Friday, April 29, 2011

Made in Maitland

I read once that in the days of the Seminole Indian Wars, forts were built one day's march from each other, throughout Central Florida. Fort Maitland, (built in 1838 during the 2nd Seminole Indian War), was the fort located a day's march from Fort Mellon in Sanford to the north and a day's march from Fort Gatlin in Orlando to the south. After the hostilities with the Indians ended, settlers moved into the area around Fort Maitland because of the "natural spring water and extensive pine forests" according to this online history of the city.

The rich and powerful, including Presidents Chester A. Arthur and Grover Cleveland, wintered in Maitland hotels

Citrus production was a major source of Maitland's growth in the early twentieth century. Images from the State Archives of Florida

Jules André Smith's Maitland Art Center built in 1937
is on the National Register of Historic Places

The Maitland Historical Society and Museums is the organization that preserves the heritage of this Central Florida town that former Sentinel columnist Bob Morris jokingly nicknamed the "land of mates." Recently the Historical Society merged with the Maitland Art Center and one of their first moves as the Maitland Art and History Association was to present an exhibit of artwork of Maitland's pioneers by artist Dawn Schreiner.

Dawn and her family have lived just outside the Maitland city limits for fifteen years, which means I've known her and her husband for around two decades. The Schreiners are avid Florida history buffs and they spend their weekends taking their two kids, Toby and Elena, to some of our state's most obscure and interesting historical places like the DeLand Hospital Museum and Shady Oak Restaurant and Tavern on the St. Johns River. It makes me very happy to know that some kids are being brought up on a healthy diet of Old Florida, and it gives me hope that future generations may be interested in preserving Florida's past.

Here's a Q&A I did with Dawn about her work in Maitland:

Q. What inspired you to do a show about Maitland pioneers?
A. I've always been interested in history, pioneers and portraits. When I heard the Maitland Art Center and the Maitland History Center were merging, the idea of painting portraits of Maitland pioneers came to me, while I was walking around Lake Catherine (in Maitland).

There's a whole lot of history packed into Dawn's exhibit
at the little Maitland History Museum

. What makes Maitland so unique?

A. Maitland is unique in that it doesn't have a port, which was commonly a city builder in the old days. People had to take steamboats to Jacksonville or Sanford. From there they travelled by horse & buggy to Maitland. The train was brought to town by pioneer families (mostly so they could more easily ship citrus). Folks must have really liked it here, given the travel time and trouble it took to get here.

Q. Why is Florida history so important to you?
A. When I first moved to Florida (decades ago), from Ohio, I was disappointed by the lack of history. By contrast, northern and Midwestern towns have an abundance of history in every corner. It took time, but once I really started looking, I was impressed with the Florida history I started to find. The fort and old sugar mill in New Smyrna was one of my first excursions (even before St. Augustine). The turning point was when our family went to Micanopy, Florida, where history abounds. Then we went to see the oldest post office in Florida), and I was hooked. Ever since then, I've been searching out old, interesting places.

I wonder how Mrs. Ephemera would feel about this groovy chair in our dining room?

What is your favorite historic place in Florida?

A. My favorite historical spot so far is the Florida Caverns. I had no idea caves even existed in Florida until a few years ago, it was a magical experience. Maitland is a close second, of course.

Q. Do you have plans for any more projects combining history and art?
A. I find myself looking around Winter Park, which has a rich history, and Sanford is a gold mine. I am interested in history I can discover anywhere. It just comes down to finding a place I can hang art, and some interest from the locals.

Super cool Timucuan Indian painting (Maitland's first inhabitants)

One of my favorite pieces chronicling the early Audubon Society's
attempts to outlaw plume hunting
resourcefully painted on a vintage movie screen!)

Louis F. Dommerich was one of Maitland's most influential pioneers, visiting Central Florida in 1885, then purchasing 400 acres in Maitland six years later. His wife established the Florida Audubon Society in 1900 and he served as its president for ten years. The Audubon Birds of Prey Center is still located in Maitland. Images from the Rollins College Archives.

If you are interested in seeing the exhibit of Dawn's work it is on display through the end of October at the Maitland History Museum adjacent to the Maitland Art Center. And all of the work is for sale!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Where's Waldo?

My first visit to the wonderful world of Waldo Sexton was on my second wedding anniversary three years ago. The occasion for my latest visit, was anniversary number five for Mrs. Ephemera and I, and more importantly anniversary number fifty for my parents. And this time we actually stayed in Sexton's Driftwood Inn, a real treat.

Waldo Sexton discovered Vero Beach in 1913, after moving from Indiana. According to "A Brief History of the Driftwood Inn", Sexton's early focus was the oceanfront structure he built for his family that later became the Driftwood Inn. "He built with whatever lumber was available: scraps from a demolished barn, discarded planks along the roadside, ocean-washed timbers that appeared worthless to anyone else", and he embellished both the exterior and interior of structure with "art, artifacts, antiques and just plain junk he collected."

The front and back of the original portion of the Driftwood,
circa 1934, also known as the "Breezeway"
- listed on the
National Register of Historic Places in 1994

This large table near the ocean bears the brunt of many guests
who want to leave their mark on the Driftwood

Details from around the Driftwood

The front of the poolside restaurant at the Driftwood named "Waldos"

Staying a the Driftwood was like immersing yourself in Waldo's world. Even in the newer sections, the attention to detail is far more greater than you'd find in your average beach side hotel, an homage to its founder's eccentricities.

One reason staying at the Driftwood is so great, is that it is a short walk to another of Sexton's creations, The Ocean Grill, circa 1941. "Tiffany lamps, retrospective paintings, complicated ironwork and nautical artifacts decorate the main dining room," according to a 2002 article from Island Life magazine. With great views of the ocean, an interesting menu and fantastic decor, the Ocean Grill made for a memorable anniversary dinner for my folks. Thank you Waldo.

The reason for our original visit a couple years ago was to visit the former roadside attraction, McKee Botanical Gardens. While I must admit, I wish the property was still full of tropical birds and monkeys, it is a gorgeous spot and Sexton's Hall of Giants is still an inspiring space.

The Hall of Giants today

Volunteer gardeners brought the grounds back from a
nearly jungle-like state after years of neglect.

Our "Where's Waldo" tour continued up US 1 with what used to be the Patio Restaurant and now appears to be serve Mexican food. The ironwork, tiles and odd ephemera placed around the building made a "Sextonian" ID pretty easy. The restaurant was closed so I couldn't see the interior but a quick walk around the building showed that Waldo didn't skimp on stuff for the exterior.

As we headed home down 60 towards Yeehaw Junction, Mrs. Ephemera spotted an odd chimney behind another building when we stopped a red light. We did a U-turn and came back to investigate, and sure enough it was the Szechuan Palace, another Waldo Sexton design.

What appears to be an old car radiator built into a railing

While many beach towns in Florida have been over-developed, homogenized and overrun with franchises, Vero Beach still celebrates one of our state's more eccentric builders. For me it is reassuring that we still have places like this, where creativity and non-conformity is prized and preserved.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Touring Flagler's Masterpiece

In an earlier post I highlighted a few of my favorite architectural appetizers from St. Augustine. The main course? It has to be Henry Flagler's Ponce de Leon Hotel, today the home of Flagler College. Henry Flagler made his wealth by creating the Standard Oil Trust with John d. Rockefeller and he spent his fortune transforming a backwoods sandbar known as Florida into a fabulous resort destination for the rich and famous. The railroads he built to to get to his resorts kick-started the development of the entire east coast of Florida. Towns such as Palm Beach and Miami were transformed from sleepy villages into fantastic playgrounds with his Midas touch. St. Augustine has an amazing examples of his work and the finest is the former Ponce de Leon Hotel.

Archival images from the State Archives of Florida

• Flalger decided to name the hotel for the legendary Spanish explorer after observing "an elaborate celebration reenacting the landing of Ponce de Leon" according to Tropical Splendor, an Architectural History of Florida
• The 450 room hotel's construction was begun in 1885 and and the hotel opened January 10, 1888
• The interior was designed by none other than Louis Comfort Tiffany
• The electrical system, one of the first of it's kind in the world, was engineered by the Edison Electric Company
• The hotel was Florida's first monumental building and used many local building materials including Coquina rock
• The hotel was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2006

I always make a point of visiting the Flagler courtyard and sometimes stepping into the glorious rotunda on my visits to the nation's oldest city. But for some reason, I had never participated in one of the twice-daily tours of the college, offered for a mere $7. My Fountain of Youth project gave me the incentive to take the tour, and afterward I wondered why it had taken me so long to participate.

After watching a video and about Henry Flagler in the lobby, the tour begins in the courtyard with narration by an excellent student docent. Our tour leader pointed out evidence of the innovative poured-concrete technique, that made it one of the earliest examples of that type of construction in the country. My favorite bit of trivia from this part of the tour, was that when guests complained about the Sulphurous smell of the water piped into the courtyard's central fountain, Flagler told them that the water had healing qualities and the guests never complained again!


From the courtyard the tour returns to the lobby where the three-and-a-half story rotunda is truly awe-inspiring. Beautiful and functional, this central point of the hotel linked the public spaces to the guest rooms with over-the-top Victorian splendor. Some trivia about the rotunda:
• Eight hand-carved wooden caryatids are said to be modeled after the famed caryatids of the Acropolis in Athens
• Murals by George Maynard represent the four elements and the four stages of Spanish exploration: adventure, discovery, conquest and civilization
• Maynard re-created these same murals in the Library of Congress


The place I was most interested in seeing, however, was the Dining Hall. Said to host the largest private collection of Tiffany stained glass windows in the world, the three-and-a-half story room is as ornate as anything one might see in Europe. The angels gracing the ceiling represent the four seasons and Spanish galleons represent the sailing ships of Ponce de Leon and other explorers. In addition, muralist Maynard created Spanish coats of arms, Spanish proverbs, signs of the zodiac and sea horses. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this is my favorite space in all of Florida. And the students at Flagler College get to dine here every day!


The last room on the tour is the Ladies Parlour, where flash photography is not permitted due to the sensitive nature of the artwork inside. Still containing many pieces of period furnishings, this space is opulent and ornate, but on a smaller scale than the larger public areas.


The Ponce de Leon Hotel is on par with Henry Plant's Tampa Bay Hotel (also used as a college), Vizcaya in Coconut Grove, The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables and Ringling's Ca' d' Zan in Satasota as epic architectural monuments that one shouldn't miss (if you are at all interested in such things.) Located in the heart of St. Augustine's old city, directly across from Flagler's Alcazar Hotel, Zorayda's Castle and the Casa Monica, there is no other block in Florida quite like it.

Evidence that the Dining Hall is still a functioning space today

Menu from the hotel's opening in 1888

The hotel suites are now dorm rooms
Images from the State Archives of Florida