PhotoBike Tour 16– Knowles Avenue in Winter Park (and Offsides)

I have all these negatives of photos I took back in the late 70s and early 80s of a Winter Park that’s largely vanished. I’m still trying to identify some of the sites, but occasionally something “clicks” and I remember exactly where the photo had been taken.

SIDEBAR: I do regret NOT taking photos of the Alabama Hotel before it went condo; my friend Donald and I walked there from my apartment at the Plantation in Maitland, and wandered the halls, the lobbies, the public rooms, the library… it was for sale and everything was open to inspection. It was magical, like being in a time warp: Kleenex boxes in each bedroom, with one leaf of tissue popping from each and every box, just waiting for a sneeze. It was like we were walking through a dream. The Alabama is a condo now. and doesn’t seem to hold the same ambience. What can I say?

The venerable Alabama. It used to be a resort hotel– one of FOUR giant hotels that used to be located on the Winter Park chain of lakes.

After looking through negatives this past week, and tooling around on Google Earth and then looking up Winter Park history, I realized I’d never really explored Knowles Avenue from top to bottom. It just sort of slipped away under my radar while I was bicycling in the past, or else– while in the car– it’s byzantine system on one-way signs precluded any 4-wheel exploration. This morning, before I knew the humidity was going to soar, I set out to see what I’d missed.

I approach Winter Park from the east. I have to cross 436, go north to the light, and then thread my way through the Winter Woods subdivision; we call it “the Wilhelm’s” because of the grammatically-incorrect sign that fronted one of the houses. I always wanted to ring the bell and tell them “it should say ‘the Wilhelms,’ but I never did. I’m surprised.

Then I wend my way south along Lake Howell Road, checking to see if there’s a way to get across the watery culvert over to Arbor Park Drive (there still isn’t), and so I usually go west on Pine Avenue. Incidentally, the name Arbor park Drive is relatively new– we still know it as the southern extension of Lakemont Avenue, south of the cemetery. I’m just saying.

Palmer Avenue is just a few blocks away, the site of my second-favorite house in Winter Park:

It used to have a sign out front– Lulworth– and was built by a Mrs. Mizener ion the 1930s. She insisted that there be no shutters on the windows because she didn’t want to have to bother painting them. (A woman after my own heart.) The house was designed by James Gamble Rogers II, and believe me– he didn’t have those Greek columns up front; his were slimmer and fit the facade better. The new owners didn’t consult with me when they redid the place… can you imagine?

Before heading into downtown Winter Park I remembered that I wanted to photograph a neighborhood marker– specifically, one that noted the historic African-American west side of Winter Park known as Hannibal Square. It’s been yuppified and gentrified into something very NOT Hannibal Square, but I did find the marker on Denning Drive– inexplicably knocked over; I think I’ll let the city know that this needs to be righted.

Knowles Avenue branches from Chapman, which is a little street that branches off Fairbanks; you don’t see Chapman much because you are driving past Rollins College while, at the same trying, trying not to hit students (and professors) who decide to cross the road while checking their eMail. You go through a parking garage– wave hello to the ticket lady– and then you are on Knowles Avenue, which stretches all the way north from Lyman Avenue to Casa Feliz on Whipple Avenue. And it’s rife with architectural gems.

The first gem you encounter is the facade of the former Lincoln Apartments, now preserved and nicely incorporated into the First United Methodist Family Life Center. That was thoughtful! I always wanted to go into the Lincoln and knock on doors. Who would I encounter– former Ziegfeld girls? Forgotten chanteuses who headlined in smoky Omaha boites? Jimmy Hoffa? I’ll never know.

Okay. You have to go a block east, to Interlachen Avenue, to see Osceola Lodge, a beautiful home built by the Knowles family in 1888. But behind it– on Knowles– is a cottage that was used by visitors to the larger Knowles house. I don’t recall ever seeing this cottage, though I have tons of photos of Osceola Lodge.

Here’s the Lodge:

And here’s the cottage just to the west of it, on the same large lot, but facing Knowles Avenue:

Then I went down the path to the left of that cottage and took this shot of the Lodge’s rear; I can easily picture myself living upstairs right. You?

Across the street on Knowles is yet another cottage built by Knowles, now the home of Architects Design Group– this is truly OLD Winter Park, ladies and gentlemen…

A third Knowles “cottage” has been transformed into a firm as well, but it’s unrecognizable as a cottage:

Near the north end of Knowles, just where it meets the golf course, the city has placed some old cement posts noting the names of streets. I don’t know ho wold these are, and they’re faded, but I did have some old negatives in my collection. These denote Something Road, Fitzwalter Drive, and Harmon Avenue; the last two denote streets at extreme opposite ends of one another.

Just off Knowles, actually at Interlachen Avenue, is a series of ancient-looking apartments which evoke Key West. This is my favorite…

Who lives here? An artist, a writer, a milkmaid? A woman with cats? A candlemaker, a surgeon, a bell-ringer?

At the very north end of Knowles, hugging the golf course, is Casa Feliz. It used to be on Interlachen Avenue, but was moved when the newest property owner decided he might tear it down. people rallied and had it moved to its present spot– a rarity in Winter Park, but enough people cared deeply to have this 1932 James Gamble Rogers II gem saved.

The front.

The rear.

Here are the Barbour Apartments on very north Knowles, built in 1933 and designed by our man james Gamble Rogers II. Everyone who moved to Winter Park used to want to live here. Of course, that was back in the 70s and 80s; now they want to live… where? I have no idea.

Leaving Knowles Avenue and returning home via Interlachen Avenue, I noticed this sign planted in the road.

The Red Pepper Garden Club… can you even?! It’s probably not as rollicking as the name would have you believe. I picture officious club women with pointy eyeglasses, prow-busted and powdered,  their sensible Enna Jetticks heavily decorated with rhinestones. They meet once a month at the Woman’s Club (sic) down on Interlachen Avenue, where cucumber-based refreshments bedeck a series of card tables situated at the front of the room. After an hour’s worth of apologies, explanations and general catching up, the ladies are called to order by Madame la President, who fixes them all with a gimlet eye, and intones:

“So… who is responsible for the dying aspidistra in front of the library?”

I began this trek at 10:30 in the morning and by 12:30 was blistered by heat. It was time to return, though I have a feeling I’ll be back: there are streets called Greentree, Bonita, Temple Grove and Elizabeth which deserve some prowling… join me!

The Oakland Nature Preserve

Today I had a meeting at the Oakland Nature Preserve, just west of the little town and hugging the south shore of lake Apopka; you pass it while enjoying the West Orange Trail. The entrance is just down Machete Trail past the Mosaic Community Church, a non-denominational faith community that was established here a few years ago.

There are exhibits, a library, nature trails and a boardwalk path that takes you right to the edge of the lake where you can relax after the walk.

The Friends of Lake Apopka, an advocacy group dedicated to the restoration of the lake, has a presence here at the Preserve, with exhibits and stored records. I met with a young woman named Julia,who taught me a computer program which will help me, as a volunteer,  to scan and digitize paper articles and ephemera  so that they can then be located and studied on the internet. The program is so cool– it scans an article and then automatically includes all the pertinent words in searches: you don’t have to type in keywords unless you want to include relevant words that aren’t originally found in the article. It’s similar to what I’ll also be helping with at the Heritage Museum in Winter Garden.

The Preserve is a beautiful, peaceful place,. The surrounding area is already peaceful enough, even though the Turnpike, the 408 and Highway %0 are within hailing distance. You’d never know it though– all this lush greenery soaks up any noise, and so you get to enjoy a silent and leisurely half-mile stroll down the boardwalk to the lake.

There were some of these blooming today, and a lot budding. And the foliage does resemble marijuana plants!

A bud being investigated by a red-and-white striped insect– what is that?

Here’s a view from the pier end of the boardwalk, facing toward Gourd Neck Springs:

On the Preserve property is this fish camp cabin that they brought here from near Mount Dora. There used to be a lot of fish camps around the lake, but phosphate pollution due to agricultural runoff led to fish die-offs and the end Lake Apopka’s premier fishing.  It’s slowly coming back, though– the big muck farms have been shuttered and the water is slowly purifying itself.

Have you ever noticed the exotic animals at the Briley Farm just past the church? (The Brileys are an old Oakland family.) The farm’s owners have created a place where these animals are collected and bred.

Next time you’re out on the West Orange Trail, take some time to visit the Preserve, yet another facet of fascinating West Orange County.

Exploring John’s Lake, West Orange County, Florida: Keeping Oranges Warm, Osama bin Laden’s Brother, and A Vanished Family Estate

West Highway 50 in the 80s was a dusty four-lane road that stretched from Orlando all the way out to a community called Bayport. I’m not romanticizing– it really was dusty, especially in the low areas near Winter Garden and Oakland that were so flood-prone; after the water from the four o’clock summer thunderstorms steamed off, your car the following morning would kick up clouds of sand and dirt that had washed onto the road from the surrounding groves and vegetable fields.  I used to pore over maps and photostats from the library, looking at property plats, determining what was public and what was private, just so I could go exploring in relative safety. I had to know what all those fascinating map symbols on the State Topographic maps meant: was there really a country church there along the roadside, or an ancient cemetery, or an abandoned barn? And the roads had names and varying gradations of dotted lines, covering all possibilities from “Highway with full control or access” to “primitive” and “impassable” roads. What did they mean by primitive? I had to find out, and so there I drove. “Seasonal dwellings closely spaced.” Boy, was I intrigued!

Just south of an area where they crammed hundreds of pseudo-palazzos into former orange groves that froze in the 1980s you’ll find John’s Lake. You’ll find it written in many ways– Johns Lake, Lake Johns, Lake John– but I and Google Earth agree that John’s Lake is the nicest. Before Google, we had to depend on the aforementioned maps, and road atlases that you’d find at the 7-11. My favorite was the Official Arrow Central Florida Street Map Atlas, published in 1976. Apparently based on much older maps, it lists every community that ever even thought of sprouting up in the area. Lots of old and forgotten train sidelines are listed; thinking they were tiny towns, I’d drive to, say, Neheb, Iowa City, or Kolokee, and find myself in the celery fields surrounding Sanford. You’d think a locality named Iowa City would contain a main street, a post office, and maybe a movie theatre showing Harold Lloyd movies… but no. It was all celery.

This atlas, on a two-page spread, mapped the area just south of Lake Apopka which drew me, probably because I wanted to see how close I could get to the lake. Lots of communities were shown: Killarney, Oakland, Tildenville, Winter Garden, Crown Point, Fullers, Ocoee… Gotha, Beulah. I did them all, happily taking photos of everything I saw– and so much of it is gone these past twenty-five years. I did get to see the lake, from Oakland and Magnolia Park and Winter Garden. Since the reclamation project hadn’t yet started, the air above it was cloudy and the water itself was an unhealthy-looking mucky green. It didn’t look inviting.

One area that intrigued me was something called the Williams Cemetery, situated on a peninsula that poked out into John’s Lake from its south shore. I found out that Williams Road led to it, and so I went out there. In those days you had to go south on Avalon Road from Tildenville, past the gates of the abandoned West Orange Country Club, past the Harlem Heights migrant labor camp, and then west on Marsh Road. Williams Road goes north from Marsh, just a minute east of the Lake County line. I discovered that it petered out into a dirt road marked Private, and so I hesitated to venture further. I still wanted to see how close I could get to John’s Lake, so I went a bit down another dirt road with no sign, near the Lake County border, and captured this scene:

That’s John’s Lake from a spot just a few feet north of Marsh Road.

Okay. Fast forward to last week. I was still intrigued by the Williams Cemetery out on John’s Lake. The internet is a wonderful thing and so I went to the Orange County Property Appraiser’s site, pulled up the map, and saw that the peninsula and much of the area was owned and farmed by a local citrus growing corporation. Their office is in Oakland, in the first Charles H. Tilden house. (Those Tildens keep turning up!) All I had to do was call, explain who I was, and why I wanted to go prowling on their property. And the doors opened! The gentleman I spoke said he’d have one of the grove managers call me and arrange a meeting out there, and the manager called a few minutes later and said he’d be happy to give me a tour. Just like that!

We met at 8:30 on a Thursday morning, not too hot yet, and I hopped into his four-wheel-drive all-purpose-vehicle truck as nimbly as I could without spraining anything. In a minute we were driving down Williams Road, and I relished the moment when we rumbled past the Private Everything signs. I was in!

Maps can be wrong– it wasn’t the Williams Cemetery, it was really the Eli Williamson Family Cemetery. There was once a Williamson house out here, but all that’s left is a patch of grass, the foundations of what was once the house’s garage, and the family cemetery.

The home site.

The garage site.

This huge live oak is right next to the cemetery.

My escort and I couldn’t find the  dogwood tree; we identified a couple of possibilities, but nothing was blooming… maybe next spring we’ll go back. (And there are Shupes in the Oakland Cemetery, incidentally.)

And here are some of the Williamsons:

Chase was only too happy to drive me all over the peninsula, and I received a crash course in citrus farming and management. All that strange machinery you see in orange groves? Now I know what it’s for. These prop fans keep groves relatively warm in the event of a freeze– they create an updraft which helps prevent cold air from settling down too close to the trees. Someone’s got to climb up there and oil the works once a year or so.

Here’s a row of adult-sized Tonka toys that are still used on occasion…

At one point on the peninsula, a large home across the lake was pointed out to me. I realized I was staring at the lakefront view of what was once Osama bin Laden’s brother’s compound; he bought the 1928 Mediterranean-style mansion some years ago, but was escorted out with his family on 9/11. It’s in a gated compound just south of Highway 50, and is for sale.

Only in west Orange County can you learn how to keep orange trees warm AND see Osama bin laden’s brother’s former stomping grounds. It just depends on who you know…

Deeper Inside West Orange County, Florida: Oakland, Beulah, and “To Kill A Mockingbird” in Winter Garden

This area is caked with history… you should have a slice!

I know what you’re thinking– but I can’t seem to get enough of this area. Something about it’s even tenor matches mine; I feel the same way out in Oakland as I do in Key West. Maybe I was always meant to be a small town kind of guy– Brooklyn is wonderful and all, and I can’t get enough of it when I’m there (when Mom lets me out of the house), but I feel most at home in small towns and rural landscapes. Maybe it comes with age. Maybe there’s a front porch in my future– can you see me sitting there with a pistol hidden under my lap robe, like Mrs. DuBose in “To Kill A Mockingbird?” Who can say? Damn kids running all over the lawn… !

But I digress. I’ve been going out to West Orange County because I’ve become affiliated with the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation, their History Center, and the Central Florida Anthropological Society. They’re all busy cataloguing some of our area’s history via sophisticated computer programs and doing digs on historic properties. It’s amazing what they unearth, and it goads me into further explorations on my own.

I did a leisurely tour a couple of weeks ago, taking photos in places I hadn’t been to in a few years, and revisiting other old favorite spots. I was pleasantly surprised when I drove south on  Daniels Road down to where it meets the 429 at the intersection with county road 435 (Fowler Groves). On the left, backing up to Lake Tilden (there are your Oakland and Tildenville Tildens again) is a horse farm.

The day I’m writing this, I picked up a copy of the West Orange Times and read that the land will be considered in a sale to a hospital that wants to build here in the Fowler Groves area. Don’t mistake me– hospitals are good, though my Inner Utopian wishes otherwise.

Going north on 435 you’ll pass a beautiful old home set back from the road on the right; this is the Hause-Roper house. The Ropers owned a lot of agricultural land in these regions; they helped establish Winter Garden and many of them are buried in the Oakland cemetery. The house was built in 1932 and has orange groves on three sides. It looks like it has a coffeepot warming on the stove all day, with maybe Mr. Cleaver sitting in the breakfast nook reading the day’s newspaper headline: LIZ LEAVES EDDIE FOR DICK.

Going back north from here, towards Highway 50 and the Turnpike, you’ll find Beulah, a tiny settlement (and the home of giant West Orange High School). Driving through here in the 1980s, the surrounding area was pastureland and orange groves: Lakes Beulah, Tilden and Black supplied water for agriculture. And, since there weren’t enough highways in the neighborhood, they added the 429 Western Beltway recently. There’s a reason why they call the intersection of 50, 429 and the Turnpike the “Fruit Loop.” I distinctly remember driving along lonely sand roads which hugged Lake Beulah, but now it’s hugged by houses on three sides. The west side does feature the beautiful and tranquil Beulah Cemetery however; Beulah in the bible means “heavenly Zion.”

Here’s little Beulah Baptist Church, and a cozy old house surrounded by palmettos.

Heading back to Winter Garden you’ll come to Resurrection Catholic Church, a rarity for these parts.

In the chapel, this rather exuberant Madonna and Child keep watch: you wouldn’t want to get tangled up with HER.

One of the linchpins of the resurrected downtown Winter Garden is the History Center, where you can get lost in all the documents and photos they have. I mean, imagine moving to central Florida and never availing yourself of this information? There are people who come here who aren’t even curious. I just don’t understand that; when you move to a new place, the first thing you should do is not check out the malls– you’ll find the same stores back in Ohio and White Plains– but you should read up on the history of the area you’re helping to populate.

The Winter Garden History Center is housed in one of the former train stations. Staff and volunteers help maintain and preserve the collection, and they’re building a brand-new addition and expansion nearby. And their train ephemera and memorabilia collection is incredible!

A couple of beautiful country miles east is the Petris home in Oakland, built in 1885 by the Orange Belt railroad men. It’s one of three homes standing which were constructed by this railroad company. A sign out front reads “The 1879 House” but that could be wrong.  The stone block in front, which was a carriage block, originally began as a tombstone which the original purchaser was dissatisfied with; it was subsequently sold to the man who first lived in this house.

 This yellow house on Tubb Street, the Hartsfield house, was once the Oakland hospital. The Central Florida Archaeological Society did a dig here recently and uncovered lots of artifacts from the town’s past. Back in those days, refuse and broken objects were often buried on site, effectively serving as time capsules. Excavations help show that Oakland was once an industrious, populous town, busy with railroad and agricultural enterprises as well as being a noted social hub for Orange County.

Speer Park is named for one of the town’s earliest settlers, James Gamble Speer. (You can read about the Speer family’s unfortunate burial circumstances here.) This man was incredible, not only having provided much of Oakland’s history, but Orlando’s as well.

One of THE most peaceful spots in Florida can be found right here at the northernmost end of Tubb Street (which stretches from Lake Apopka south to Johns Lake.) Yes, there are alligators here, so you are encouraged not to swim, but you can rest on the dock’s benches and not hear a sound for hours. Hard to believe there used to be a band pavilion here, back when Oakland was hopping; you can still see the concrete posts in the water.

I thought to myself: what would happen if I tapped my foot lightly on the dock? And this guy showed up a minute later…

This is the Hovsepian home, “The House of Three Mayors.” I need to find out exactly which mayors, who and when. The house faces Tubb Street but has been joined, I believe, to at least one other house around the corner on Speer Avenue– it’s huge.

This day I also planned on exploring the older of the two black cemeteries in town; there’s the historically white one at Walker Street and Sadler Avenue, and the black cemetery that you see on Highway 50 just outside the southwestern corner of Oakland… but I only recently became aware of an even older black cemetery, forgotten until it was rediscovered by highway planners when the Turnpike was being configured. I had no idea where it was, only that it was near the black cemetery that you see from the road, so I parked there and began to walk into the brush. Three people were in the cemetery a few yards east of me, and a woman called out and asked if I needed help. I explained my mission, and it turned out that she was in charge of the Oakland-Tildenville Cemetery, Inc., and would be happy to escort me to the older cemetery. What a stroke of luck! The four of us (the two women in dresses) plowed through the high grass and weeds, traffic on Highway 50 whizzing by closely, and then we disappeared into the woods. I was thinking about ticks, deer flies, rattlesnakes, bobcats, panthers, bears, ants, wasps, hornets and poison ivy, but all the while jabbering a mile a minute with Sharon about the cemetery. On we pressed… stumps, spider webs, fallen trees… on and on we walked, and I’m thinking thank GOD I wore long pants and socks that day. Soon we came into a low area, actually a wide, shallow sinkhole surrounded by a high chain link fence with a locked gate, and we were there. Sharon spun the tumblers on the combination lock and we went inside. I tell you, it’s incredible– here’s an old burial ground that very, very few people even know about, considering its location between two busy roads. We walked and walked, very carefully, because there are many red flag indicators planted in the  ground: a crew from UCF has gone in here and identified many of the plots, though most of the stones and markers are gone. Also, due to varying family circumstances, many graves are marked only with metal signs or even faded paper cards.

Come along with me… 

From the frying pan and into the fire: we still had a ways to walk after entering the woods from the high grass…

Believe it or not, you are looking at a cemetery, complete with many markers…

A very old marker made with seashells, a tradition which reminds many families of their coastal origins.

There’s a Herriot Avenue in the traditionally African-American “Quarters” in Oakland.

The next day we were back in the area with Darlyn and Brad, this time to see To Kill A Mockingbird at the restored movie theatre in Winter Garden.

The stone benches in the center of town are constructed to look like citrus crates, complete with reproductions of original labels. Here’s Grace, the doyenne of Edgegrove, the Mather-Smith estate in Oakland.

We had dinner at a restaurant inside the Edgewater Hotel…

This was taken inside the theatre…

It was wonderful seeing To Kill A Mockingbird on the big screen; Gregory Peck never looks so good as when he’s towering over an audience. And you see details which you miss when watching the film at home. Incredible. And what an audience! It was composed of all ages, and everyone was quiet, polite, respectful, and attentive. Nobody was playing Tetris or Angry Birds!

I hope you’ll get out to West Orange County one of these days… you’ll come away with a broader sense of the history of the region, something that California-based Disney just wouldn’t understand.

More History / PhotoBike Tours and blogs:

PhotoBike Tour 16: Oakland and West Orange County, Florida

Where’s Grandma? (Not in the Osceola Vault.)

PhotoBike Tour 9: Biking the West Orange Trail