Saying goodbye to the house of whispers
Deidre Noel Buck visited the house at night. She was 21 at the time, married and pregnant with her first child. She would park her car on a different side street each time, so as to not arouse the neighbors' suspicion. Then she would sneak through the overgrown yard, unkempt after two years of abandonment, and sit on the back steps.
Buck's ritual was repeated almost nightly during the summer of 1971, while she waited to hear if the bid for the house at 2920 53rd Street South would go through.
"I would sit on the back steps and I would look up at the moon and just pray that I would get the house," she said, staring out the dining room window towards the back steps that are now hers, immersed in the memory. "When I saw it, I just had to have it. I didn't care what was inside the front door."
A few months later, Buck turned the key to that front door and stepped into what would be the backdrop to much of her life for the next 35 years. It would be the setting for the end of her first marriage and the beginning of her next. It would be the scene of her son's and daughter's childhoods.
But the house that would hold Buck's future also came with a past. When she gained title to the white two-story structure, she also inherited the legacy of two elderly women with old-world sensibilities, and the spirit of the entrepreneur who built the place.
The lives that played out within its walls have changed it into something more than a building.
"The house is just such a different personality, and that's the best way that I can describe it - the house has a personality," said Kimberly Buck-Jones, Buck's daughter, who grew up there.
Now, the house is again for sale, ready to accept another resident - and another chapter in its strange and fascinating story.
Before the front door
A Remax sign sticks out of the lawn in front of the large white house, declaring it "For Sale." Thirty-five years ago, a similar sign beckoned to Buck as she drove by with her mother.
The pull towards the house was something akin to a calling, Buck said, even at that first meeting.
"I was so excited I forgot to put the car in park," she recalled, laughing at the memory. "The car started to roll, so I had to run back and put it in park and turn it off."
The house was listed at $20,000 when it hit the market in 1971. Buck purchased the house under her parents' names - she had no credit record at the time - for $14,400. Today, it is listed at $889,900. Fliers tucked into a plastic box on the signpost proudly declare that is was built from a Sears, Roebuck and Co. kit.
The face of the house is very similar to what was laid out in the Sears, Roebuck and Co. Modern Homes catalog, which advertised the Ashland model - a six-room Dutch Colonial - for under $3,000 in 1925. Out front, a porch runs across the entire face of the house, though it has been reinvented several times, with the columns that once graced it replaced by a wooden railing, which was later replaced by PVC spindles. Inset into the porch's concrete floor are decorations that further signal its mail-order origins - stylized flowers composed of eight green diamond-shaped petals.
The same detail can be found on a few other front porches in Roebuck Park, a subdivision of Gulfport where 19 Sears kit homes are interspersed among conventionally built stucco homes. The area is named for its developer, Alvah C. Roebuck, who had made a fortune as Richard W. Sears' business partner in the firm that still bears their names. Roebuck built the homes between 52nd and 53rd streets and 29th and 31st avenues south. He lived for several years in a house a few doors down from Buck's.
In 1926, Roebuck sold the house to Joseph and Emma Dancer, a Swiss couple that had moved to Florida from New England. Joseph Dancer died four years later; he is buried in Royal Palm Cemetery in St. Petersburg. Joseph Dancer's long-ago passing has removed him somewhat from the mythology of the neighborhood. Not so with his wife, who turned 62 the year of his death, or the unmarried, childless niece who came from Switzerland to live with her, Emmie Kienast.
Miki Vaughn is one longtime Gulfport resident who remembers the women. In the late 1950s, Vaughn, now curator of the Gulfport Historical Museum, was a young mother living near Dancer's house. On walks with her 1-year-old daughter, she would stop at Dancer's stately porch to visit with the old woman.
"She was just a sweet lady," Vaughn recalled.
Once, when the child was on the porch, Dancer told Vaughn, "'I think I have something she might like," Vaughn said.
Dancer went into her house and re-emerged with a small brass bell. The little girl was delighted by the present, and took it with her on subsequent walks, ringing it as she toddled down the street. She is now 49 years old, and still has the bell.
The dining room
When the light strikes the surface of the dining room table at the right angle, Emma Dancer's signature - engraved in the wood from a time when she didn't use a blotter - becomes visible.
The table is one of the many items belonging to the previous owners that Buck acquired with the house. When Emmie Kienast moved back to Lucerne, Switzerland, in the company of some relatives about eight years after Dancer's death, she left behind virtually everything.
"It looked like (she) simply walked out," Buck said. "There were clothes in the closet, there was medicine in the cabinet, there was dishes and silverware, pots and pans."
Buck still owns much of the furniture. In her living room is the old couch, a dark wood-and-cane bench that now has throw pillows scattered across it. A painting of a boy staring at a bubble hangs above the fireplace, where it always has. Upstairs, Buck found a set of silver hairbrushes engraved with Emma Dancer's initials. Back in the dining room, a wooden buffet table joins the main table as artifacts left by the old tenants.
At a Noel family gathering shortly after the purchase of the home, Buck's mother wondered out loud who had owned the house previously. Buck said that she'd found a Bible on an end table with the name Emma P. Dancer written inside.
"My mother said, 'Oh, my gosh, you're kidding,'" Buck said. "She said, 'Not Emma P. Dancer? Not Emma P. Dancer?' "
The Dancers were buried next to the Noel family plot in Royal Palm Cemetery. When she was a little girl, Buck would sit atop Emma and Joseph Dancer's headstone while waiting for her mother to finish tending the family graves.
Buck has since learned about Dancer and Kienast from neighbors who remember them. They spoke with heavy accents. An across-the-street neighbor, Bob Holland - who has since died - told Buck that both women played the piano beautifully. Dancer was very concerned about keeping up appearances.
"Emma wore gloves when she visited the neighbors, and had engraved calling cards," Buck said. "She was unique because for appearance's sake she was very formal, but I understand she loved to entertain, and she entertained here lots."
When Dancer died in 1961, she left her entire estate to her niece. Kienast continued to live in the house, and was very thrifty in her maintenance of it. She would paint the house one side at a time and would alternate between having the back and front yards maintained.
"She was cheap," Buck said.
Kienast had a daily ritual of packing a brown bag lunch and walking to Gulfport Public Library, where she would eat while reading. The librarians thought she was poor. In fact, Buck believes Dancer left her with a considerable amount of money.
When Buck moved into the house, she found bits of Kienast all over in the form of notes she had written to herself. They were reminders of mundane tasks.
"The weirdest place I ever found a note was in the candelabra," Buck said. "It would be something bizarre, like, 'Be sure and call the taxicab for Tuesday luncheon.' "
The dining room that houses Dancer and Kienast's table is also where, several times over the years, Buck has seen a ghostly profile of an old woman pass from one end of the room to the other.
The apparition fits descriptions of Kienast. Whoever she is, Buck believes the phenomenon is rooted in the house's history.
"Sometimes I think it's that places, and houses, have a memory, and what they're doing is just replaying a memory of someone going through," she said. "It's a whole life that's going on that's parallel to ours, and every now and then you just get a glimpse of it."
The living room
Each Christmas, when the extended family would descend upon the house for dinner, Kimberly Buck-Jones and the other children - her brother, her cousins - would be exiled to the living room. There, at the kids' table, they would eat next to an artificial Christmas tree, carefully positioned before a window to be visible from the street. Every few years, the old tree would be thrown away and replaced with a bigger one.
Holiday decorations were a big deal in the Buck house. They went up immediately after Thanksgiving, and remained until mid January.
"My mom would go crazy," Buck-Jones said. "She had wreaths on the door, and she would have garlands on pretty much anything that stood still in the house."
The living room was the site of another special occasion as well - Samuel and Deidre Buck's wedding. In 1975, they exchanged vows in front of the fireplace.
The marriage was Buck's second. When she acquired the house, her family was composed of herself, her first husband and her son, Justin, who was two weeks old when they moved in.
A year and a half later, Buck's husband left for a commune in North Carolina.
"I haven't seen him since," Buck said.
Samuel Buck knew Deidre through mutual friends and Deidre's father, who was one of his bowling buddies. When the pair married, Samuel adopted Justin. A year later, Kimberly was born.
The house was a part of Samuel and Deidre's relationship from the beginning through today.
"I moved in, we got married, and I bought a table saw and a tool belt, and away we went," Samuel Buck said.
Upon returning from a trip to the Bahamas one year, the Bucks were met with an unpleasant surprise - their kitchen had been completely flooded by a water leak.
"We took the kitchen down to the rafters and rebuilt the kitchen. God, there's not a room in this house we haven't touched or redone," Samuel Buck said.
The layout of the house is almost identical to the plan set out in the Sears manual with a few exceptions, including a wall added to divide the living and dining rooms. Apart from that, however, almost everything has changed. The interior walls have been painted all sorts of colors, from the pink favored by Dancer and Kienast to brown to gray to the dark green currently present in many of the rooms. Aluminum exterior siding has gone up, come down, and been replaced by white vinyl.
Most of the renovations have been done by the Bucks themselves. Samuel Buck keeps two photo albums filled with pictures of work in progress. A few shots are of messages written beneath walls and siding, on plywood surrounded by studs. A photo reveals that behind a bathroom's drywall is the cheerful note:
"Hi everybody! Sam and Deidre Buck again! Bet you're getting tired of seeing our name everywhere! 11/20/02."
The Bucks hope that someday a new owner, while repairing and renovating the 80-year-old house, will discover their messages.
The bedrooms are on the second floor. Justin's childhood room was painted blue, and there was a window in his closet - an odd feature of many of the house's closets. Kimberly's room was pink, and its window was covered by pink ballerina-print curtains.
Sometimes, strange things would happen in Kimberly's room. Once, when she was 9 or 10 years old, a toy clown that had been on a top shelf appeared in her bed with her when she woke up in the morning.
"That one I remember vividly," Kimberly said.
To this day, she hates clowns.
Buck has noticed plenty of strange things in the upstairs bedrooms. Occasionally, Kimberly's former bedroom fills with a sudden bright light - a phenomenon Buck refers to as "the flash." Sometimes, the sound of a man and a woman having a conversation can be heard in that room when it is empty.
That bedroom also hosted a spirit that would appear to the children when they were small. Justin and Kimberly referred to her as Ga-Ga-Boo, a variation of Ga-Ga, their word for grandmother. She began appearing to Justin when he was sick. Later, when Justin was older and moved into a different bedroom, the spirit would appear to Kimberly.
"They would tell me about how she would sing to them and talk to them, and do all of this grandmotherly stuff," Buck said.
Buck sometimes heard the voice of Ga-Ga-Boo. By the time she would arrive at the bedroom door, though, the spirit was gone. Buck was never frightened by what she heard.
"She would start out with saying, 'How's my precious boy?' " Buck said. "When I would hear her, it was funny because her voice was so melodic, it was almost trancelike ... the voice was like something you've never heard before."
Each child eventually disinvited Ga-Ga-Boo from their lives.
"About the time they got to be 4 Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â½ or 5, it would occur to them that this wasn't right," Buck said. "I would hear them screaming in the middle of the night, 'Get out of here, you don't belong here, I don't want you here anymore, leave me alone' - and then she'd be gone."
Justin's former bedroom is now an office, where Samuel Buck keeps his desk and numerous files detailing the improvements he's made to the house. On the other side of the room, Deidre Buck keeps records on all the times the house has appeared in the St. Petersburg Times or the Gulfport Gabber. It's been the star of stories about hauntings and the city's annual Pink Flamingo Home Tours.
"We always would joke around that the only way you can get mom out is in a pine box," Kimberly Buck-Jones said. "She loves that house more than anything."
However, the Bucks are both retired now, and looking for a smaller home that is less difficult to maintain. The discussion about whether or not to sell has passed between them for decades. In fact, they put the house on the market in 1983, only to take it off due to serious electrical problems.
"It was real strange, because during that time the house almost burnt down three times while it was on the market," Buck said. "It wasn't ready to be sold."
Reminders of the house's history will remain when it changes hands. Much of the furniture the Bucks inherited from Kienast will be left behind. Buck thinks the next owner will be called by the house the way she was.
"It will do this to somebody else," Buck said.
Meanwhile, Samuel and Deidre's lives will take another path.
"We have a lot of memories here. ... I've finished one adventure and I'm starting a new adventure," Deidre Buck said. "I think the house is ready to let us go."