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!

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

Me, inside the Osceola vault.

I used to work at the bookstore with a crazy lady named Becky. She’s a Florida native and has cousins around every corner, and she recently wrote a book about Umatilla for Arcadia Press describing the history of the small Lake County community, much of which was perpetrated by her extensive family. She reads my blogs and got in touch with me last week after reading my latest Oakland blog, and suggested a trip up to Geneva, a very small town in northern Seminole County.

“I want to find my great great great grandmother in the Geneva cemetery,” she said.

“Well, that should be easy,” I said. “She can’t have wandered very far.”

Her name was Mary Ann Higginbotham Hart, and she was born in 1817 and died in 1906. Our goal was to find the lady’s final resting place and then go looking for the Osceola vault– a bank vault used by the vanished timber mill town of Osceola to store money and valuables. I had read about it and seen it on Google Earth, and realized that I’d driven right past it months ago without noticing because a guy wearing sunglasses and a tractor waved at me as I rounded that corner on my way to finding the end of lonely East Osceola Road.

Like myself, Becky is game for getting into possibly precarious situations; also like me, she has a positive attitude guaranteed to get her out of tight places. Today, the two Pollyannas (one somewhat bald and hard of hearing, one talking in a loud twang) set out on a jaunt.

The Geneva area is country. You’ll see lots of indications that the natives respect Republicans, the Baptist faith, and fried pork rinds. (You usually find them all in one place, like a church cellar.)

A Geneva farmstead.

After a few well-marked turns, we found cemetery Road, which took us directly east into the Geneva Cemetery. It’s certainly a colorful and interesting cemetery, decorated in spots as if the surviving families were expecting the circus to pull into town any minute, but it’s actually a happy place. You won’t be set upon by officious yuppie women in blue suits wielding sharp clipboards, yelling because you placed red, white and blue plastic carnations into a vase. Here, it seems like anything goes:

We wandered up and down the rows looking for Mary Ann, occasionally calling out to one another across the rural stillness. Sometimes we’d confer with Becky’s phone, calling up the Internet for clues as to where she was located. There were plenty of Harts and Prevatts and Raulersons, all intricately connected (like I said, Becky has cousins all over the place, including underfoot)… but no Mary Ann.

Though it was well before noon, it was very warm, and soon a bank of fluffy gray clouds rained on us, considerably cooling things off. Was Mary Ann encouraging us to keep looking? Who can say? I finally decided that we should split up and each take half of the small cemetery, conscientiously reading tombstones until we found her, by golly! And we marched to the front (we’d started in back) and, sure enough, Becky found her even before we started looking hard, located right along the main road coming in. Yay! There was Becky’s great-great-great grandmother. Becky felt a keen sense of connection, and an ever more acute tie to the past, something which all native Southerners live for. never mind about the present– they dream they dwell in marble halls.

And now it was time to find the Osceola vault. Now, I knew what it looked like from online photos, but still: I had to see it for myself. This was ancient (for Florida) history, just laying out on a road somewhere for all to see.

We passed the Geneva Methodist church on our way out of town, which I wanted to enter but, as a snakeskin-booted young man informed me, services were being held: I could hear the preacher hollering inside.

Along the road heading into the country is a historical marker telling about King Philipstown:

Personally, I love the line “the Indians were repulsed… ” Though they mean “vanquished,” I like to think it meant that the Indians were repulsed by the awful things the white settlers were doing when they arrived. This marker is located at the entrance to a trail which we walked down for a minute or so: absolutely stunning.

Just a little bit further down the road we found… the Osceola vault! This is the only surviving relic of the old mill town of Osceola, which flourished from 1916 to 1940. (I read historical markers, or else I would be hopelessly confused.) The timber company’s valuable assets were stored here, well away from the “town” which was located a few miles south next to Geneva.

Of course I had to climb INTO the vault, but had to cross those weeds that you see. Now I understand why the English all carry walking sticks, which must be hell on the London subways, but I can see where they would come in handy in a place like this. I pressed on, flattening weeds and expecting snakes, spiders, and assorted vermin to leap at me, but nothing happened.

There’s no money inside the vault anymore– only what money can buy:

Above the entryway, which I noticed when I was well inside, were these clumps of web looking disturbingly occupied. I had to pass beneath them, naturally, to get back outside into the safety of the weeds…

At this point any normal people who have had their fill and started home, but I’d mentioned that I’d gone as far as I thought I could along East Osceola Road that last time, and of course Becky suggested that we go and see if it went further; according to the map, the road curved north, then west, and then possibly south to Highway 46 out of Sanford. We had to go and see.

A link to the Geneva Wilderness Area. 

Here’s what the smooth black top turned to soon after the Osceola vault:

Yes, there’s room for one vehicle; SOMEONE would have the right of way if two vehicles met, and we had a feeling it would be one of the natives.

We were charmed by a road called Gator Growl, and here’s what was almost at the end of it: the St. John’s River. (A vehicle met us face to face, but he turned off into a sideway and we pressed on.)

Somewhere along here was a sign that said “Residents Only” to anyone, mainly us, desiring to go further. If any patrol car could be found in this remote place, and the occupant decided to stop and grill us, we were ready with excuses:

“We’re looking at property.”

“There’s a cabin for sale that we want to look at.”

“We’ve been invited to a baptizing along the river.”

“We’ve been invited to a hanging, hopefully not ours.”

Nobody stopped us, and we drove on and on and ON, and it was beautiful and wild. Becky took the following three pictures:

Did we make jokes about furniture and household items made from cypress knees? Yes.

We went just past B.F. Egypt, and decided to not go much further– the map, upon closer inspection, indicated that the road eventually ended a short ways ahead. We turned around, precariously but carefully on the one-track trail, and got back to a turn– and found ourselves faced by three vehicles of varying sizes, all of which wanted to go through. There was lots of (wary) smiling and (wary) waving and assorted (wary) country-friendly hand signals until the four drivers decided which way to go; it was like a chess game but eventually we sorted it out and we were on our way  when Becky spied easy access to the river: up a short rise, past an outhouse which she was tempted to use, and then down a slope to the St. John’s. She parked, we set out and, just to make sure we meant no harm, Becky started calling out: “Hello??? Hello??? Hello???” her voice echoed through the loneliness, but nobody appeared except for the family of seven, each of whom had three eyes and wore clothes made from human skin. Kidding! Nobody was home, but Becky elected to not use the facilities.

Have you ever known a woman to pass facilities without availing herself of them? Becky did!

We eventually ended up back in Geneva by way of another street, and we came across the Radley House. Well, it’s the closest to the Radley House that I’ve ever seen in real life…

After all this rural, I treated to lunch at Cavallari Gourmet in Oviedo.  It was an odd though delicious jolt into the present after all the past we had immersed ourselves in. And many thanks to Becky for driving all that way; it was interesting talking during one of these little trips, as I am practically almost always off on my own. And Becky and all her cousins were fine company.