Tangelo House, newly renovated old haunt, roars again in these ’20s


A once grand 1920’s apartment building in Royal Park that sat derelict for many years and was slated for demolition twice has been rescued by a Vero couple who love old buildings and want to preserve and improve the community. The eight-unit building will open with fanfare on Saturday, already mostly rented, and is on track to be added to the National Register of Historic Places – which brings not just prestige but a 20-percent tax credit that made the project feasible.

When it was completed in 1925, the structure was one of four buildings in a substantial, upscale complex located within easy walking distance of the train station and downtown Vero Beach. Today, only Tangelo House, located at 1110 Royal Palm Blvd., remains.

No longer the shabby gray eyesore that stood boarded up for more than a decade, the stately terra cotta and cream structure has undergone a stunning renovation and looks today much like it did when Calvin Coolidge was president.

The handsome Mission Revival-style building commands its sprawling corner lot, with a trio of robust tangelo trees planted in the green lawn along Royal Palm Boulevard. On the building’s west side, a spacious pavered parking area has been installed; behind the main structure, the former garage has been transformed into two additional cozy apartments, for a total of 10.

Tangelo House was nominated for a spot on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places because “it was significant at the time of its construction, and its significance is enhanced by being the only surviving example of this building type and style in this part of Vero Beach,” said Paul Weaver, president of Historic Property Associates,
Originally part of the Ryburn Apartments, the two-story building and garage were constructed the same year that “The Great Gatsby” was published, when Vero Beach, incorporated only 6 years before, was a Florida boom town and Royal Park was a state-of-the-art planned development. There were specific areas for hotels, apartments and single-family homes, all required to be of masonry construction and designed in Spanish styles, according to information from the Historical Preservation Commission’s application document.

Contractor and builder B.H. Strickler had a national reputation for his design and construction of “modern” apartment buildings and had built this same style previously in St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis before coming to Vero Beach. Strickler’s associate was Vero Beach’s first resident architect, William Garns, who had relocated from Indianapolis.

The Ryburn was the first development in Royal Park Subdivision designed specifically as a modern apartment building. Previous multi-family apartments had been boarding houses, adapted from big single-family homes, or mixed-use commercial/apartment structures downtown.

The Ryburn apartments were high-end structures, fitted with modern kitchens and bathrooms and designed for use by the rapidly growing seasonal population of snowbirds who began coming to Vero Beach during the Roaring Twenties.

Good times were had by all but years passed and tastes changed, and the three of the buildings were eventually torn down. The remaining, once elegant structure fell into disrepair and in recent years became notorious for drug trafficking, prostitution and other illegal activities. Twice slated by the city for demolition, it was spared from the wrecking ball only because the city didn’t have money in its budget for the job, said current co-owner Garrett Puzzo.

It was then that Puzzo and his wife, Stephanie, entered the picture. They’d been interested in the building for a while but had not been able to negotiate a purchase until he spring of 2021, when they were finally able to buy the decaying structure for $275,000.

Longtime Vero residents, the Puzzos share a passion for renovating old houses and had already had a hand in renovating other historic local structures here, including the Royal Viking half a mile East on Royal Palm Place, which they bought in 2016, and the Virginia Apartments.

“We grew up and went to high school in Vero Beach,” Garrett Puzzo said. “We love these old buildings. We buy them to preserve them and give back to the community. We are trying to promote an awareness of Vero’s past. It’s our passion.”

At his mother’s urging, Puzzo studied accounting in college, but his dad was in the building trades and Puzzo said he and the children of tradesmen his father knew took a revolving series of summer jobs with each other’s parents. “Me and my friends, we’d swap around to all the local tradesmen and builders, and we learned a lot of different things,” he said at the building last week, where he was working alongside his renovation crew.

To qualify for the National Register of Historic Places Registry and thus be eligible for the 20-percent tax credit, the owner must use original materials and processes within very stringent guidelines, Puzzo explained, adding that 90 percent of the fixtures, fittings and materials in Tangelo House are original, from windows and window cranks to doors, doorknobs and hard pine floors. He figures the acquisition and renovation budget will top $1 million by completion.

Financially, he acknowledges, such a plan “only makes sense as a long term investment.”

He sees the project as a “pension – for Stephanie and me, and then for our children,” with a steady stream of rental income.

When the Ryburn Apartments were new, a century ago, apartments rented for $60 a month or $600 a year. Today, apartments at Tangelo House will rent for between $1,400 and $1,800 a month.

“Most of them are rented already.” said Stephanie Puzzo, who provided a building walk-through that revealed great architectural charm and meticulous attention to authenticity, detail and historic preservation.

From the start of project, Puzzo worked closely with City Planner Jason Jeffries to make sure everything was up to code and he credits Jeffries as being a key player in moving the project forward successfully.

The flooring is nearly all original, with narrow, golden knotty pine milled a century ago painstakingly sanded, cleaned and refinished by hand. In a few places, flooring that was beyond repair was replaced with 100-plus-year-old pine from a demolished building.

Other original woodwork is mahogany; walls are textured stucco. Narrow archways remain as a charming, authentic touch, connecting living areas to kitchens, which feature modern electric ovens and fridges with brushed nickel fixtures, and black and white mosaic tile floor. What was once a window opening in one kitchen has been cleverly transformed into a spice rack.

The original steel doorknobs remain; and the windows’ beautiful brass crank apparatus are polished and gleaming – beautiful, functional works of art still emblazoned with the date –1922 – when they were forged.

In the center of the home is an 8-foot-by-8-foot atrium, which let in light and air and channeled rainwater from the roof into a huge cistern in the front yard that still remains, hidden beneath the turf. Small windows in several kitchens open into the atrium, allowing neighbors to enjoy friendly chats with morning coffee, a fun feature in an apartment building that seems made for community. The downstairs apartments also have their own little porch/patios.

The upstairs apartments are larger, with an additional corner room featuring beautiful hand-crafted architectural workmanship and spectacular windows with splendid neighborhood views.

The bathrooms are modern, of course, but with a classic look featuring subway tile and a clean white porcelain that creates an early 20th century vibe. Each upstairs apartment has its own balcony and lovely neighborhood view. Additionally, modern additions such as a sprinkler system and central heating and air conditioning are part of the renovation.

With the Tangelo House project completed, the Puzzos are looking ahead to their next historic renovation. They did not specify the project but said they plan to gather a group of small investors to fund it, with buy-ins as low as $35,000, seeking people who “don’t have a lot they can invest” but might be interested in their long-range investment “pension” philosophy.

As of last Friday, the couple were on the job at Tangelo House, making sure everything is ready for a debut event that will benefit the Indian River County Historical Society.

There will be a one-time-only walk-thru Saturday June 17, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. to show off the beautiful restoration of this historic building, with a $6 admission fee. Then, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., there will be a paranormal experience. Investigators from the Florida Bureau of Paranormal Investigation, which has named Tangelo House The Most Haunted House in Indian River County, will give visitors a taste of how to detect disembodied spirits, using “ghostbuster” gear inside the apartment building. Admission for that event is $11, cash only at the door.

Yes, Puzzo said, the house absolutely does have some sort of presence. He’s felt it. A flickering light. A gust of wind. The hair standing up on his body.

You can find out for yourself this Saturday and see an important part of Vero’s history at the same time.

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