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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The Winter Garden Heritage Foundation: Where I Work

Many of you know, thanks to the instant technology of eMails and Facebook, that I have recently been hired by the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation as a Writer / Collections Curator. That, along with my organization and eCommerce work for The Black Sheep Needlepoint Shop and various other gigs, keeps me busier than ever these days. Ultra Organizers is a little enterprise I’ve also started up, so I’ve been doing organizing projects for businesses like The Awards Store as well as for people in their homes.

The position at the Heritage Foundation is really something special for me, because I get to hang out in West Orange County– places like Winter Garden, Oakland, Tildenville… Beulah, Ocoee, Crown Point… Fullers Crossroads… Killarney… it’s great. And I get to write about it now, and sift through boxes of history. Lots of the volunteers have deep roots in the area, and they’re always so generous with their time and their stories.

The Heritage Foundation, along with lots of business owners and concerned individuals, have done so much to revitalize downtown Winter Garden after the fallow 80s and 90s. Well, it was still a place where people lived and worked, but there was a lot of potential that hadn’t been tapped. It’s even more beautiful now– the West Orange Bike Trail and the Green Mountain Scenic Byway meander through the area, taking you past and through well over a hundred years worth of concentrated history: beautiful homes and buildings, a restored movie theatre, busy shops… it’s all very invigorating.

The Winter Garden Heritage Foundation where I work  manages the History Research Center, the Central Florida Railroad Museum, and the Heritage Museum. If you have any interest in trains– boarding them, riding them, or even just knowing about them– the Railroad Museum, housed in a former depot, will astound you with all the ephemera you’ll find inside…  this is just a small part of it:

Visitors spend hours in here!

My workspace is in the History Research Center, a documentation and preservation facility jammed to the rafters with photographs, donated items, newspapers, letters, and anything else you can think of that has to do with West Orange County. We are currently involved in digitizing the photograph collection, an ongoing project, and we also produce a quarterly newsletter and displays that are set up in various venues in town. Many people drop things off so that their family history can be added to the collections. It’s a great place to ask questions, too, as the staff is ready and able to share information or steer you in the right direction; some local visitors like to stop by and see if we can help them find their cousins.

The History Research Center where I work is in that white building:

The Heritage Museum is also housed in a depot, just a block or so away from the Railroad Museum and the History Research Center. It features lots of displays and photographs which focus on the area, as well as a large collection of yearbooks from Winter Garden’s Lakeview High School. (I really enjoy looking at all the senior grad hairstyles; hairspray stock must have zoomed to the ceiling in 1964.) The citrus label collection is definitely worth seeing, as it highlights the very fruits that put West Orange County on the map. My favorite corner of the museum displays rare photographs of Oakland, with striking views of the large, rambling Mather-Smith home that stood on the site of what is now the Southern Oaks subdivision. (You can still see the Mather-Smiths’ original front gate– it’s survived.)

The Winter Garden Heritage Museum

All of these museums are free to explore, by the way, though your contributions are always appreciated. Winter Garden is unique because, for such a small city, its historical facilities are vast. Stop by and see what’s going on down here, and then take me out for a coffee break!