanes, neighborhood blight and redevelopment like this one has.

Bob Breeden, president of Suncoast Developers Inc., says he sold the house to the Corbetts for $1, but it was up to them to move it. The cost of the move was around a quarter-million dollars, Breeden says. The 2.66 acres of prime downtown Palmetto waterfront where Asa Lamb, son of Palmetto founder and banker Samuel Sparks Lamb, built the mansion will be redeveloped — along with some adjacent land — as a mix of offices, businesses and 118 condominium residences.

The Corbetts were looking for an old house to put on their Ruskin property and use in ministry as a retreat center for Christian workers. Their first one, on 134 acres at Lake Toxaway, N.C., is a refurbished hunting lodge once used by Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

“This was a rare find,” Corbett says. It is a historic home, and though rundown — it had been vacant six years and served as a group home before that — it is structurally sound, he says. Just as important, it could be barged straight from its old location to its new one.

Corbett was surprised at all the fanfare on moving day, and events reaffirmed his faith that God’s hand was moving in all this, because the barge and mansion weathered a nasty squall and skirted waterspouts en route to Ruskin. “Men can pick up and move a 220-ton structure on a barge, but only God can make sure it gets there,” he says.

Kim Brownie, owner of Brownie Moving and Heavy Hauling of Fort Pierce, Fla., and his crew did the moving. They slipped steel beams under the house’s foundation, jacked the beams up 4 or 5 feet, and bolted three sets of enormous hydraulic wheels — one set in front, two in back — to the beams. Using a remote-control joystick, they slowly rolled the house up a steel-plate runway and onto the 44-foot-by-126-foot barge. Then they did the same with a small outbuilding.

Brownie says this was only a modestly difficult job. He’s done bigger. The biggest house he has moved by barge — 150 miles — was a 14,000-square-footer weighing in at 1,150 tons.

Corbett escorted his new house to Ruskin on his 44-foot Marine Trader Europa. “It was kind of an exciting thing,” he says. “I was amazed at the public’s interest. There were hundreds, thousands of people lining the bays and bridges and causeways. There were tons of boats. I’ve never seen so many helicopters as I saw that day.” In fact, seven television helicopters hovered as the barge made its way under Tampa Bay’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

But as the festive entourage left the Manatee River and entered the Gulf of Mexico, Corbett says he glanced to port and saw a “huge black cloud” bearing down on them. “I was on the same frequency as the captain of the tug,” Corbett says. The Coast Guard, which was monitoring the move, alerted the tug captain to be ready for a “serious squall” with 30- to 40-mph winds and 4- to 5-foot seas.

“It did get a little hairy out there,” says Capt. Frank Masters, the tug Regina T’s master. He says he was two hours out from safe harbor, so it was too late to turn around, and he didn’t dare risk heading for the bridge four miles away. He feared that if he turned the barge and put the wind on the beam, he wouldn’t be able to stop the barge from rocking, which could have dumped the house into the water. So he “nosed her into the wind until it let up,” about 45 minutes later, he says. “Waves were breaking over the barge, but we weren’t pitching much,” he says. Yet it was bad enough out there that the Coast Guard asked for his position in case the tow went down.

Weathering storms is part of the job, Masters says, and this job went as well as could be expected. “We didn’t have any accidents, and the house didn’t fall in the water,” he says.

As the blinding rain let up, Corbett spotted a waterspout about a mile away, which headed off harmlessly in another direction, then a second waterspout off Shell Point at the mouth of the Manatee River. “To me, this was just a reminder of who’s in charge of everything,” Corbett says.

Closing on Ruskin, the couple spotted a rainbow over the Little Manatee River, the old house’s new home. For the Corbetts, it was a sign. “It was a wonderful end to a wonderful day,” he says.

Now comes the hard part of restoring the house. After 20 years away from the business, Corbett says they probably will find that what used to cost $100 now will cost $1,000, but they’re looking forward to it. He says restoring a historic house is a lot like bringing a classic yacht back to life. “How do you describe it?” he asks.