The Old and New Around Orlando’s Lake Eola


I haven’t blogged much lately. It’s not that I’ve lost interest in writing; my job at the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation involves a lot of writing, and I still take tons of photos as I wander and document West Orange County. Working as much as I do now has me staring fleetingly at my bicycle as I pass it where it stands perched in our living room, and I wonder when I’m going to go on another PhotoBike Tour. I’ve walked, though; downtown Winter Garden is just a few miles east of the area I’ve been documenting lately– Oakland and Tildenville and an area informally known as Brayton, which used to be a railroad stop where Brayton Road meets the railroad tracks. There were fertilizer plants here, and a packing house; if you’ve ridden the West Orange Trail and seen the building with the Seminoles logo on its roof- that’s Brayton; that building was once the Diamond R (Roper family) fertilizer plant. Cater corner to that, across the trail, is where the Bray packing house stood (the 1914 piers are still in the woods), which later became the Hall family fertilizer plant; if you peer closely at the picture below, you’ll see two of the piers. They sleep quietly in what looks very much like a jungle today, though this area was hopping with activity for many decades.


It was beautiful enough this morning to visit downtown Orlando, where Kirk usually goes every weekend for a walk with friends. Occasionally join them, though not always; I like to retain my air of exclusivity, feeling that my rare appearances will only be that much more appreciated. This morning, after a snack at the very delightful Le Gourmet Break on Magnolia Avenue (perfect French pastries), we headed to Lake Eola to have a walk and to tour the remaining house on Washington Street- you’ll recall the recent imbroglio regarding the demolition of homes in the block across the street from the park’s playground. The house at the head of this blog post was saved, and rehabilitated for a few hundred thousand dollars. It will serve as a community center and event rental facility. It was built in 1930 according to the OCPA site, and we’re very glad that it’s been saved. Here are a few shots of the mansion:


This window located at a landing halfway up the stairs to the second floor brightens up the center of the house.


Here’s a view of the park from an upstairs porch.


On a wall inside, a large postcard blow-up depicts the original Lake Eola bandshell.


Another view of the exterior.

The floors have all been refinished, and everything is fresh and clean and ready to receive guests in its new incarnation. There were lots of visitors, and plenty of city guides to answer questions and hand out literature. What would be a welcome addition, however: some sort of researched handout that details the lives of the families who built and occupied the house over the years. I love finding out about all that!

We followed our tour of the house with a turn around the lake, noting the remarkable rise in the swan population. I tell you, there are more than ever. When we exited the house, they handed us bags of swan food, and it’s like they’d been alerted to the fact: dozens of them were congregating at the water’s edge, waiting for us to sprinkle pellets into the water. They would nudge one another, sometimes lashing out with their beaks, as they vied for diving space. How come swans portrayed in movies and on greeting cards are always so benign? They’re actually snappish, impatient creatures. As I sprinkled my pellets like some latter-day version of St. Francis with his sparrows,I imagined myself starring in a movie called “The Swans,” in which I am pursued across hill and dale by these birds. They don’t move that quickly, and neither do I anymore, so picture endless sequences featuring this tableaux in slow motion, filmed with a lens shrouded in gossamer fabric. (Sort of like Lucy in “Mame.”)


As you walk around the lake, you might find yourself stepping in time with these guys… that’s daniel at the right,  entrepreneur at Kombucha!


And, finally, a stop for rye and ciabatta from Denny at the Sweet Traditions Bakery table at the Farmer’s Market.

What I like about the park is that so many different groups of people use it comfortably with one another. It’s a great urban space, made even more accessible by the intelligent use of a house that could just as easily have been demolished.


Downtown Orlando On A Balmy Day

Where do I come up with these titles? Who do I think I am, Bulwer-Lytton?

The sun, a roundness whose color could not adequately be described as merely yellow, stared hotly down on us as we traversed the green mile around the city park. Leashed pit bulls snapped and snarled at our ankles, and fat fireflies fizzed through the waning air. The earth inhaled, and then exhaled as, somewhere, a swan squawked.

Kirk heading resolutely to the Aloma Publix.

I owed Kirk a walk down around Lake Eola, something he does a few times each month with friends; I put in an occasional guest appearance– a cameo, as it were, on the mucky lapel of that sinkhole in disguise.

Don’t forget to click on the pictures; they’ll get bigger, and you’ll be able to see all of the captions. I think. (Though some don’t have captions.)

First we had to stop at Publix for groceries which we would bring home AFTER the walk– coming home, Publix would be on the opposite side of the road, and who wants to deal with all that after such strenuous exercise? Central Florida, sadly, often concentrates more on installing limited-access roads than creating actual human convenience.

Lake Eola Park is actually officially known as Summerlin Park, but I’ve never heard anyone call it that. When I landed here in 1978, it was a messy-looking greensward that wrapped itself in embarrassment around the lake, which wasn’t anything to write home about at the time. Hustlers of all colors and stripes patrolled the streets surrounding the park, and more than a few multi-roomed flophouses lined the nearby streets. There wasn’t much reason to go downtown in search of leisure activities, but in a few years everything was beautifully transformed. The park is really nice, and the path around it winds for almost a mile– a good way to gauge your walks. Some days we do three turns, others four, rarely five. On other days I whine from the heat, or the cold, or the goose droppings, or the people walking four abreast while yapping on their cell phones.

Glossy new buildings have sprouted along its perimeter, giving the area a new cosmopolitan air.

Along the south side of the park.

In the shot below, the aqua-colored space ship at left is actually our famous fountain, and the deco-looking structure at right is the Disney Amphitheatre. They hold shows there, and chorales perform, and sometimes regular people get up there and do little tap dances– unscheduled, of course.

A camellia in one of the park's south side gardens.

Kirk, surrounded by pigeons. Doesn't he look like the bird lady from Mary Poppins?

The day we walked, the Traveling Vietnam memorial was making an appearance in the park. There were lots of veterans in attendance– homeless veterans. Think what you want about that, but I think the phrase “homeless veteran” is just plain wrong.

There are swans nesting and living all around the park– black ones and white ones, fairly tame. When cousin Nicola was visiting here from Italy, he felt like he was walking through a wildlife preserve. They expect to be fed and aren’t shy about coming up to you, mouths open expectantly. (Swans, not Italians.)

Here’s some planting they do on the west side of the park. Years ago there used to be an incredible wall covered with sweet peas here, and they would scent the air.

Here’s the fountain doing its thing. Tourists love this– and you’d be amazed at the various languages you hear spoken around the lake, not all of them spoken by people who live here. Buses regularly drop people off downtown so that they can realize that there is something more to the area than the theme parks. Downtown Orlando has its ups and downs; in the 1980s it was very popular due to attractions like Church Street Station and all the restaurants and shops thereabouts, but then the theme parks decided to install their own downtowns and line them with name-brand stores. Strange.

Here are the famous swan boats. You can rent these and then spend some time crossing the lake. The one time I did this, years ago with a friend, we pedaled too close to the fountain and I pictured us somehow being sucked into the machinery– sort of like that lady in the 1940s who was eaten by a faulty department store escalator. In any event, on the day I lose my mind (it happens to all of us) I hope they find me in one of the swan boats, giggling happily in the sun.


It was such a nice day; I think we did three turns on the path. Sometimes you encounter people you know, determined to make their quota of turns. You smile the first time and maybe say a short greeting;  you nod when you see them again; and then you politely look away on the third pass. People used to do that when their carriages passed one another in the olden days while driving through a park– there was a whole etiquette thing about it.

And here’s how we ended the walk, staring at this violently red hibiscus on Central Boulevard.

PhotoBike Tour 11: Biking to Gabriella and Goldenrod

Yesterday I biked out to the Gabriella area. It’s one of a series of farming communities that lined Aloma Avenue when that road was the site of a railroad that ran from Orlando to Oviedo– the “Dinky Line.” You’ll see signs for Jamestown, Slavia and Goldenrod along the road, but Gabriella (aside from its historical marker) and a tiny place named Bertha are forgotten.  (Click on any picture to enlarge it.)

Two historians, Steve and Gayle Rajtar, have written a number of illustrated books covering   Florida’s history. I must credit the historical walking and driving tours published by them, which supplied some of the information I’ve gathered here.

Marker at Aloma Avenue and Bear Gully Road

From my house it’s a short ride along Howell Branch Road going east into the country toward Dodd Road. If you can mentally block out the sprawling suburbs that have sprouted all over, you can see the underlay of what was once a very rural farming area. When I moved here in 1978 I was struck by how many cows there were just a few minutes away from the intersection of 436 and Howell Branch. Dodd Road even had a dangerous right-hand corner at one point that would, if you decided to drive through the wall of yellow barricades, take you directly into somebody’s living room. Now it’s all been smoothed out and curved, yet you can still find the old road and take your bicycle along it. And there’s only one barricade standing.

The bike path looking east from Gabriella.

As you go north on Dodd, on your left you’ll see a road named Eden Point, which is surrounded by farms. There you’ll see cows as you are hurrying toward your destination. On the right you’ll come to a lane that heads east into some private property, and if you look at an aerial map you’ll notice a clump of forest at the end, with Gabriella Lane appearing on the other side, leading toward Tuscawilla Road and further east. There are no farms along the Lane now; they’ve all been sold off and replaced with giant houses on large acreage.

You’d never think that Tuscawilla Road and Aloma Avenue were once lined with farms and a railroad track, because everything is just about gone. However, if you mentally remove the suburban overlay– all very recent– you will find vestiges of the area’s rural past. Here on Tuscawilla Road, just north of Aloma,  is a piece of property where goats romp. Well… they don’t really romp, but they DO pay attention some idiot with a camera ventures up to their gate and starts taking pictures.


Bordering on the bike path at Tuscawilla is this spot, where once stood the train station for the Bertha farming community.

Site of the Bertha station.

Just west of Tuscawilla Road on Aloma are the remains of a tiny little blue and white church that you may remember driving past up through about 2006. It began life as a school building in 1899 and by the 1980s it became the Morning Start Baptist Church. Its last incarnation was as the Bible Believers Tabernacle, damaged beyond repair by a hurricane in 2004. It was pulled down in 2006.

Remains of the 1899 schoolhouse.

Here’s the Burchard house just off Aloma, now the home of Perfect printing. It was built in 1927 from a pre-fab kit that Sears used to sell in its catalogue, and originally stood at 7421 Aloma; it was moved to this spot in 2000. Imagine ordering a house through a catalog? But people did, and the pieces would arrive and you would put them together and then move in. There are also a couple of Sears catalog houses out in Tildenville, west of Winter Garden.

The Burchard House, 1927.

This tiny place was built in 1927, a pre-fab, and christened the “Wee Hoosier Inn” by Professor and Mrs. Fred Gifford.

The Gifford home, 1927.

This is the Adriatico house, located on Grove Avenue. It fronts a large citrus grove which I don’t think is being cultivated anymore. It was built in 1926 and at one point along the front fence, under a very tall Washingtonia palm, there was a tombstone that read “Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” gotten from a cemetery in Jamestown (further northeast on Aloma). I haven’t seen it in a long time. It’s hard to get a full picture of this house because of all the overgrown foliage; even I won’t climb the fence.

Adriatico House, 1926.

Below you’ll see shots of a house that once stood near the corner of Howell Branch Road and 436, just east of the plaza where a lot of people I know used to get their Halloween drag accessories. I took these pictures in about 1992; I think this was the Tuck house; the barn burned down about two weeks after I shot these. When I was photographing the house, a woman came out and made friendly conversation, and then invited me inside. She proudly showed off the stove in her kitchen.

The Tuck House (?), early 1920s.

And here’s the Bower-Dike farmstead on Howell Branch Road, seconds away from schools, major subdivisions and shopping centers. It was possibly built in the 1880s, rented by the Tucks, and then bought by the Dike family in 1926. It originally sat where Signal Pointe Apartments is, at the northwest corner of Howell Branch Road and 436, but was moved to its present location in 1970.

The Bower-Dike home near Tangerine Avenue on Howell Branch Road.

Off Bear Gully Road, as you drive up from Aloma toward Howell Branch Road, you’ll find this undeveloped piece of land facing the lake; this is where I always manage to collect sand spurs on the laces of my sneakers. This was all farming country not very long ago.

On Bear Gully Lake.

Almost back home… I picked up the bike trail and approached the bridge from where a train station used to stand at Forsyth and Aloma.

And the bridge, which I skirted because I didn’t have to cross 436 to get home. A sidewalk off the trail brings you to 436, and then I just biked north, crossed Aloma, and was soon home. I tell you– the traffic was wall-to-wall, and it’s incredible how you can find these rural places without ever hearing a note of traffic. And I’ve never felt stuck out here in the suburbs, because these places are just a few minutes away from home.

The trail crossing 436 at Aloma.

Florida Stuff From My Bulging Files

FLORIDA! In 1978, it was a dream come true for me to move down here, on a lot of levels. I can’t believe that was 33 years ago, and now I’m almost as old as the people I saw driving at a snail’s pace on the highways when I arrived- I first experienced Florida in 1970, as a raw fourteen-year-old, and those memories seem to have seared themselves onto my brain pan.

Enamored with my newly-adopted home, I began collecting things (no surprise to anyone who knows me). Here, for your entertainment, are some odd items from my FLORIDA folder…

NOTE: Click on each picture for a larger, more detailed version.

The Florida Department of Citrus handed out postcards of their product for a few years, and friends of mine handed me a batch of them. I mailed them  to antagonize my family in the frozen tundra of Brooklyn.

Winter Park was where I settled, though I’ve never actually lived within the city limits. My first address was Maitland 32751, in Orange County; my second was Winter park 32792, in Seminole County; and my current is Winter Park 32792, also in Seminole County, though I am actually located within the city limits of Casselberry.

Yes… your social standing all depends on the post office which delivers your mail, which is why I don’t own a dinner jacket.

The fabled Langford Hotel was THE place to be seen in Winter Park at one time– the real Winter Park of 32789 fame. Here, women with beehives and barrel curls would sit at the bar talking with men wearing blue polyester suits. It’s true! Just look at the brochure below. Afterwards, everyone would jump in the pool and sober up, hoping that that string of electric lanterns wouldn’t fall in and suddenly render everyone redundant.

I have  a Winter Park Chamber of Commerce booklet from the 1960s– the telephone exchanges in the ads are all MIdway. Here are a couple of pages describing home life. “There is no snobbishness here, and you are judged not by what you have, but by what you are.”  “Houses are constructed here to conform to the casual, informal mode of living, and range in price from $13,500 to $100,000.”

I was introduced in 1978 to a Mrs. Anna Jillson, an assistant VP at the Barnett Bank on Park Avenue. A very nice lady, she sometimes manned a teller station. One day I brought my visiting grandmother in so that she could cash her social security check. The young teller asked, very condescendingly, ‘ohhh? Does SHE have an account here?’ What?! Excuse me?! In response, I name-dropped: ‘Maybe I should go upstairs and ask Mrs. Jillson to come down and see if SHE can handle this professionally?’  Instead, the teller said nicely to my grandmother, ‘how would you like that, in fifties and twenties?’

I eventually traveled further afield, sometimes taking the bus to visit relatives in Sarasota. (I still have the ticket stubs.) This spread in SEE Sarasota, a magazine I treasured from when I first visited the state in 1970, gives the impression that Sarasota was home to women in beehives and barrel curls, barmaids from California, and underground films. I wanted to see underground films, desperately, but what I mostly did with my relatives was play miniature golf and eat pizza.

We went fishing one time in Sarasota (1970), casting off from a place called Uncle Bob’s Fishing Place, “where fishermen meet.” I helped push the boat into the water, and even baited my own hooks– with nicely comatose shrimp one day, and maniacally wriggling shrimp the next day. And I’ll never forget a little black girl asking for some ice at the marina. When she walked away, the middle-aged white man who gave her the ice referred to her with a racial slur that I thought you only heard in movies about the Klan. Boy was I shocked! If I knew then what I know now, I would have asked him: ‘What exactly do you mean by “where fisherman meet.” ‘

Have you ever heard of Xanadu? It was a futuristic house built on a plot of land on Highway 192 going through Kissimmee. It promised all sorts of delights– ‘experience 2001 technology today!’– but it failed to deliver. The place was hot and stuffy; the Robutler stood dusty and broken in a corner, and the bathroom ‘with its waterfall and spa and solar sauna’ wasn’t anything to write home about; in fact, I never did. ‘Every room reveals a futuristic surprise,’ the brochure promised– yes, it was very surprising that each room looked like 1955’s idea of the future. That sculptural tree was supposed to keep the interior climate-controlled, but when you got to the top floor you broke out in a sweat and stopped breathing. And the clerk in the gift shop could NOT have been more bored!

When I got my car, I drove up to Deland and happened to take this photo just before the sky yawned and poured all over me and my camera… and now that I think of it, I know an Igou family.

Citrus crate labels are colorful and beautiful; you can get a lot of nice ones at the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation museums. And the Battaglia family owned a big house on Palmer Avenue in Winter Park.

Time flew… soon it was time for Disney to expand…

I still enjoy going to Epcot. It’s Xanadu in a way, but they do update it every once in a while. I wish they’d get more countries, though.

And here is a map of Orlando from before Interstate 4 was built through the city, which permanently ruined it when it bisected it into eastern and western halves.

And, finally, a page from The Orlando Sentinel, 1965…

I hope you’ve enjoyed your little foray into my filing cabinet. Now I’ve got to put all this stuff back…