Up the Secret Staircase

Lakeland is a curious place.

It’s not a small town, but it’s also not a big city. Most people probably think of it as only an exit they pass on I-4 on their way to Tampa or Orlando. At best, someone might know Lakeland as the home of Publix or where the Detroit Tigers have spring training, but I doubt it. It’s not particularly well known, despite being home to movie sets,  alt-rock icons, and future NFL and MLB stars.

That’s the thing about Lakeland: At first glance it is horribly ordinary and, yet, the stuff of legend could be existing behind any door. You just have to know where to look.

There’s one door in particular I want to tell you about. It’s a door you’ve probably walked by if you’ve ever darkened the doors of the restaurant Cob & Pen. Locked behind this ordinary door is a secret staircase that spirals up into the bell-less bell tower, which was added to the historic Tudor house after it arrived at its current location. The 65-foot tower offers a truly beautiful 360 degree view of the city. It’s an awe-inspiring sight; so much so, that people like Chase Wagner, creative pastor at Grace City Church, have frequently been granted access up into the tower to song write. But when I asked Chase why he finds the Cob & Pen tower to be so appealing for his creative sessions, his answer had nothing to do with the view.

Chase tells me, almost cryptically, “The tower houses the mysterious and too-good-to-be-true history of Gene Holloway. It’s Gregory [Fancelli’s] personal shrine to his friend Gene’s legacy.”

Like I said, in Lakeland, things are rarely as simple as they seem.

Gene Holloway, the man whose likeness lines the walls of the tower, built and lived in the Tudor home. He was the owner of the famous Sea Wolf restaurant in Tampa. He also made headlines with his large collection of exotic cats and a bizarre incident in the early 1980s when he was thought to have fallen overboard and drowned, only to be found three years later alive and well in Toronto, Canada. Now in his 80s, Holloway has devoted his life to treasure hunting and developing the right equipment to locate a hydrogen bomb that was lost off the east coast of the U.S. How do I know? Well, because he told me himself.

When I spoke to Holloway on the phone to ask about his time in the Tudor home, he didn’t regale me with the same sordid tales that you’ll hear from people around the city who think they know Gene and his story.

Instead he talked at length—and in great detail—about things like the particular type of “pecky cypress” wood he used to build the home. He also shared why he was inspired to build such a lavish home, telling me, “I come from a very poor start in life. Growing up, when my family was in Naples, we lived out of an old yellow school bus and I had this one friend there who had a big home on the Gulf that I would go and visit. I always remembered thinking how neat it was, and I guess it sort of stuck with me as I was building my home in Lakeland.”

While he resided in Lakeland, Holloway enjoyed spending time out on Lake Hollingsworth, often towing water skiers behind his boat. Despite feeling like his work kept him so busy that he didn’t get to enjoy it as much as he should have, Holloway tells me, “One of the real, real pleasures of my life was meeting George Jenkins and having him over to my home there in Lakeland.”

Before we finished our call, Holloway made sure to tell me, “You know, I am so indebted to Gregory [Fancelli, a grandson of Jenkins] for spending the money that it cost him to move and preserve the biggest portion of that home. I haven’t been able to go over and see it since it was moved. But one day I’m going to go.” When that day comes, Holloway will undoubtedly get to enter behind the locked door that leads up the tower’s secret staircase.And when he does, he will find the walls lined with old paintings bearing his likeness and enlarged photographs of his restaurant’s old menu; mementos and tributes to a man who so perfectly captures the enigmatic spirit of the curious city where he once lived.  

   Special thanks to Brooke Agnini for her all her help on this story.