Veering Into the Twilight Zone
St. Pete is bursting with stories of eccentric people and noteworthy places. Hustlers, dreamers, schemers, sun seekers and romantics have left their indelible marks on the Sunshine City. Books, pictures, museums and walking tours explore the swashbuckling aviators, resolute builders of palatial hotels, hardy pioneers and visionaries that shape our collective memory of how St. Pete became the city we know today.
But then there are the tales of people and places that don’t fit quite so neatly into the tidy historical record. Tales that reflect oddly on those involved, their eccentricities just a little bit too unconventional. Tales in which strange things happen that leave us skeptical. Gritty recollections that leave more questions than answers; the circumstances seem too absurd to be true. Maybe these are the stories that end up swept under the rug and are eventually forgotten. But these are also the stories we often find most interesting. This is one of those stories.
Where to Begin?
About a year ago I met with a fellow historian named Gary Lembke who had collected a ton of historical information over the years, mainly dealing with the Pinellas Point and Pink Streets area of town. He had boxes of stuff – old marketing materials, articles, photos, postcards, scraps of paper with details both remembered and forgotten. We were looking through all of it, and he eventually pulled out a photo of a place he called Bayou Castle. In a few sentences he tried to tell me bits of a story of a house built to last a thousand years, where people had died, where spirits lingered. Something about huge columns and homeless people. Oh, and pioneer picnics. I was skeptical; this was just some mixed up ramblings. Surely. I took a photo of the picture he showed me (yep, this one), which seemed to be an odd architectural mishmash of a house with an incomplete roof. Hmmm. Then I kind of forgot about it as we moved on to the Bee Line Ferry, Pass-a-Grille, birdcage houses and other more concrete historical topics.
Zoom to the present: A couple weeks ago I was going through my photos and rediscovered the one you see above. I decided to poke around and do some perusing of the interwebs. As it turns out, I was nothing short of amazed at what I found. I was so intrigued, in fact, that I decided to call the owner. Debbie answered the phone; we chatted. She was kind enough to ask me over to see “this crazy old house” and of course I eagerly accepted her warm invitation. This is one history project I was positive would be worthy of first-hand investigation and let me say that we are going to investigate it all – peculiar inhabitants; murders; occult activities; an architectural oddity built to stand forever and which still does.
Here Come the Dreamers
Let’s start at the beginning. EJ (he may have gone by John) Branch was a noteworthy fellow in his own right who came to St. Pete in the late 1800s, shortly after the train arrived. He and his wife, who clearly shared his proclivity toward adventure, hailed from Bowling Green, Kentucky where Branch had operated a successful business as a brick manufacturer. After a trip down to see what all the “Florida” hubbub was about Branch and his wife decided to relocate; he would open the same business in St. Pete which needed plenty of bricks. While working on his professional endeavors, Branch and his wife tried living in different areas of the little town, for a time even attempting to homestead 80 acres of land on Long Key way before roads or bridges to what would become St. Pete Beach existed. When that didn’t work out, they gave up the homestead and went looking for another piece of land. The couple decided to build a proper house on ten acres he had purchased at what is now 4th Street South and roughly 54th Avenue. At the time, however, no roads passed by the property; EJ and Mrs. Branch would climb into their little sailboat on Little Bayou when they needed to travel to St. Pete.
Castles Made of Sand, and Some Cement
The Branches had a lot of vision and wanted to make good on those big ideas. Branch was a resourceful guy and as noted above was a brick maker by trade. Using sand he dredged out of the bay and cement he bought in St. Pete, he started making bricks on the property. This wasn’t going to be a typical homestead which at the time were often cabin-styled clapboard affairs with wood shingled roofs. Branch was going to build his own home, using his own hands, with bricks he made himself onsite. And that is exactly what he did.
It took Branch a couple years to construct the home – the bricks alone took 18 months to manufacture. He then literally built the house himself, brick by brick, in a flamboyant style on the remote parcel of land which was lauded as quite the novelty in the pioneer community. But even more important historically – the brick house was of a Spanish style. This was (and is!) the very first Mediterranean Revival / Spanish style home built in St. Pete. Wow!
Branch and his wife were also interested in laying out their own fruit trees and imported a number of unusual varieties to plant on the ten acre plot surrounding their mini estate. Finally, around 1909, Branch and his wife moved into the home. It was called Bayou Castle, which was likely due to its unique style and solid construction. From the front, the protruding central column and corners with high relief certainly lent a bit of castle-like flair, one that’s still present today. It is not a mansion by any stretch; this home was designed to be a functional, comfortable and compact two-story home that was built with maybe 6 or 7 rooms of average size. By all accounts the Branches were happy on their property enjoying their most unique house and rare fruits, all backing up closely to Little Bayou.
Amazing History Begins
The Branches were well known in the small town of St. Pete, and were friends with all the early settlers. In 1912, the Pioneer Picnic was held at Bayou Castle, a few years after its construction. This incredible photo of immense historical significance shows the “Old Timers” at the picnic in front of the residence on that pleasant October day. To capture all of these early pioneers of southern Pinellas in one photo is not found elsewhere – this is a gem.
I’ve done my best to touch up this amazing photo. The names are listed below, at least in part. A few notables – 14 & 15 in the back row are our hardworking and proud homeowners, Mr. and Mrs. Branch. You’ll also note the Mears family, William Straub (yep, the parks guy & editor of the St. Pete Times at #24). More are identified below.
Enough History. Gimme Weird!
Things stayed on a pretty even keel for another few decades. The Branches lived in the house many years, but it should be noted that as time wore on parcels of the 10 acres were sold off by subsequent owners. Today, the house is on an irregular but oversized lot. Time passed quietly – at least from what I gather – until we get to the 1970’s, and entering from stage North: the most colorful Lucille Crissey.
Lucille Crissey is perhaps one of the most eccentric St. Pete denizens I’ve come across in my research, and that is saying a lot. She was at once a kindhearted soul who would help anyone; a businesswoman who owned nearly a dozen boarding houses catering to the indigent in St. Pete; a collector of peculiar decor and grand architectural elements; and yet a matter-of-fact realist who expressed herself with a nearly unfathomable but oddly reasonable logic.
She had come to St. Pete in the late 60s from Massachusetts where she and her second husband owned, ran, and sold a number of hotels over the years. They had planned to relocate to Florida together, but as Ms. Crissey put it in her own straightforward way – “We planned to come together but he got a heart attack and died so I came alone.” When she arrived around 1968 she started buy up hotels that catered to the lower classes, serving the people that needed help most. However in 1970 one of her properties, a notorious haven for those out of luck called the Burlington Hotel was condemned to make way for I-275 and Crissey needed to do something. Her tenants begged for her help; they had no where else to turn. Determined to follow the beat of her own drum and also help her soon-to-be completely homeless cadre of renters, she purchased the infamous Bayou Castle. The transformation began. Ms. Crissey’s vision was broad, a bit scattered, and full of odd ideas. She would take in the renters that were being kicked out of the the Burlington and also turn it into her dream home on the Bayou, a “Southern Plantation House” as she called it.
Crissey had collected (one might say hoarded) countless novel and unique items in her years up North. But let’s start with the most grand of her collection – Ten 21-foot tall columns that had allegedly graced the front of one of her hotels in Massachusetts and that she somehow salvaged before the structure was inexplicably demolished. It should be noted that later she said that she had purchased the columns for $1,800 from a junk dealer in Massachusetts. So who can say for sure from where the columns originated? Determined to turn the smallish 1906 Bayou Castle into a Southern Mansion, she had her trusty yet aged sidekick and bodyguard Harold rent a semi truck to haul them down from wherever they were still stored up North. It took five round-trips from Massachusetts in the rented semi to get the ten columns to St. Pete.
One might think that Crissey, who had undertaken great care and expense to retrieve her columns would attach them appropriately to the house, but perhaps by this point that seemed superfluous. Instead, she had foundations for the columns placed around the front, erected the columns, and then secured them from falling over by using a makeshift network of boards attached to the house. The picture below isn’t the in-process view of the new roof being built to accommodate the columns, it was in fact the finished product. This picture was taken probably around 1974.
Permits? Cease and Desist? Bah.
I thought at this point I’d take a little “digital stroll” over to the property card database maintained by the City of St. Pete to see exactly how Ms. Crissey got away with this, um, “lofty feat of engineering.” It does appear that in fact she paid $300 for a permit and operated as her own contractor in 1972 – the permit was issued at the end of 1971. There wasn’t an explicit mention of any so-called “inspections” and the inevitable Cease and Desist letters started rolling in shortly thereafter in mid-1973. I’m not really sure if the C&D’s were for the columns specifically, but one may guess this was the case. A mention of a dilapidated garage was also noted as needing some attention, and I read that it had housed her collection of 200 old bowling pins.
In the photo above, the careful eye may have also spotted an impressive number of ornaments spread liberally throughout the yard. Of her conspicuously placed outside decor, Lucille had roughly a dozen statues along with two fountains, urns, and of course a pair of lions. And that was just the outside stuff. Inside, she had stuffed the rooms with objects, each requiring explanations. A bed owned by Grover Cleveland. Gold Cupids and adorned mirrors. Seven fireplace mantels. A giant Virgin Mary Statue. Grandfather clocks, paintings, a wall with old dolls attached. Of course a grand piano. Tables permanently set with old silver. This is not a huge house.
Murder. Seances. Mutilations.
Crissey had also had collected numerous renters along the way, mostly indigent male boarders who needed her help and received mercy from the kindhearted yet matter-of-fact landlord. She put up partitions throughout the house to create small makeshift rooms for which she charged, and occasionally collected, $15 per week.
On September 13, 1974, one of the boarders named Charles Fears was killed in the house by his best friend and roommate John Holden. Holden and Fears had been drinking and got into a spat over a bottle of vodka. Holden stabbed Fears to death with a utility knife in a small upstairs room that the two shared. Crissey’s own account of the murder is here from the 1974 article; her nonchalant attitude toward the murder and her detachment really struck me. Incidentally, while the murder weapon wasn’t found by police conducting a search after the murder, Crissey found it later under a loaf of bread in her refrigerator. She kept the knife and never reported it. Her logic was that “She didn’t want to embarrass the police since they couldn’t find it and had looked everywhere.“
But that wasn’t really all. Just a month prior, in August of 1974, another indigent resident of Bayou Castle named Vernice Brown was taken – willingly or not is unknown – and was found floating in Mirror Lake the next day. She had been clubbed on the head and the person accused was acquitted of the murder. The witnesses were all too inebriated to corroborate a story. Crissey noted later that Brown had “borrowed” a substantial sum of money from a wealthy local – Crissey wouldn’t reveal who – and that Brown had never paid it back.
Between the odd house and the murders more unpleasant events began to unfold, mostly out of fear and concern by locals. The house got the reputation of being haunted, and certainly it was beginning to look like a good candidate. The terrifying reputation of Bayou Castle grew to the point where it became a rite of bravado to jump the picket fence and run across the yard to touch one of the columns without being… whatevered. Everyone seemed scared of Bayou Castle. Then things started to get more terrifying. Three of Crissey’s beloved cats were beheaded in her yard. A live penguin was found nailed to a tree the same day. Death threats started to roll in from unidentified callers. A medium stopped by and allegedly talked to the spirit of Fears in the bedroom where he died; after that a cult leader offered to buy the residence. Ms. Crissey, a Methodist, didn’t have time for that and refused in her own matter of fact way.
To the surprise of no one in particular, the neighbors weren’t happy. They wanted Crissey, her boarders, and her many treasures to move on. The lady of the castle didn’t really want to move from the eclectic residence she had put together, but finally the pressure got to her and in 1980 sold the home. She had lived there for 12 years. But while this would close her chapter at Bayou Castle, the elderly Crissey moved her stuff, columns included, to a place looking frightening similar on 2nd Street North. As she started to put up her pillars, yard ornaments and everything else at the new house, her new Old Northeast neighbors would have none of it. It started a downward spiral of moving and different homes for the now elderly Crissey that we will have to investigate another day – there is much more to the story. But for now let’s leave Crissey’s adventure at Bayou Castle with these two remaining photos, each peculiar and maybe a little unsettling in its own right.
So I Popped In
As noted way back up there somewhere, I was on the edge of my seat after a brief chat with the current owner who invited me to stop by. To my delight I was accompanied by my lovely yet skeptically curious partner-in-crime (and wife!) Nancy who helped me to delve deep on this historical reconnaissance mission.
Debbie, the current owner of the house, is not Lucille Crissey. But meeting and chatting with Debbie during our visit I couldn’t help but see many similarities. Debbie strikes you as a kind yet pragmatic woman, much like what I surmised about Crissey in my research. Here was Debbie – openly welcoming two total strangers that had shown up on her doorstep with a smile and wave of indifference at the same time. “Look around, whatever you want!” she said. While the numerous items scattered around the yard looked to be more recent, the tolerance for collecting ephemera seemed strangely similar to what I’d seen from the earlier residents. Plants and trees, many still in plastic pots along with a multitude of possessions that may have been long forgotten abounded. Honestly, there was stuff everywhere.
While the house still stands strong, the original brick has been covered by stucco, a change that occurred some time ago from the looks of things. The white house from 1906 and even the 1970s is now orange and brown. Gone are any traces of the huge columns that once stood like sentinels around the home of Lucille Crissey. Debbie said they’d been buried.
The house itself is both what I expected and it also isn’t. I knew the home wasn’t going to be huge, but it turned out to be a bit more compact than expected although still imposing from certain angles. Much to my delight and thanks to Debbie, I quickly discovered the home is not without its own more recent oddities and rather heavy touch of the peculiar.
Nancy and I popped into a number of rooms where we found people – perhaps some family, perhaps some not – going about their business. We were shown a renter’s small room. One elderly fellow, Robert, rose politely from a sofa and kindly introduced himself although I got the impression he had no idea who we were or why were there. Another guy was sound asleep in a bedroom we toured, and he didn’t wake while we were milling about. We were assured he was “fine.” It happened to be the bedroom attached to the porch where Fears was killed.
Aaaaannnnddddd….. A Biker Bar
Debbie and her late husband were social folks, and their own touch of eccentricity was on full display. At some point in the past, they decided to build their own bar at the house. No, not a little Jimmy Buffett style tiki bar. Nor a little English pub thing with 3 seats. They went “Whole Hog” and turned a large covered patio (perhaps the largest single space in the house) into the neighborhood watering hole. The Mrs. and I were notably impressed and intrigued by this rather unexpected mecca of camaraderie found in the back of the old Bayou Castle. If I learned one thing on this day, it was to continue to expect the unexpected.
Our Gripping Conclusion
You know, this was quite the tale. I’m sitting here, almost finished with my article, but I am still processing everything. I hit the highlights of this saga, but there is much more that could be written. You have this place, a palace of eccentricities built in 1906 and even at first inhabited by people with slightly different ideas on life. Did this house they left behind attract the same type of folks? Or was it their spirit that may still linger, drawing those of a similar mindset to the property itself? Or just a coincidence? I don’t know. But I do know that there is something different about Bayou Castle, something hard to explain. I expected it, but then I still found the unexpected.
Many thanks to Debbie for letting us stop in. I have a feeling that this may not be our last visit to the Bayou Castle, you’ll need to stay tuned for a more otherworldy exploration in the upcoming weeks or months. But we’ll definitely need to keep this pioneer property, homeless hangout, and spirited old haunt on the radar.
You Read To The End. You Get Something Special.
One last photo. I poked around Lucille’s subsequent properties. I am 98% positive these two lions are leftovers from Ms. Crissey’s Bayou Castle, and perhaps the last of her remaining treasures that can be verifiably identified today. If you scroll up, you’ll see these guys on pedestals by the fence at the Castle. This is where she moved to directly following. I doubt the current owners of this home have any idea of what guards their sidewalk, and I’m not entirely certain they’d want to.
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