Friday, January 30, 2009

Follow ups

1.) The Arrow Motel
My friend living in the Arrow Motel tells me that it is actually a unique little community, despite being in such a run-down part of Orlando.  He says living in the Arrow is "totally safe and secure, despite the appearance of the opposite." He trusts his neighbors because "it is impossible to hide who you are because we all live in the same fishbowl."  First, I must apologize for the assumptions I made about the living conditions there based solely upon the reputation of the Trail. Second, I really want to visit and meet the folks who live permanently in a vintage Florida roadside motel!

2.) Florida Forever
Florida's Governor, Charlie Crist, surprised me by vetoing the proposed cuts that would virtually wipe out the Florida Forever program. It's nice to read some good news in the paper for once!

3.) Homosassa Springs
I found this image of Homosassa Springs, before the Fish Bowl was built, on the Florida Geological Survey website.

4.) Houses for sale
All 3 historical Orlando homes, I've blogged about are still on the market. And I learned that the one home I was told housed Buddy Ebsens' family's musical school, was perhaps not the correct location of said school.

5.) St. Johns River
The battle for Florida's water is really just beginning. Here is a fine article giving reasons for not using the St. Johns River as a source of drinking water.

6.) Peace Tower
I'm not sure where I got the term Peace Tower, it's really called the Placid Tower.

7.) Presidents Hall of Fame
I posted some video from the presidents Hall of Fame in Clermont and meant to do a more in-depth blog about it later. This article on, an excellent online resource, does a better job than I would have. And it is written by a highschooler. I'm impressed and hopeful for the next generation of roadside aficianados. 

8.) Citrus Tower
I acquired this vintage postcard of the Clermont roadside attraction. I think perhaps there was some manipulation of the orange tree limb.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


I was talking on the phone to my mom yesterday and she mentioned visiting Ponce De Leon Park in Punta Gorda, Florida. It appears that Punta Gorda may in fact be the Ponce De Leon capital of Florida. Not only do they have park named after the famed Spanish explorer, they have a second park with a large Ponce De Leon statue and, best of all, a whole club named in his honor.

It turns out that Ponce landed in Charlotte Harbor in Southwest Florida in 1513 and again in 1521. The first European to die in the continental United States passed away near Punta Gorda and there is a historical marker at Ponce De Leon Park to commemorate his passing.  

The larger than life size statue of Ponce in Gilchrist Park is the result of the efforts of the social club, known as The Royal Order of Ponce De Leon Conquistadors The Conquistador website says the organization is "dedicated to the preservation of the Spanish heritage of Charlotte County and Florida." To me it looks like a group of guys who just like to dress funny and have a good time. But, as we'd say down here in Florida,  there ain't a damned thing wrong with that!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

St. Augustine's Narrow Street

I hadn't heard of St. Augustine's "Narrowest Street in the U.S." until I came across this vintage postcard in an antique store. The back of the card reads:

In a town of many claims and exaggerations, (Fountain of Youth, Oldest House, Oldest School House, Oldest Store, etc.), I'm not sure if this one is true. In the second postcard it looks much wider, but the boast is still made. To test the width, I enlisted the help of a couple volunteers. You can see the results for yourself.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

North/South Arrow

One of the main US Highways coming into Florida in the pre-interstate days was 441. In Orlando it goes right through the heart of town and is known as the Orange Blossom Trail. Back in the day, the section through Central Florida had motels, restaurants and attractions to entice the traveler to stop. For instance, the kitschy Wigwam Village was on 441, close to where the Trail now intersects the 408. Unlike its counterparts in Arizona and Kentucky, our teepee motel did not survive.

A couple miles down the road lies Gatorland, a vintage attraction which despite a fire last year, continues to thrive. In my estimation, it is the most successful of Florida's independent roadside attractions, still operated by its original owners today.

Between the site of the Wigwam Village and Gatorland, both literally and figuratively, lies the Arrow Motel. My friend lives in the motel today and photographed the newly re-painted sign. While I wouldn't say it is the most prosperous motel on 441, it is one of the very few that still has working neon. The vintage postcard shot of the Arrow has an innocence to it – freshly planted landscaping, very little clutter, everything looked nice new and tidy. The back reads: "58 modern spacious units, tastefully furnished, wall-to-wall carpeting, room phones, T.V., air conditioned, heated, swimming pool. Service station. 24-Hour Restaurant." Of all those amenities, it is my guess that only the T.V., AC, carpet and maybe the pool remain.

Today the Trail is associated more with prostitution than tourism and despite the efforts to dress up the road with fancy light poles and spiffy intersections, that arrow has been pointing down for a number of years.

Good vibes in Winter Garden

The message was clear in the town names chosen by the early promoters of Central Florida; this is the perfect place to escape the northern winter. So we have Winter Springs, Winter Park, Winter Haven and Winter Garden.

Just south of Lake Apopka in West Orange County, Winter Garden began as a small agricultural community. Today it is connected to Orlando by the sprawl that has oozed westward, but somehow Winter Garden has maintained its own character. The Winter Garden Heritage Foundation has kept the area's history alive and operates museums in the town railroad depots. Their biggest treasure is the carefully restored downtown. Just a couple blocks long, the renovated strip has vintage neon signs, little shops and hip restaurants. The old hotel has been re-opened as a B&B – if you get a chance to visit make sure to see the historical photography exhibit in the lobby.

The crown jewel of the downtown is the recently opened Garden Theater. Originally opened in 1935, the art deco theater appears to have a great selection of plays and entertainment planned.

During my visit this weekend, I felt a vitality and energy in the little community. Good job Winter Garden! We'll be back.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Dino Garage

This amazing structure is just south of Weeki Wachee on US 19 in Spring Hill, Florida. Reportedly a former Sinclair Gas station, it is now a car repair shop.

From roadside attraction to wildlife park

More on the history of Homosassa...
Aside from the aquatic life in the Giant Fish Bowl, the only noteworthy animals in the early days of Homosassa were tame squirrels and  a popular otter. That changed When Bruce Norris bought the property in 1963. Mr. Norris purchased pontoon boats from the World's Fair and used them to shuttle visitors down Pepper Creek (Homosassa is an Indian word meaning something like place of the peppers for the many trees present in the area with little red berries.) Norris dredged the creek and made it wide enough to incorporate little islands on which he placed exotic animals like monkeys, lions, bears and a hippo.  

Like Wakulla and Silver Springs before it, Homosassa was also used as a location in the entertainment industry. Hungarian movie maker Ivan Tors somehow got involved with the attraction and the '60s TV series Gentle Ben was shot at Homosassa.

Eventually the state took over the park and removed all non-native species except for Lu the hippo. Lu, a veteran of multiple films and well over 50 year old, weighs in at just over 6 tons. To make him a native, Governor "Walkin" Lawton Chiles proclaimed him an official resident of the state at the request of hundreds of school children.

Today, they have many varieties of Florida native animals in captivity that are injured or unable to cope in the wild. In addition to an incredible array of birds they have a Florida Panther hybrid (half FL panther/half cougar) and a bobcat. They keep the leftover flamingoes from the roadside attraction days well fed, and the availability of this free dinner attracts natives like Wood Ducks, Ibis, buzzards, Spoonbills and migratory birds like Sandhill Cranes and Whistler Ducks. It's a great place to get to see these critters up close and take some really awesome pictures! (The one below is a vintage postcard.)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Nature 2.0

Florida's earliest attractions were its springs, places where the secrets of the subterranean aquifer reveal themselves with splendid colors and crystal clear water. As early Floridians attempted to lure folks down to this sub-tropical paradise, springs became the state's first attractions. But they had to be improved upon. It started at Wakulla Springs where goofy underwater gags were photographed and made into postcards and film reels to lure folks from up north. Those techniques developed into the underwater photography of Bruce Mozert at Silver Springs and the antics of the swimming mermaids at Weeki Wachee. Then the creation of the Glass Bottom Boat allowed visitors to see incredible views of the underwater wildlife close-up at Silver and Wakulla Springs.

But no place made a more permanent upgrade than Homosassa Springs. Opening as a roadside attraction in the 1960s, Homosassa had flamingos, bears and even a hippopotamus, but its main attraction was the Giant Fish Bowl. Now called the Underwater Observatory, the Fish Bowl allows you to get below the surface of the water and come face to face with thousands of fish. The Fish Bowl is sunk right over the top of the spring and the view is pretty spectacular. In addition to the thousands of fish, manatees are feed there, so they are never far from the observation area. Other than getting in the water with them, it's hard to imagine having a closer interaction with these amazingly gentle creatures.

I don't think something like this could be built today, but it sure is a thrill to have such an incredible experience with the aquatic world without getting wet. And it is really fun to hear the shrieks of delight from even the most jaded teenager as they are overwhelmed coming down the staircase. It's tough to beat the awesome power of Mother Nature. But sometimes it doesn't hurt to tweak it.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Vintage motel in the news

I was surprised to see a photo of a vintage neon sign in the news this morning – the Hawaii Motel on US 1 in Daytona. It seems that is where George Anthony, father of Casey Anthony, and grandfather of Caylee Anthony, chose to check-in to try to commit suicide. Fortunately, law enforcement tracked him down by his cell phone before he could do anything. Now the Hawaii Motel will now be linked forever with the Caylee Anthony tragedy. 

Friday, January 23, 2009

State of Stupidity

Props to the University Press of Florida- they publish some mighty fine books about the sunshine state. Right now I'm reading Up for Grabs by John Rothchild, a book I've had for six years but am now finally reading. It is similar to Losing it All to Sprawl, Bill Belleville's book, in that it looks at the history of Florida and how developers have shaped our state and our culture. 

Rothchild portrays Florida as a giant swamp that gets filled in by opportunists who create land out of muck and get rich by doing it. He traces the early capitalists who create Miami, St. Pete and other coastal communities, documents the growth of inland towns like Orlando and reveals more recent projects by greedy developers around the Everglades. While the book's tone is not cheerful, it does seem unwaveringly straightforward.

Both Belleville and Rothchild portray Florida's government as inept stewards of the state's natural beauty who cater to the developers that reap the rewards of plundering Florida's assets. Everyday I read the paper, I can't help but think he's right. As our current state legislature tries to make up billions of dollars in revenue by hacking the budget, their short-sightedness in considering their options is astounding to me. Our legacy as Floridians may be that we mess things up little bit more for each generation, unless we make some tough decisions.

A couple of thoughts:
- Florida's history is a series of gigantic real-estate booms followed by gigantic busts. I can't help but thinking we may be entering such a bust again. In the '80s and 90s, Church Street Station and Church Street itself was the center of social life in downtown Orlando. I'm sure that was considered when they made plans to build an enormous condo right in the middle of all the action. Today it sits empty, casting shadows over my beloved entertainment complex.

- A positive note is that our governor is considering withdrawing his support for the planned gutting of the Florida Forever program by the legislature. Lets see if he has the courage to follow through with it. I have to admit, if the choice is between keeping teachers and buying environmentally-sensitive land, it's a very tough call. Hey Charlie- why not just raise cigarette taxes and tax internet sales instead?

- Today's Sentinel has a plethora of letters about the state's absurd policy of euthanizing wild animals that stray into neighborhoods. There are neighborhoods everywhere, where else can the critters go? While there are many complaints about the quality of the Sentinel today, I still see it as an overwhelmingly positive force for raising public awareness.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

No plays at the Plaza

The economy has affected one of my favorite vintage venues, The Plaza Theater on Bumby. According to the Sentinel, the performing company operating out of the theater cancelled its entire 2009 season. The Plaza will continue, however, to host concerts and special events. Let's hope they can hang in there, it would be a shame to lose this place.

Here is video of the Plaza's wonderful rotating sign. It was the first thing I shot when I bought my camera, so it is rather crude.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Building the little White House

It was very well reported that just feet from where Barack Obama took the oath of office, slaves toiled to help build the Capitol building and the White House. I shot this video of a diorama of the building of the White House as envisioned by John Zwiefel, creator of the President's Hall of Fame, a roadside attraction in Clermont, FL.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Home for the Good Times

Yesterday was gorgeous so my wife and I went for long walk before it got dark. We covered much of the older neighborhoods south of downtown and found this huge home for sale near Lake Cherokee. Five bedrooms, seven and a half baths and a history for 1.5 million. Built in 1924 it is known as the Slemons house and is a fine example of American Tudor Revival architecture.

The name Slemons is very familiar to me because I spent many hours escorting film crews and directing photo shoots in the Slemons building in downtown Orlando. Located at the corner of Church Street and Garland Avenue, the Slemons building for many years was know as Rosie O' Gradys. Originally the bottom floor was some sort of department floor and upstairs was a hotel. When I worked there in the '80s and '90s, Rosies was on the ground floor, the second floor had a balcony with more seating and a bar and the top floor was offices. The band and performers had rooms on the 3rd floor and the room with the infamous fire pole was located there. I remember what a big thrill it was to slide down the fire pole.

Rosies was the room that launched Church Street Station, the cornerstone from which Bob Snow built his downtown entertainment empire. Unfortunately by the time I was working there, the popularity of Dixieland Jazz was waning and our guests seemed to prefer the Country and Western themed Cheyenne Saloon to Rosies. So I never knew Rosies when it was THE place to go in Orlando. And if I was in Rosies at night, I was there at least twelve hours after my work day began, so I cannot shake the association between Dixieland and long, tiring work days. To this day, I still wince whenever I hear a banjo.

The last incarnation of the Slemons building was a Comedy Club. It now sits vacant, anchoring nothing, the good times quieted by the constantly changing fortunes of what was once Church Street Station. The historic property has new ownership, again – who knows what the future holds for the Slemons building... or the Slemons house.

Monday, January 19, 2009

MLK, Jr. in St. Augustine

While in St. Augustine over Thanksgiving I noticed a sign in front of the Hilton that noted the site was the location of a sit-in by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964. One thing I really love about that city is the layers upon layers of history and I was pleasantly surprised to find some twentieth century history, right there near the restaurant where we were having breakfast.

But after a little investigation, it turns out that perhaps the city of St. Augustine downplays this episode of its past, because it is pretty ugly. 

1964 marked the 400th anniversary of the creation of St. Augustine and the city wanted to mark the occasion with a celebration funded by the Federal government. As the city was still heavily segregated at the time, and its economy depended on tourists from up north, King saw an opportunity to draw attention to the civil rights movement started in the city a year earlier by the local NAACP. The movement, led by a local dentist, featured sit-ins and demonstrations and led to counter demonstrations by the KKK that resulted in the outbreak of violence.

The protests went on and the violence increased and in May of 1964 MLK and the Southern Leadership Conference tried to get federal intervention in the city to ensure the rights of protesters to march in safety. The situation culminated in two events at the Monson Manor Lodge, located where the Hilton is today. On June 11th MLK and 7 others were arrested at the motel's restaurant after being denied service. And then a week later, when they returned to try to desegregate the pool, the motel manager poured acid into the water to prevent them.

The effects of the events in St. Augustine culminated in the announcement of the creation of a state sponsored biracial committee to review the issues of the troubled city. The committee never met, but it's formation allowed the civil rights movement to move on to Alabama. And the publicity generated by the events in the nation's oldest city helped to end the filibuster in the US senate over civil rights legislation. 

I wish Dr. King would have lived long enough to see history being made tomorrow. 

Click here to read about Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1964 visit to Orlando.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Shameless plug

At a social gathering last night, someone asked me about a link to a website posted on my Facebook page. It was a link to my brother's photography website and the person I was addressing was really impressed with his work. I have mentioned and shown his photography in previous blogs, but I think it's time for a blatant plug. 

My brother taught me a tremendous amount about photography. He taught me about how important light is and if you shoot at the wrong time, you'll end up with a bland image. He understands technology better than anyone I know, and in this digital age that is critical for a photographer. And he is incredibly patient and bold, going places I'd never go to get the shot. But most of all he pushes his work constantly, never settling for mediocrity.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

New images of old stuff

I've been bolstering my collection of vintage Florida postcards of late, and have found it more cost effective on Ebay than in antique stores. I tend to get obsessed with Ebay items about once a year, hopefully I'm done with '09. First it was Roseville Pottery, then Peter Pauper Press books, then the artist Joy Postle and now it's Florida postcards.

Here are 3 from my first shipment from Florida sites I've blogged about.

The Fountain of Youth postcard shows the stone cross supposedly laid out by Ponce de Leon out with 15 vertical stones and 13 horizontal stones to indicate the year, 1513. Nearby they found a small silver vessel with a parchment inside stating that Ponce de Leon claimed this land in the name of Spain.

The caption on the back of the Marineland postcard says: 

Bok Tower seems to have been one of the most prolific producers of postcards and ephemera in the state. I wonder if that is an indication of its popularity in the past? This is the first vintage Bok postcard I've collected of the non-linen variety.

And finally I was contacted earlier this week by an individual looking for vintage images of Edgewater Drive in College Park, the Orlando neighborhood originally developed in the 1920s. I tried to point them in the right direction, but it seems there aren't many images around. If you know of any, please contact me. I came across this image of the old College Park Publix. While I loved the signage and facade, the narrow aisles were a hassle and I almost always accidently ran into some poor little old lady with my shopping cart while trying to navigate through the store. The old store was torn down and a new one replaced it. However, several old Publix buildings that have been re-used for other businesses still remain around Orlando; a subject for a future blog perhaps...

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Another Ponce

Ponce de Leon Lighthouse at Ponce Inlet, south of Daytona. 

Where is City of Cars?

In my explorations around Florida looking for vintage neon, I found two ways to usually locate good signs. First is to look on an old US highway that runs north-south down the main peninsula, because those were the major routes before the interstate highway system. The second method is to find the main commercial road in cities or towns (or what would have been the main road in the past.)

Colonial Drive or Highway 50 fits the later description in Orlando. The north-south roads going though town were Hwys 441 and 17-92. Hwy 50 runs east to west, pretty much from one side of the state to the other. Titusville and Cape Canveral at one end, Brooksville and Weeki Wachee at the other.

Few remnants remain from mid-century Central Florida remain on Colonial. One of our favorites used to be the City of Cars sign. In addition to the funky sign with the cute illustration, they had several "sputnik" like signs in the parking lot. Signs like this that rotate are called Rotospheres; but this one is more of a satellite sign. 

I drove by yesterday and confirmed that all that is left is the used car lot and all the signs are history. And I wonder where they went? In the dump? In someone's personal collection? I hear a rumor that vintage neon is highly collectable in Japan. And some of Central Florida's best signs are said to be held in a warehouse owned by the Morse Museum in Winter Park. Or is there a sign graveyard somewhere, like the famous boneyard in Vegas? Keep your eyes open, these signs could be anywhere!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The mighty St. Johns

I can remember very few jokes, but one that has always stuck with me was popular when the Georgia Bulldogs dominated the Florida Gators in football year after year. "Why does the St. Johns flow north? Because Georgia Sucks!"

One of the few rivers that flows north in the US, the St. Johns is called a lazy river because the total drop in elevation from its source to its mouth is less than 30 feet. This slow flow also makes it difficult for the river to flush itself of pollutants.

My relationship with the river began when I was in elementary school. My parents decided to buy a place on the river in a little town called Welaka as a weekend getaway. It was an hour and twenty minutes from our home in Gainesville and light years away from the social life I craved as a teenager. Looking back on it now, however, I wouldn't change a thing, the place was magical. 

I saw my first manatee there. Attempted to water ski. Drove a boat and had my own little fiberglass jon boat. Hunted Lubers and water snakes with my BB gun. Picked up ancient indian pottery shards when the water level dropped. Got scared by a Cottonmouth. Saw my dad squish a rattler with our car. Learned to drive. Walked to the convenience store to buy comic books. Went to the little aquarium again and again. Used my allowance on fishing tackle. Caught my limit in Stripers at the Croaker Hole, a rare salt water spring. Waded through Water Hyacinths at eye level to get to a spring with a rope swing. Saw giant catfish and gar in the crystal clear Oklawaha river. Laughed like crazy when our steering cable broke on our boat and we went careening into the shore of the same river. Walked into a sliding glass door while spying at girls by the pool. Caught Blue crabs in crab traps with hot dogs. Witnessed my favorite sunset of all time.

My memories on the St. Johns and of growing up are one and the same. From where we were, we faced the Ocala National Forest, and the river seemed wild and full of life. Today there is much debate over tapping the river down here in Central Florida. One side says it will take pressure off the shrinking aquifer. The other says that the environmental damage could be catastrophic. I don't know which side is right. I just hope that tomorrow's kids get the same opportunity to make incredible memories on the river like I did.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Discovering more than Fountains of Youth

I came across this post card and was reminded of another Florida spring linked to the legend of the fountain of youth, De Leon Springs in Volusia County. The Florida State Parks website quotes an early advertisement: "tourists were promised a fountain of youth impregnated with a deliciously healthy combination of soda and sulphur." Doesn't sound too delicious to me!

There is also a town in the panhandle named Ponce de Leon Florida, in Holmes County. There you can find Ponce de Leon Springs State Park, where on the same state website it says: "Visitors might well regain their fountain of youth by taking a dip in cool, clear waters" of the spring. 

I also ran across an image of this sculpture, which I have yet to see in person, at Tomoka State Park near Ormond Beach. I was attracted by its kitschy qualities, which once again illustrates a legend of sacred waters flowing from Florida's aquifer as interpreted by a sculptor in the mid-twentieth century.

The earliest humans living on this peninsula found Florida's many bubbling spring to be a gift from the gods. The Europeans who first came here must have been awed by these springs and a whole mythology was created around Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth.  Early settlers established towns nearby these sources of clean, pure water. And in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the myth of life sustaining waters flowing from beneath the earth was used to draw tourists from other parts of the country. The tourism aspect is what has garnered my attention, but what I'm discovering is that the battle for the sacred water in our state is shaping up to be one of the most important issues we face today. 

Finding this place where Florida history and environmental concerns co-exist, has led me to the conclusion that the resource that caused this state to be attractive to so many people for hundreds of years, is at great risk. In today's local paper is an article about the battle for Florida's water in the panhandle. And a second article in the Jacksonville paper brings to light the struggle for water in Florida's biggest river, the spring-fed St. Johns. I find it fascinating that my interest in the past, has led me to this issue about our future.


We had  "Chamber of Commerce" type weather here in Orlando this weekend; demonstrating why the "snowbirds" come to Florida every year. I applaud my parents decision to move here forty-some years ago!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

State of Emergency

Florida has no state income tax so it relies on tourists and 1,000 new-comers moving into the sunshine state every day to pay sales tax to create revenue. So we have encouraged growth as it has kept us prosperous while we lost 20 acres of Florida to development every hour. Somehow we had the foresight to create Florida Forever, a state program that bought environmentally sensitive lands with state funds. Facing a huge budget deficit, state lawmakers are considering abandoning the program. At a time when low real estate values would mean a tremendous opportunity to maximize the value of state land purchases, our lawmakers are about to axe the program. And locally our County mayor is considering reducing impact fees on developers to spur growth. I wondered if the recession might be positive in terms of slowing rapid development that is destroying it's natural beauty. I think the answer is clearly no, when push comes to shove, our environmental concerns gets thrown under the bus driven by developers. I urge you to contact your state legislator today, as the critical vote is tomorrow.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Squeezing Tangerine

There's an article in today's Orlando Sentinel about the tiny Central Florida town of Tangerine celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Tangerine Improvement Society. From what I gather from the article, the Society creates a sense of community for the little village and organizes residents against unwanted growth. Interesting to me was the quote by a resident saying "We don't want to be another Clermont," indicating that the Lake County city has become the poster child for sprawl. There's not a whole lot to see in Tangerine and I only know it exists because I've seen this sign on my way to Mt. Dora. Maybe it's good to be off the radar like that. Photo is again by my brother.

In other really sad Florida news, this beautiful bobcat was captured near Windemere and euthanized according to state law, according to the Sentinel. I've never seen a bobcat in the wild in Florida, but this is proof that they do exist. I hope I get to see one. And I hope it doesn't have to be put down because I see it.