By Val Schoger, Photography by Savannah Jane
Beach Drive in Panama City offers beautiful views of St. Andrew Bay. Manicured lawns and stately homes can be seen on the north side of the road as it winds along the shore. A tall historic site marker designates the significance of a property that a local family has called home for decades. It is one of ten sites in Bay County listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Originally, the house was built by A. A. Payne, a banker. In the aftermath of the Great Depression and following a fire that damaged the front of the house, in 1935 John Christo, Sr., a self-made local businessman, purchased the home. He and his wife Irene were immigrants with Greek descent and in the years to come, John Christo Sr. steadily built his business. In 1935 he owned 6 retail stores, Christo’s 5-10-25, and grew them to a chain of 42 stores across the South. He later started business ventures in real estate and banking and his sons followed in his footsteps. Seven children grew up in the house, six boys and one girl. The youngest, George, and his twin brother, Jimmy, were born in the house on July 31, 1936 during an unnamed hurricane. Today, George Christo lives in the house and maintains its original condition.
On August 11, 1927, a few months after the construction of the house was complete, the News Herald published an article that describes with much reverence and detail the modern design, out-of-town furnishings, and lively colors and textures of the Craftsman-style house that must have far surpassed the known standard at the time.
The exterior of the residence, as seen from the road, has not changed much. An excerpt from the historic newspaper article describes the house today as accurately as then; “The shallow steps leading to the winding concrete walk that serves the entrance to the house are in tones of ochre which harmonize with the surrounding trees and shrubbery. . . . The entrance hall is wide and spacious, symbolic of the days when hoop skirts, powder, and patches were in evidence.”
Entering the home feels like traveling back in time. The front door opens to a large hallway. Wide stairs lead to the second floor. To the left, french doors open to the living room and adjacent large sunroom. Portraits of family members decorate the walls. The fireplace and a grand piano are the focal points and the spacious living room has been the site of many family gatherings. “At least five weddings took place here,” George Christo remembers. “My brothers and sister were a lot older than me, and my three siblings were all married at the same time, in 1950. We gathered all three couples, and they were married in this room.” His own two daughters were married here as well and just this year granddaughter Courtney had a garden wedding at the house.
Warm toned oak wood flooring is seen in all rooms. There is one original piece that has always been in the same place. “The only item original to the living room is this rug. It was bought by Mr. and Mrs. Payne, and it’s been here ever since. All other furniture is original to my family.”
Throughout the years, large upgrades and additions were made. Central heating and cooling with duct work was added in 1960. It made the radiators obsolete that can still be seen beneath the windows in every room. “We had to replace the air conditioners every three or four years and they were never big enough,” says George Christo. “I was tired of going through this and had my contractor install a geothermal unit. He put in 12 wells in my front yard. Each one is 1,200 feet deep.”
Modernizations also included the remodeling of a small bathroom and adjacent powder room into a large master bathroom with steam shower and claw-foot tub. All windows along the front of the house were replaced, and were manufactured to look just like the originals.
A door to the right of the hallway leads to a large dining room predominated by Mahogany furniture and a colorful crystal chandelier. Intricately embroidered curtains cover the windows – they were custom made in Athens and brought back by George Christo when he and his wife visited Greece in 1970/1971. The contents of an entire cabinet speak of his mother’s, Irene Christo’s, love for needlework and crochet.
Another door opens from the dining room to the sun parlor that leads to a separate breakfast room. The kitchen is across the hallway and offers an exit door to the backyard from a small porch. When the azaleas are in bloom, they transform the entire yard. Large fruit trees overlook the swimming pool. There are orange trees, fig trees, tangerines, bananas, grapefruit, kumquats, Japanese tulip, and persimmons.
“My mother loved persimmons and I have planted them all over the yard. She tried and tried to grow persimmon trees and she didn’t have any luck. I lived in the Cove at the time and one of my neighbors wanted to give me a persimmon tree. They said, ‘It’s never had any fruit, so maybe you can have better luck with it.’ I brought it over here, planted it and the next spring it was full of persimmons.”
Every family member has their favorite part of the house or yard, it seems. “My daughter wanted a pool, so I said, ‘Fine, if you take care of it.’ Of course, I wound up taking care of it.”
All bedrooms except the master bedroom are upstairs. Back in the day, without air conditioning, only fans and good ventilation could provide comfort. The sleeping porch on the north side of the house offers windows on two sides of the room and doors on the other sides. With all doors and windows open, the air can circulate freely and is perfect for a nap in the summertime, George explains.
There are two bathrooms and, in addition to the sleeping porch, five other rooms upstairs. On the opposite side of the sleeping porch, a bright room overlooks the bay. “This was the nursery. My mother used it also as a prayer room and for crocheting and needlework.” He points to a small table with an arrangement of several small crosses.
Stored away in another spare room is his father’s surveying equipment and a picture of his father and mother can be seen on the night stand in the bedroom. “I was born in this bed,” George Christo remarks.
When asked about a favorite object in his home, George Christo responds with reverence. “Well, the one I love the most is the piano. It is an antique, and I played it all my life. I remember listening to the radio and hearing a concert. It was in New York in 1942, Vladimir Horowitz on the piano and Toscanini conducting. They featured Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. Of course they didn’t have records big enough that could hold all that music back then. They would put the opening bars on the radio. I heard it when I was a kid, and I was electrified. I thought that was the prettiest thing I ever heard in my life. Also, I remember hearing Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. I wanted to create music myself.” He nostalgically remembers his teacher, Mrs. Clio Pettis, who taught him to play the piano and also taught him to speak and write the Greek language.
As George Christo’s hands begin to glide across the keys, music fills the room and the entire house, just as in all the years that he has played music, it is beautiful to behold.
There are many good memories in the Christo home and everything in the house has a story. The home stands as a gracious reminder of a time when families were important, handshakes were binding, people lived the American dream, and they trusted each other’s words.
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