Saturday, August 25, 2012

The State of Preservation

Preservation of historic structures was on my mind this week, with preservation/demolition stories in the news in Pinellas County and in downtown Orlando, just a few miles from my house. The week started out with a critical meeting for the restoration of the Belleview Biltmore, Henry Plant's grand wooden hotel near Clearwater. The property temporarily survived a critical vote that may have allowed developers to demolish the property. The gilded age relic is not out of the woods yet, but it survived this round.

Belleview Biltmore from the State Archives of Florida

Not so fortunate was the Garden Cafeteria in St. Petersburg. Adorned with murals by WPA-era artist George Snow Hill, the building and the priceless artwork were knocked down this week. The Michigan-born Hill, who created murals for public buildings throughout Florida, passed away in 1969. A tough loss for my Pinellas County friends.

Photo from Saint Petersburg Preservation Facebook page
Photo from Saint Petersburg Preservation Facebook page
Photo by Ken Breslauer, Historic St. Petersburg

Closer to home five historic homes near the city's watery heart, Lake Eola, seem to have no relevance to local politicians, as they offered to give them away or demolish them. After paying millions for the property near the southeast corner of lake, the city announced that they had no desire to preserve the houses, despite the fact that one of the homes was owned by a Nobel Prize winner. 528 E. Washington was the home of John Mott, who shared the 1946 Nobel Peace Prize with peaceworker Emily Greene Balch. Mott, who won for his work with the YMCA, died in 1955. The other four houses were all built between 1920 and 1930.

The former home of Nobel Winner John Mott

On the one hand I'm thrilled the city stuck its neck out to buy the property during these tough economic times. If not for the downturn, there would probably already be a skyscraper on the site. But the parcel already sits next to large green space that is mostly unused except for a weekly farmer's market. It seems to me that at least one of the houses could be preserved and re-used, perhaps for weddings or meetings. It could actually generate income for the city. I have seen brides pose for pictures around the lake on numerous occasions; with landscaping and a privacy fence it could become a cherished spot for exchanging wedding vows. While I am not privy to the details of the deal between the city and the Trust for Public Lands, it seems to me that the city rushed the announcement to minimize any public outcry over the possible demolition of the houses. It seems all to similar to the city's decision to demolish a historical property known as the Jaymont Block in order for the developer to build soulless condominiums. The bright side to this story is that the there was a huge response to the offer of free homes, and some of them may be preserved yet.

I headed downtown to photograph the "Eola 5" on what is becoming my Saturday morning bike ride ritual. All five of the houses appear to be well-maintained as they are all being used as office space. The parcel has many large live oaks, and it is my hope that the city preserves them and maintains the wonderful canopy of trees.

Seeing the trees reminded me of another behemoth, an enormous Live Oak squeezed between a condo and an office building downtown. Seeing that it was doing well, I crossed under I-4 to see a great little commercial building in the Parramore district with restored beer signs painted on the front. It is my hope that this precious space finds a new tenant soon, as the advertising sign is a rare sight in Orlando.

Bike for scale

Restored by sign artist Jim Neal in the 1990s

Nearby is the Downtown Orlando Recreational complex, a cool deco building that might soon be demolished by the city as well. Next to the former Orlando Arena, the city is planning on building a "Creative Village" on the site, and this early 20th century building and the recreational facilities nearby do not fit in the city's plans. As I watched the continued demolition of the "Orena", I remembered how  proud the city was when the building opened just over two decades ago. I thought of seeing the first Orlando Magic game ever, Michael Jordan go for forty and Magic Johnson waving back to me during "garbage time." I recalled rim rattling dunks by Shaq, Nick Anderson missing critical free throws in the NBA finals and concerts like REM and the B-52s. As I rode my bike past the Bob Carr Auditorium, another facility doomed for the wrecking ball, (built on the shell of the old Orlando Municipal Auditorium),  I wondered what makes a building historic. Is it memories? Is it the people that lived there before? Is it architecture? To me all of those properties meet those criteria. While I know it is impractical to preserve every old building, it seems that a bit of a place's soul is diminished when it's past is disrespected. New residents don't invest emotionally when they move into a place without roots or a solid connection to the place's past. It's like building on a shaky foundation.

Downtown Recreational Complex
Site of the former Orlando Orena
Rubbish pile at the site of the future Creative Village
Former Orena parking lot 
Last week I stopped by the Strawn Citrus Packinghouse in DeLeon Springs, a property that was listed on the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation's Most Threatened list for several years. The site, one of the few facilities of its kind left in the state, continues to decay and it is sad to see a little more of it disappear every time I visit it.

There used to be a building to the right of this one
My wife and I live in a small bungalow built in the same era as the "Eola 5". The interior doesn't work well for 21st century living and our galley kitchen is not practical for entertaining (or even cooking with more than one person). We have worked with an architect and talked to several contractors who suggested that knocking down our house and building a new one would be easier than remodeling the one we have. But sometimes easier is not better, and newer is not preferable to a place with soul and history. This home has survived hurricanes, bugs, heat and humidity for decades before I was even born. It's more than plaster walls, heart of pine studs and hardwood floors. While the eaves may sag and the glass door knobs come off occasionally when you open a door, I feel like my wife and I have a relationship with this place and knocking it down would be like a taking out a family member. Spaces have souls. Cities have souls. It's up to us if we choose to honor them or disrespect them.

Postscript: On the way home from my bike ride, I passed Orlando artist/builder Sam Stoltz's Pine Green house. The new owners have done a wonderful job with it and it looks fantastic. Sam would be proud.

Pine Green near downtown Orlando

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A taste of Old Florida

I started the Old Florida Facebook page to help promote this blog to a wider audience. It developed slowly – my first bump was after another fan of Old Florida posted it to his page, and then it grew steadily in fans (or likes) until recently, when it took off. The first explosion of growth happened when Visit Florida blogger Gary McKechnie posted a link on his Facebook page. But the most recent spurt occurred when I posted a postcard of the Kapok Tree. My blog about the Kapok Tree is my most viewed post by a wide margin, so it is clearly missed by lovers of Old Florida. But the innocuous postcard of a chandelier has far surpassed anything else I've ever posted and caused the page to take off.

According to the Facebook analytics, this post has a reach of over 700,000 people

Generally I try to post images that appeal to my tastes – kitschy, graphic stuff, mostly color, mostly 20th century. I have found that Cracker architecture gets a good response, as does favorite eateries like the Kapok Tree or Wolfies. I try to slip in some Florida history now and then but it seems that the newer fans are really about Florida nostalgia more than anything else. It's an interesting process for me as I post images and speculate how popular they will be.  I've learned that pictures generate more response than links to websites and that photos shared for other Facebook pages can be just popular as original posts. Links from other pages also helps the original page that posted the image glean followers from the Old Florida page.

Classic Florida postcards like this tend to get a warm response

This image of manatees, linked from another page, was very well received

Wolfie's had locations throughout the state and well-remembered by my page's fans

Nostalgic images of familiar places also do well

Hard-to-imagine scenes of steamboats are popular

My goal with the page, and with this blog, however, is to create more awareness of some of the great Old Florida places that still exist, so that they have a chance to last well into the future. Over the summer that message has been pretty subtle, but as the weather cools off there will be more opportunity to promote festivals, rallies and benefits that support worthy causes. I'm hoping that with my new found audience, I can help support some of these worthy events.

This shot of Western Indians held at the fort in St. Augustine drew some surprising comments

Fun postcards with good graphics are my favorites

I like to add my own photography- this one from Marjorie Kinnan Rawling's house in Cross Creek

I love the kitschier shots from the State Archives

Some of Florida's oddities are fun to post – this one got a huge response

My poster design did fairly well recently

Old Florida fans loved remembering the milkman and Charles Chips

This one has several things going for it: Cypress Gardens
and the legendary Willa Cook and Dick Pope

The Holiday House was a well-remebered chain of restaurants started by Willa Cook

The other benefit of this page is that I learn from the fans and hopefully they learn from the stuff I post. Together we are creating a virtual community of people who care about the Florida's past. Hopefully, we can help shape a future based on preserving our state's colorful history and incredible natural resources.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Biking the Orlando Urban Trail

The City of Orlando opened up a new pathway for biking, running and walking called the Orlando Urban Trail, and despite the August heat, I couldn't wait to try it out. Following the course of the Dinky Railroad that used to run from Orlando to Winter Park, the Trail extends from Magnolia Avenue near Lake Ivanhoe, to Mead Gardens in Winter Park. I found a little bit of everything on my exploration of the Trail: nature, culture and history. And while the path's distance of about 2.5 miles is pretty short for cycling, I felt like I got in some good exercise too.

The Trail goes by several of the city's urban lakes including lakes Formosa, Rowena, Sue, Highland and Estelle. From my bike I saw turtles floating, great blue herons fishing and anhingas drying their wings. The city actually created a bridge that goes over Lake Formosa right at the Menello Museum on the edge of Loch Haven Park.

Lake Highland, looking towards downtown Orlando
The bridge crossing Lake Formosa
The Menello Museum's Sculpture Garden

Loch Haven is the home to much of the city's culture including the Menello, Orlando Museum of Art, Science Center and several theaters. I'll have to remember that I can use this path during next year's Fringe Festival when parking becomes challenging at Loch Haven Park. Unfortunately,  just beyond the museum, one must cross 17-92 at a stoplight – one of my few criticisms of the Trail. It would be nice if there was an overpass like Seminole County has for their trail, but realistically I have no idea where they'd put one.

Orlando Museum of Art

After crossing 17-92 and going over Lake Estelle, once one of the city's premier swimming spots and site of the Florida Sanitorium (now Florida Hospital), the Trail dumps you off into a posh Winter Park neighborhood before entering Mead Gardens. There are water fountains at both Mead Gardens and the other end of the trail near Lake Highland. One of my favorite features of the Trail are the two historical markers about the Dinky Railroad and Mills & Nebraska Lumber. In a couple spots, warehouses still back up to the former railroad line and this route's industrial past become apparent. Mills & Nebraska, a lumberyard started in 1933 was built near the railroad line in the days when moving product by train was critical. In the condo craze that swept the city earlier this decade, Mills & Nebraska was demolished to make way for a new development that has never happened. So for now a portion of the trail passes through some rare open space in the heart of the city. On the opposite side are cozy bungalows on one of Orlando's many quaint brick streets.

Beautiful home across from Lake Sue
History of the Dinky Railroad marker
History of Mills & Nebraska Lumber marker
Looking towards former location of Mills & Nebraska Lumber

Overall I say this is a welcome addition to the city's public amenities. Even though the Trail is relatively new, I saw people walking, running and riding bikes on every portion of the pathway. While much of Orlando is challenging to cyclists, opening up paths like this make it safer and more interesting to exercise and be outdoors.

The Trail inside Mead Gardens

Bartram Trail marker within Mead Gardens
Mead Gardens is a great spot for the terminus of the Trail
Lake Highland near the opposite end of the Trail
Historic building near Lake Highland
From a meditation center near the Trail