Can old Brandon home with secret rooms inspire historic preservation?

BRANDON — There’s a mystery to the home at 315 N. Moon Ave., which was part of the Brandon community’s original downtown, before Highway 60 became the hub of activity.

Karen Waters and Roy Vaughn, who are engaged, recently bought the 96-year-old Craftsman-style home. While working to restore it, they discovered a small room behind an upstairs bathroom wall. Adding to that mystery, there was a tiny concrete basement hidden under the floorboards that had an exhaust pipe climbing up the house to the roof.

“We’d love to know what they were for,” Waters said.

Waters and Vaughn reached out to Brandon historians and residents whose families have made the Hillsborough County suburb their home for generations.

So far, no one has answers. The couple hopes the intrigue brings more attention to their restoration work, which they believe can inspire a swell of historic preservation. Brandon, they say, has lost too many of its original structures.

“Someone asked me recently, ‘What has happened to old Brandon?’” Waters said. “It’s been knocked down.”

Related: Car dealership will harm historic Brandon homestead, preservationists say

Waters, who grew up in Brandon, pointed to the empty lot across the street where one of the community’s oldest structures used to stand. Hillsborough County acknowledged it had historic value. But the house, built in 1898, was determined to be too costly to save. It was razed a few years ago.

The same might have happened to their home, Vaughn said. The former owner let it fall into disrepair. It went into foreclosure and would have been auctioned by the county had the couple not purchased it.

“The land is worth more than the house,” Vaughn said. “I know how to fix it, so we can do this. Someone else would have knocked it down.”

According to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website, they purchased the 2,300-square-foot house for $18,000 but the property’s market value is $335,028.

Don Gunn, of Brandon, examines a book documenting the history of Brandon while visiting with Rue Lynn Galbraith, left, Karen Waters, center, and Roy Vaughn, right, at Waters’ and Vaughn’s 2300 square-foot craftsman-style home at 315 N Moon Ave in Brandon.
Don Gunn, of Brandon, examines a book documenting the history of Brandon while visiting with Rue Lynn Galbraith, left, Karen Waters, center, and Roy Vaughn, right, at Waters’ and Vaughn’s 2300 square-foot craftsman-style home at 315 N Moon Ave in Brandon. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Vaughn and Waters’ effort has garnered attention. During an interview, a woman stopped her car to thank the couple as for saving the house.

“That happens every day,” Waters said. “People are so happy that we’re doing this.”

Local preservationists Don Gunn and Rue Lynn Galbraith recently visited to discuss how to bring more attention to Brandon’s history.

Galbraith is seeking to recruit members to his Brandon Area Genealogical and Historical Society. Founded in 1995 to assist others with family history, he now wants the organization to focus on historic preservation advocacy. That effort, he said, has never had a strong voice in Brandon.

Gunn, a third generation Brandon resident, would like to see the house become part of an educational destination denoting the neighborhood as the community’s original downtown. There was a general store, barbershop, meat market, icehouse and train depot, all of which are long gone.

Waters suggested lobbying for a series of historic markers, one for her house and others acknowledging where important buildings were once located. Those could become part of a tour that includes spots that already have markers, like the nearby Brandon Masonic Lodge and Brandon School, both of which are still standing.

“We want to be stewards of local history,” Waters said. “So many of Brandon’s buildings that tell our history have been lost … and we’re getting so many new residents who don’t know our history.”

Roy Vaughn ponders restoration plans while hanging out with his dog, Lilly, at his 2300-square-foot craftsman-style Brandon home built in 1928.
Roy Vaughn ponders restoration plans while hanging out with his dog, Lilly, at his 2300-square-foot craftsman-style Brandon home built in 1928. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

In the area that now bears his name, John Brandon purchased nearly 200 acres between 1858 and 1874. He died in 1886. Four years later, his second wife, Victoria Varn, had 40 of those acres surveyed as the town of Brandon. Its center was the area around Victoria Street and Moon Avenue, where Waters and Vaughn’s home was built by Perry Varn in 1928.

“It was really a farming community,” said Michael Wigh, author of “Brandon, Florida — Images in Time.” “With the train being right there, they could ship [crops] to other areas of the state.”

By the middle of the 20th century, when trains gave way to cars and trucks, Wigh said, commerce shifted away from the neighborhood. It was around that same time that many of the original downtown structures were torn down. Others were slowly lost to age.

“Brandon has never really had an archive or other protections that might preserve its buildings or history,” Wigh said.

Waters and Vaughn are intent on changing that. But first, the couple said, they must show through their home what is possible.

The exterior will keep its authentic period look so they can apply for the house to be named a local historic landmark. The interior will be modernized while incorporating some original features, like a wood-burning stove found in the shed.

Karen Waters uncovers a hidden space behind a drawer in an upstairs bathroom in the Brandon home that she is restoring.
Karen Waters uncovers a hidden space behind a drawer in an upstairs bathroom in the Brandon home that she is restoring. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The hidden room and basement will be put to use when Waters and Vaughn construct better ways to access both. Right now, the basement can only be entered from under the house and drawers must be removed to expose a crawlspace leading to that upstairs room.

Vaughn wonders if the basement was used for brewing moonshine. The house was built during Prohibition, he said, and the exhaust pipe could have funneled away toxins.

That would be “complete conjecture,” Wigh said, considering the Brandon and Varn families were “pretty religious.”

Regardless, Waters said, it adds to her home’s mystique. “I’ve driven by this house for years and wanted to own it. I just love it … It was really in disrepair. But we’re going to bring it back … and maybe a love of local history too.”

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