Mandarin: Hood Road House

by Tim Gilmore, 9/27/2018

Rita says the house stares at her “with its empty eyes” every time she drives Hood Road between Sunbeam and Hartley. She’s sure the house has squatted here on its vast open land between pines and gullies, new but unfinished, for a decade.

“Nothing should have been built here in Mandarin,” she says. “Besides being old plantation land, this is swampland. My house has water running beneath it. When I pulled up a plank from my kitchen floor, it sprayed me in the face. Nothing in Mandarin is about what’s here now.”

That place, she says of the Hood Road House, is how a house can be haunted when it’s brand new. “Walk down Mandarin Road or Sunbeam when the cicadas are high,” she says. “I dare you not to feel what’s underneath.”

Not everyone feels that way, of course. Steve Daragjati tells me, “I am building this house for my wife, for me and my children. My children go to Catholic schools. They are raised to never give a bad answer to anybody. They go to church every Sunday and several days a week as well. Several families which are my new neighbors go to the same church.”

The Hood Road House rambles, a suburban pile with second-floor balconies with balustrades, dormers with architraves, a façade with Corinthian columns and wide pediments, dentilled cornices wholly surrounding the house, a copper cupola rising above a central double staircase.

Not only is the garage attached, it gets its own peaked roof, topped with a spire, with dormer windows and dentilling. The house has five porches and eight balconies.

Down Ferrell Lane in the subdivision called “Nature’s Woods,” directly across the street, a gruff man named Bemby, wearing pinstriped sweatpants and a white silk tank top, says he doesn’t know who owns the big house, but he’s lived here for five or six years and says the house has been sitting there unfinished the whole time.

“They was buildin’ on it for a while, and then they wouldn’t be,” he says. “Then they was on it, and then,” he makes a phttt sound with his top teeth and his bottom lip and chops the air horizontally with his hand.

Steve Daragjati says, “The work continues every day. The house is completely custom-made and therefore it takes time. Tom Brady, the quarterback of New England Patriots, took seven years to build his house.”

Stacks of concrete blocks, concrete floral patterns, and pieces of columns line the front porch and stand in assortments in the mud behind the house. Here too, Corinthian columns rise two stories to a pediment of stucco in triangular cornice.

It was 1972 when Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown wrote in Learning from Las Vegas, an architectural musing on that most culturally reviled American city, “When circumstances defy order, order should bend or break: anomalies and uncertainties give validity to architecture,” as, “The Italian landscape has always harmonized the vulgar and the Vitruvian.”

Denise Scott Brown, before the Las Vegas Strip, early 1970s, promo Learning from Las Vegas

What harmonizes the Florida landscape? Shouldn’t alligator heads be cast in coquina? A wing of the mansion stylistically influenced by the house trailer? How does Venturi and Brown’s “Italian landscape” signify when Steve Daragjati tells me the architectural design of the Hood Road House is “French Italian American style”?

Daragjati is also the name of the small Albanian town where Steve Daragjati was born. He says, “My grandmother, who died in 1983, named me Steve. She was a Catholic and very religious woman and she named me after Saint Stephen. At 19 years old I escaped the communist regime which Albania was under in 1990 and came to re-unite with my family in Ponte Vedra.”

On this Mandarin swampland, where Rita says slaves once worked and where waters course just below what seems solid earth, now rises, however slowly, this suburban “French Italian American” hacienda by way of Daragjati, Albania. The balconies, with external second-floor doors, walk out onto the naked air, bearing no balustrades or railings yet.

Steve hopes to be in the house by Christmas, though if not this Christmas, he’s sure it will be worth the wait.