Destination Clearwater: The Gray House

When I wrote about the grey house on the point last month, I knew I didn’t quite have the full story. I just didn’t know how much.
(Read the first part of this two-part Destination Clearwater here.)

The grey house still sits on the southern point of Clearwater Beach, but now I know more of the story. Actually, I’ve known one of them for over 20 years, as it turns out.

Let’s back up, to my 19th year. I attended Saint Petersburg Junior College and worked before and after school care for the Suncoast Family YMCA. In the mornings, I watched over our nation’s youth at Plumb Elementary, and one morning we were short staffed and we had a group leader from another before-care site. He told me he lived “on the only house at the south end of Clearwater Beach”, and I didn’t think about it at the time, but later I wondered what he meant, because anyone who cruised around the beach as a teenager knows that the south end of the beach has plenty of houses. Of course, I had never met him before and never saw him again, so I had no way of getting him to clarify.

“He meant on Clearwater Point,” his mother guesses as we sit on the porch of that very home. I know now that the guy from Plumb Elementary was John Mannion, one of the four Mannion boys who moved into the home as children. Their mother, Elizabeth, speaks with the beautifully measured lilt of her native Charleston. John, who still lives locally, contacted me after his brother (who lives in Atlanta) heard about the Destination piece from a friend in Minnesota. He no more remembered me than I did him. He just wanted to tell me he appreciated my trying to tell the truth about his family home. Soon, I’d contacted his mother and she graciously invited me to the home in question. We sit on the porch and watch the tour boats go by, and she tells me what she remembers of the home’s past before she and her husband Joe (watching the game upstairs while we speak) raised their passel of boys there.

First things first: That little old lady? Yeah, not so helpless.

“She was one of the southern bombshells,” Elizabeth laughs softly. “Mary was from Atlanta. If you were going to party with a good looking guy, you kept an eye on him.”

The bulk of the legend, often repeated on the decks of just about every boat seeking dolphins and adventure in Elizabeth and Joe’s backyard, comes from a July 20, 1979 article that appeared in the daily paper when Joe, then the News Director for WFLA Channel 8, and Elizabeth bought the home. Yes, Miss Mary Ackert Wilkens did get intimidated when the bulldozers ran right up against her property line in “what she thought was a threatening manner”, Elizabeth recalls. Certainly, the Mannions had to convince Miss Wilkens that they weren’t fronting for developers.

“She did ask us if we would agree not to sell the property for two years,” Elizabeth says. Their attorney told them such a promise wouldn’t hold up in court, but the Mannions had every intention of living in the home.

As for the reason Miss Wilkens didn’t sell? Elizabeth who, in a just turn of events, practices condominium law, has her own ideas. While Miss Wilkens may have developed a fondness for the home and her parcel of paradise, Elizabeth wonders if the southern bombshell bought the home in hopes of flipping it.

“She never planned to do anything with it but make some quick money,” she says as the salt breeze washes over us in the early afternoon sunlight. “That’s just my opinion.”

Her opinion comes from something Miss Wilkens let slip to Elizabeth when the Mannions bought the home: she and the developer couldn’t agree on a price. Miss Wilkens, Elizabeth remembers, too, gave the appearance of a southern belle, but looks could be deceiving. At their closing, Elizabeth recalled that it seemed Miss Wilkens had to sign a lot more paperwork than usual. During this process, she looked over at Elizabeth and told her, “I was married four times, and I made money off each and every one of them.”

“She was like Scarlett O’Hara,” Elizabeth says.

If Elizabeth describes Wilkens as a fiery Scarlett, Elizabeth, with her calm, peaceful presence, could be Melanie. Her live in the Grey House, I learn, is filled with laughter and good times rather than struggle and adversity.

The home – especially viewed from the privacy of her porch, with the whole of Clearwater Harbor before us – offers its occupants a paradise cocooned inside an enclave of condominiums. It’s an odd member of the neighborhood, but for the Mannions, it was the perfect place to make a life.  “Nothing worked right about this [the house] except we wanted it.”

The neighbors – all living in condominiums – welcomed them, although Elizabeth didn’t expect them to. The Mannions arrived, with children and dogs and old furniture in tow.

“I could just hear the building shuddering, ‘My God, there goes the neighborhood!’,” she recalls. But that’s not what happened. “They were extraordinarily gracious to us. We did not fit in, but they took us in.”

When grandparents had grandchildren come visiting their condo, invariably they would grow bored with condo living and knock on the Mannions’ door, asking if there were any children with whom they could play.

She remembers that when her sons were young, the pirate boat would go by and the captain would tease them.

“Hey, little girls,” he would taunt the Mannion boys, “where are your bathing suit tops?” The boys, insulted at being called girls, would hurl handfuls of sand at the boat.

The boys are grown and married, with families of their own. Today, Joe and Elizabeth have the home to themselves, although occasional a visiting child knocks on the door and asks if there are any children home. Joe’s health could be better; he has cancer. They’ve been a team for 48 years, many at 887 South Gulfview Boulevard. They want to make it to their golden anniversary.

Elizabeth knows she won’t spend the rest of her life in this home. It’s too big, really, for just them, and houses need work. She has grandchildren to enjoy, a thriving law firm, and a lifetime of memories that will carry her. She’s glad, though, Miss Willkens never agreed on a price with the developers. She knows, though, that house will likely not stand after she and her husband sell it. She doesn’t like the idea, but admits “it’s not for everybody.”

It seems a sin, after all the house has stood through in legend and in real life, to let that happen. I say as much. She reminds me, in a gentle, southern manner, that the solitude of being the only house amidst a condo canyon, wears on people not prepared to live alone in a crowd.

For her family, though, it worked out just fine. I realize that, to her, the stories told by boat captains are amusing anecdotes, interesting urban legends, but the magic of the house comes not from those tales, but the real life she and her husband built in this tiny holdout patch of waterfront property. For the Mannions, the legends, however flashy, don’t hold a candle to their reality.

“I’ve got my own fairy tale,” she smiles.

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.