To find the old German settlement of Gotha, you must drive through the maze of burgeoning development in west Orange County. You exit the 408 onto Good Homes Road, an aptly named thoroughfare for the suburbia sprouting over old citrus groves. Then it's down Old Winter Garden Road, past more of the same: signs promoting new condos, homes and a piece of the good life that is quickly paving over the old. As elsewhere in the county, development is sprawling out.
But then comes Gotha: a little restaurant, a sneaky traffic signal, a two-lane road, and Barbara Bochiardy's little oasis.
A century ago, Bochiardy's backyard housed the state's most important experimental garden. Painstakingly grown over two decades by famed natural scientist Henry Nehrling, the 40 acres overlooking Lake Nally in west Orange was the epicenter of Florida botany, where caladiums, amaryllis and crinums flourished next to bamboo shoots, magnolias and palmetto trees.
"It was never a really pretty garden," Bochiardy says, looking out from her porch at the garden's overgrown remains. "It was an interesting garden."
In fact, the Palm Cottage Garden, as it was later known, is responsible for spreading exotic plants and flowers, many of which became staples of Florida gardens, across the Southeast. Nehrling's writings also provide the foundation for a great deal of the horticultural research that has surfaced since his death in 1929.
Right now, though, all that remains of Nehrling's legacy is Bochiardy's six acres -- and soon, that too may vanish. Because of knee problems, the aging widow has to sell her two-story wood-frame Cracker house, which was built in 1880 and moved to the site in 1902.
Since 1998, she, her neighbors and Nehrling enthusiasts have lobbied the county to buy the house and turn into a museum -- to almost no avail. Sure, everyone agrees, it'd be nice, but preserving this piece of history doesn't appear to be among the county's priorities.
Both elected county commissioners and preservationists view the Nehrling tract as a bellwether for historical preservation throughout unincorporated Orange County, as what the county does now will set a precedent for future historical treasures. But the picture looks bleak. If the county doesn't want Bochiardy's property, developers certainly do. Unless the county acts soon, she says, she'll have no choice but to put it on the market.
The pulse behind the preservation movement comes from Henry Nehrling's own bloodline -- specifically, his great-grandson Richard, who first heard about his family's legacy a decade ago from a distant relative.
Soon after, the Jacksonville resident began poring through state archives, digging up records of his great-grandfather's work and publishing several essays on his legacy, along the way gaining the support of the Garden Conservancy, the Florida State Horticultural Society and the Caribbean Gardens Zoo in Naples, among others.
Nehrling's garden and the history of Gotha also drew the interest of Rollins College professor Nancy Decker, who helped form the Henry Nehrling Society.
In 1998, Bochiardy's doctor told her she needed knee-replacement surgery soon -- but not while she was living in the two-story home. She and Richard Nehrling convened a meeting for a dozen of her neighbors, and they all agreed they didn't want the property, where Bochiardy has lived for 20 years, put on the market.
So the quest began to preserve it. The plan: If the county would buy it, the Nehrling Society pledged to raise the money to maintain and operate it.
Right away, Bochiardy says, then-Commissioner Bob Freeman, who represented west Orange, got on board. Soon after, former County Chairman Mel Martinez did, too. While Nehrling secured the property's place on state and national registries of historical places, the county explored its financial options -- namely, a state matching-grant program that might subsidize the purchase.
But in the past two years, the Nehrling property didn't rank in the county's two requests for state aid, both of which were turned down. (The county wanted $2.4 million to buy 1,126 acres of wild habitat and another $1 million for a natural-resources learning center).
This year, however, the grant program's budget has tripled, to $66 million, and Orange County is eligible for up to 10 percent of that. And there are high hopes: Despite competition for the money, says Kevin McCarron, who helps select grant-eligible projects, the Nehrling garden has many features the state likes to see: It's outdoors, overlooks water, has documented historical value and promotes environmental education. This year's grant window opens later this month and runs until August.
The problem is that, in order to qualify for help with the purchase, the county still would have to pay about 50 percent of the $650,000 acquisition cost, then promise to maintain the grounds.
Richard Nehrling says that Martinez -- who President Bush tapped for a cabinet position in January -- didn't previously pursue any grants because he wanted the county to buy the property outright. At the time Martinez moved to Washington, D.C., the county's Capital Improvement Projects review committee still was evaluating the Nehrling house, along with 23 other proposed projects.
Yet Commissioner Teresa Jacobs, who replaced Freeman in November, says that despite Bochiardy's and Richard Nehrling's insistence, the county never actually committed any money for the project -- a statement that the county staff backs up. (An aide to Chairman Rich Crotty, who replaced Martinez, said he was still being briefed on the issue.) Indeed, the Nehrling project placed second-to-last in a ranking of funding needs, behind programs such as stormwater management and an expanded juvenile justice program.
Armed with that information, Jacobs thinks the county shouldn't overextend itself to help. "I'd like to think," she says, "that with grant money and private and public funding, there might be a way to acquire it. [But] they have to come up with a business plan without requiring subsidies from local government."
"We're still looking for more of a commitment from the Henry Nehrling Society," says county planner Lavon Williams. In other words, the county's not sure Decker's group can raise the operating funds it promises, and the county doesn't want to be stuck.
More to the point, if the county buys the property, Williams says, officials worry it will "[open] the floodgates. Many areas in unincorporated Orange County are historical."
In July, the county commission will review the rankings for capital improvement spending. At least one commissioner appears to side with the preservationists. "I don't know all the particulars," says Commissioner Bob Sindler, "but it looked like it would be a good thing to pursue."
In fact, later this month, when the Orlando Science Center is scheduled to come before the commission seeking $300,000 in tourist-tax money, Sindler wants to packaging the Nehrling house and some other projects with it. Since the museum would be a tourist attraction, he thinks his idea is workable.
"Orange County hasn't done anything to preserve [history] in a long time," says Richard Nehrling. "They have to do it now. There's no guarantee [the grants will be approved], but so what if they had to put up $600,000? There's industry that's worth millions that was created from this place."
For the four years prior to 1981, when Barbara and Howard Bochiardy moved in, the Nehrling house sat vacant. Its previous owner had sold it to a developer: "It was going to be bulldozed," Bochiardy says. "Then my husband bought it."
Howard was the award-winning architect, Barbara was the garden-lover. "I said the house is yours, and the yard is mine," she says, laughing. "Then he died and I got both."
She's sitting in a rocking chair on the back porch, watching her mother and brother toil in the afternoon heat, and describing the many animals who have come her way: eagles, owls, even a large alligator a few years back.
Her house is full of warm memories, and the thought of a builder obliterating it obviously annoys her. Either way she'll move a little down the road, she says, to a one-story Cracker house with a porch on all four sides.
But she won't wait much longer -- her knee-replacement surgery is long overdue. "If [they] can't get anything done," she says, "I'm turning it over to a Realtor.
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