Bulldozing Winter Park

CAPENThe Capen House, Winter Park, Florida. Photo by George Skene of The Orlando Sentinel.

The world is a volatile place: turn on NPR on the way to work and you might find yourself in a righteous rage by the time you set foot in the office. The human species, in reaction, tries to create places of refuge which will enable us to isolate ourselves from the outside fray, even if for just a few hours.

Winter Park is one of those places. Planned as a leafy retreat from cold, northern winters in the 19th. century, it’s always held a special cachet in the hearts of people who dream about living as ideally as possible. Though we all know that bad things lurk behind the front doors of our homes, and perfection is impossible, we still strive for utopia and we build with that in mind. On so many levels, our homes reflect the people we wish to be.

Winter Park was lucky in that its original settlers and earliest families built homes that truly reflected their idea of living beautifully. They decorated the landscape with representations of architecture from various periods, some practical, some fanciful, but so many of them memorable.

And so many: gone.

RussellAnnie Russell house in Winter Park. Gone.

I realize that, with no historic district in place, a house can still be marked notable… and still liable to being razed.

I realize that people can do what they want with their property, and can build what they want, and can tear down what they don’t like. This is America and, when a house is not on a protected list, it goes extinct.

I understand all that.

What I don’t understand is why people would move to a town because of its historic charm, and then proceed to obliterate one of the things that drew them to that town in the first place. It’s almost sacrilegious.

Sometimes, good things happen. Remember Casa Feliz, the beautiful home in Winter Park that was purchased and then threatened with demolition by its new owner? He was going to build a new house on the lot; apparently, the last I heard, he never did. The community got angry, however, and pitched in to have Casa Feliz moved slightly west, on the golf course… and it’s now a valuable, cherished part of Winter Park. It’s a piece of the past functioning as a vital part of the present-  ergo, the future.

Oneonta

Oneonta Lodge, Winter Park. Gone.

I work in historic preservation out in west Orange County. My office is in a railroad shed that was built in about 1915, and what we do is collect family history, documents, photographs, and the like. We are well past halfway in our capital campaign to have a NEW preservation facility built; however, the old building will remain part of an expanded Central Florida Railroad Museum.

EdgewaterThe Edgewater Hotel. Three restaurants, shops… and history.

That’s the way they do things in Winter Garden. When the brick buildings that you see were built between 1912 and 1930, they were built mainly to replace rows of wooden businesses that had disappeared during the fires of 1909 and 1912. Winter Garden built their new edifices to last, and they still stand proudly– and are all occupied and put to good use. They stand next to the 1927 Edgewater Hotel, the 1934 Garden Theatre, and so much more.

Winter Garden couldn’t afford to tear everything down and build spanking new modern edifices in the 70s and 80s like so many other towns. The pollution of Lake Apopka, the decimation of the orange industry due to freezes, the shutting down of the railroads, and the construction of highways around the little city all conspired to keep the area overwhelmingly unable to dynamite the old and build the new. Granted, some unforgettable, iconic structures bit the dust, but early efforts by concerned townspeople led to the creation of organizations dedicated to the preservation of a world from the past; a world that continues to spin. People riding through Winter Garden, Oakland and Tildenville on the West Orange Trail are amazed at what the area looks like today.

The past is palp[able in Winter Garden– it’s appreciated, nurtured, catered to, and loved. Since I work out there but live in Winter Park, I get to see the latter city often, and I’m always dismayed at what I see happening in the name of progress where I live. It makes no sense, this bulldozing of what attracted people here. Why kill the reason why you came here?

But, it’s happening. And it will continue to happen. So many people want to live in Winter Park, but they want it to look like Palm Beach. (Notice the tall hedges now obscuring many previously-visible houses?)

Winter Park, with all its resources, should be ashamed of itself. And I wonder if there’s a corner in their history museum that keeps track of what continues to disappear? I’m almost afraid to find out.

Many of the iconic old homes still stand, documented in a booklet I have called “Historic Winter Park– A Driving Tour,” published by the Junior League in 1980. I just hope this little treasure doesn’t end up becoming nothing more than a book of memories.

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17 responses

  1. Jim, Winter Garden is lucky to have you. And I’m sure there are people in Winter Park who would be appalled to be compared to country-town Winter Garden — but who have no idea about what they’re doing that begs the comparison.

  2. What a shame they are tearing down these beautiful old homes. Remember when they wanted to tear down Grand Central. Jackie O got all up in arms and it was saved, thank goodness! You can be the next Jackie O for Winter Park/Garden. I know you have a pillbox hat somewhere. :)
    xoxo

    • Thank you for reading– I’m very passionate about this. Why don’t people buy lots that don’t hold historic homes that they wish to destroy? I just don’t get it… they can live where there’s no history to be preserved, you know?

  3. Great job, Jim. Thanks for spreading the word. I worked on that Junior League placement and the Capen House was one of the homes my partner in the project and I had to document.

  4. “Historic Winter Park– A Driving Tour,” published by the Junior League in 1980. I just hope this little treasure doesn’t end up becoming nothing more than a book of memories.

    As do I. I couldn’t agree with you more – is this booklet still available, or can you post some pictures from it?

  5. Pingback: Historic Winter Park- A Driving Tour | What Can I Say ?

  6. I lived in the garage apt in the Capen House owned at that time by dentist Dr Jennings.
    That was in the 1980′s. My address was 520 1/2 Interlachen. Beautiful house and should be preserved.

  7. Pingback: Winter Park’s Rollins College Greenhouse | What Can I Say ?

  8. Jim, Well said. Although Winter Park has done a better job of preserving its architectural and cultural history than other similar area “villages”, I agree much more can and should be done. Two of the homes on the old driving tour are in my own neighborhood: the Griswold – Ward House, and the MacCallum – Harris House, the latter of which sits directly behind my home and graces the view from my backyard. Fortunately, there are still many beautiful, older homes which I enjoy viewing during my routine bike rides around the Winter Park chain of lakes. It would be a much less scenic ride if any of those homes were replaced by characterless, oversized boxes, designed by architects who are more concerned with making an egotistical statement than creating an enduring object of beauty that compliments its surroundings and pays tribute to the heritage of the city. I agree with your point about people wanting to live in Winter Park, and then wanting to change what makes this place so special. I am fighting that battle now with a new neighbor who doesn’t see the character and would like to make our neighborhood more like the planned community she moved here from. In addition to wanting to pave over the brick streets and remove stately oaks in favor of palms, she is also pushing to double the number and brightness of the streetlights! Having lived in Winter Park for over 18 years, I feel I have duty to oppose any plans that would alter the charm and integrity of my neighborhood. Fortunately, most other neighbors seem willing to join me in that cause. I’ve been toying with the idea of teaming up with other like-minded residents who are passionate not only about preserving Winter Park’s architectural treasures, but the city’s unique persona as well. Interested in your thoughts. Larry

    • Larry {hearty applause} So glad to hear you and your neighbors are fighting this woman’s folly. You are so right about this “…designed by architects who are more concerned with making an egotistical statement than creating an enduring object of beauty that compliments its surroundings and pays tribute to the heritage of the city.” And you are also right about this “… I feel I have duty to oppose any plans…”

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