Living the Dream
October 20th, 2017 by Pamela A. Keene

The historic Stetson Mansion that he now calls home is a far departure from the modest New Jersey home in which J.T. Thompson grew up. Photo courtesy of Stetson Mansion

Jersey boy moves up in the world with purchase of the historic Stetson Mansion

Growing up with three older sisters in the projects in north New Jersey, J.T. Thompson never had his own bedroom. He also always had to wait his turn for the bathroom.

“Until I was in fourth grade, I slept on the living room sofa,” he says. “My father was a police officer and my mom worked as a teacher’s aide, so we lived a very modest lifestyle. I learned early on to appreciate the little things.”

What J.T. never imagined is that one day he would own and live in one of Florida’s historic mansions—a showplace of the Gilded Age that once was home to John B. Stetson, the famous hat maker and philanthropist.

Stetson donated a significant amount of money to support DeLand Academy, founded by Henry DeLand. Renamed Stetson University in his honor, the school is billed as Florida’s first private college.

“When I was young, I dreamed of having a house with my own bedroom and bathroom, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the way my life is today,” J.T. says. “My family gave me the nickname ‘Dreamer,’ so I guess some things do come true.”

J.T. worked odd jobs from the time he was 7, raking leaves and shoveling snow, always putting his money in a savings account.

“I remember when the teller told me that I had saved $101,” he says. “I thought I was J.T. Rockefeller.”

By the time he was 22, J.T. bought and ran a deli convenience store in New Jersey.

“I hated that job those four years,” he says. “I was so glad when I sold it.”

Along the way, he married and had a son. The family moved to Florida in 1994 to escape the cold winters of New Jersey. J.T. pursued a variety of jobs, from managing a men’s formalwear store to owning a pet shop that sold tropical fish.

J.T. and his wife divorced in 1999. He began investing in real estate, flipping houses with Michael Solari, who has a background in historic architecture. They even restored the 20-unit Tropicana Motel in Fort Lauderdale, selling it at a profit after several years.

“We talked about wanting to move to the beach, but we couldn’t find anything we liked,” J.T. says. “Our Realtor mentioned this old mansion in DeLand and we asked to see it. I knew from the minute we drove up that this would be our home.”

Michael and J.T. made an offer that day. Four months later, they began the tedious work of restoring the three-story, 10,000-square-foot Victorian home, removing wallpaper, replacing plumbing and wiring, updating bathrooms and even reconfiguring walls.

“The house had very good bones, but there was much work to be done,” J.T. says. “We call it adaptive restoration, because the goal was to make it livable and still maintain the historic aspects of the home.”

The home’s parquet floors needed a light sanding to bring out the 16 patterns of inlaid wood throughout the house. Dental molding was stripped and refinished by hand.

The Stetson mansion was built to be powered by electricity, rather than gas, which was prevalent in the 1880s. Thomas Edison gave John B. Stetson one of the first generators he produced, making this possible.

“When we purchased the mansion, there were very few outlets,” says J.T. “Most were from wiring added years after the mansion was built. The house still ran on the original circuit box. Needless to say, we did extensive electrical work.”

The original circuit box and several original light fixtures remain and are highlighted on tours of the mansion.

Eighteen months after they started the work, the restored mansion was finished.

It has eight bedrooms and nine bathrooms in the main house, plus more living quarters in a converted schoolhouse that was on the property.

J.T. now has his own bedroom with a private bath—a design feat that included tearing out the back wall of an upstairs bedroom closet and converting the bedroom behind it into an elegant master bath. The master suite is about 800 square feet, with plenty of windows overlooking the grounds from the second floor.

“I never imagined I’d be living in a wonderful historic home like the Stetson Mansion,” J.T. says.