The Old and New Around Orlando’s Lake Eola

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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.

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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:

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

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

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

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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.”)

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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!

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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.

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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.

Artistic.

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.