Winter Park’s Capen House and downtown’s “Round Building” depend on grass-roots support to survive

Meet the people working to save local landmarks from the wrecking ball

Locals still mourn the loss of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney, and love to ogle homeboy David Siegel’s imitation Versailles, a monstrosity of a house that isn’t even finished (though it has inspired a hit documentary, The Queen of Versailles). These icons of artifice pass for landmarks in the City Beautiful, while real landmarks, like Winter Park’s 128-year-old Capen House, fight for existence.

It’s a sadly common story: An old building, considered part of the family and taken for granted, is suddenly gone. No less a landmark than New York City’s Grand Central Station was close to the wrecking ball in the mid-1970s, until Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis stepped in and galvanized popular opinion to save it. When Jackie said: “If we don’t care about our past, we cannot hope for our future,” it became OK – en vogue, even – to love and fight for old buildings.

The Capen House, though listed on Winter Park’s historic registry in August 2011, is no Grand Central; it has old-building problems like all the rest of them. For the moment, it sits at 520 N. Interlachen Ave., tucked behind Park Avenue. The house was home to one of the city’s original settlers, James S. Capen, an early developer of the vanished Dinky train line connecting Winter Park to downtown. The two-story Tudor Revival has a steep Victorian roofline, thick walls, pine floors and a satisfying chunkiness, like a Sara Lee cream cake. By the time our most recent housing boom rolled around, it had been remodeled twice, only to suffer the same fate so many other Orlando homes did: foreclosure. But the Capen House – sturdy, with modest windows to protect occupants from harsh summer storms and Florida’s searing sunlight – doesn’t suit the current taste for showy, air-conditioned, big-windowed homes. The bank saw it as a teardown, and the new owners agree – but relented long enough to find someone who wants the old thing.

Enter Betsy Owens, executive director of the Friends of Casa Feliz, who may be Orlando’s answer to Jackie Onassis. Tall, elegant and well-spoken, Owens has the clout to help carve a path through the red-tape jungle and, with donations, will see the Capen House moved around the corner to the Polasek Museum before the end of the year, clearing the lot for the new owner’s dream home.

“Really,” says Owens, whose musical voice belies a serious player, “there are so few historic homes left, it’s easy to keep an eye on them. The Polasek needs more meeting and event facilities, and the house suits them just fine.” Once the house move is funded, expect it to be safely ensconced on the Polasek grounds late this fall. (Full disclosure: The writer was an early donor to this cause.)

Owens has become an expert on playing chess with historic homes, having spearheaded the move of the James Gamble Rogers-designed Casa Feliz to its present location, and she knows a thing or two about how to put wheels on houses … although this time she’s hoping for enough donations to float the house across Lake Osceola instead.

The Capen’s happy ending is increasingly rare, however, and increasingly lost in the noise of the economy, when headline-grabbing real estate deals capture more attention. In the shadows, Orlando’s historic preservationists labor quietly to convince people that old buildings add value, not take it away, but this is a hard sell when new-and-shiny is so popular. For every win, there are more losses. And they aren’t exclusive to tony Winter Park.

Downtown Orlando’s notorious Dr. P. Phillips Performing Arts Center has an especially difficult karma, and at its center it harbors another grass-roots preservation project, the “Round Building” at 455 S. Orange Ave. To an older generation, it was the American Federal Savings and Loan Building, but in recent years housed multiple tenants before being cleared for teardown by the DPAC deal. Designed by Robert B. Murphy in the early 1960s, it sits today across from City Hall in the path of a lucrative real estate deal brokered by the city and powered by the DPAC board. These public/private landowner partners have illusions of grandeur, hoping to add another high-rise to Orlando’s skyline in its place. This round peg just doesn’t fit into DPAC’s square hole.

Murphy, who studied under the famed Bauhausler Walter Gropius at Harvard, designed many of the more interesting structures in our area with his firm HuntonBrady Architects, and the building is an important part of our local modernist heritage. The original two-story building was surrounded by a honeycomb-patterned concrete sunscreen – known architecturally as a brise-soleil – and it’s those concrete panels that are the subject of local preservation efforts. (The glittering blue glass cylinder rising up out of the delightful concrete ruffle was a later, unbalanced addition.)

Taking up the cause of preserving Murphy’s brise-soleil is the Nils M. Schweizer Fellows. This local nonprofit devoted to the cause of observing and preserving our local 20th-century modern heritage is named for another prominent Orlando architect from the ’60s, Nils Schweizer. Nils’ son, New Smyrna Beach architect Kevin Schweizer, is the current spokesman for NMS Fellows, and is actively raising money to harvest the modernism off the Round Building and integrate it into future development.

“We’re about halfway there,” said Schweizer in a recent telephone interview when asked about the donations needed to take off and store the concrete components. Schweizer remarks hopefully that the developers might even keep the building’s delicate entry canopy; though there’s currently no sign of it in the DPAC model that the board made public, it would fit into existing plans nicely and would be a graceful nod to Orlando’s past within its future.

Like Owens, Schweizer has been forced into a grass-roots donation effort, but he does have some municipal backing. City commissioners Patty Sheehan and Robert Stuart have come out in public support of the repurposing of the brise-soleil, and Sheehan has garnered a city commitment to match up to $70,000 of private donations to save this bit of Orlando’s identity, according to Schweizer.

It can be difficult to decide what to keep and what to throw away, particularly when you have a large collection of structures to choose from. Rollins’ renowned architecture and the aesthetic quality of its campus, for example, is a major reason that students (and parents) fall in love with the place. This 138-year-old school has had to make some hard decisions with growth, and mostly does it right; but recently it quietly demolished Strong Hall, one of the beautiful Spanish Mediterranean dormitories designed by Richard Kiehnel in 1938, significantly diluting the campus’ power and majesty as a special place. As a private institution, Rollins must be trusted to do the right thing, so let’s hope this doesn’t get out of hand.

In cities like Boston, Chicago and New York – hell, even St. Louis – historic preservation is taken seriously; citizens identify strongly with the architectural character of their cities. The decision about what to save is usually made by consensus and is supported by laws and the collective spirit of the people. Here in sunny, developer-friendly Orlando, there is no mandatory waiting period before the bulldozers roll, and the city of Orlando’s list of historic landmarks includes five historic signs (one of which is demolished, but remains on the list in a sort of Chicago-graveyard-vote status), Tinker Field, a pair of gates, a cemetery, a bridge, and some 35 buildings, as well as a house torn down seven years ago. It ain’t much, but it’s about all we’ve got left.

With so few historically significant buildings left, it seems that it would be OK to let us love them, to work around them instead of kicking them to the curb. Even the Capen House move is a mediated victory, because moving a house off its land changes its essential nature; but if the house has a story to tell, then moving it at least gives another generation a chance to listen. The tremendous efforts of people like Owens and Schweizer must bridge the schism between the broad desire of Orlandoans for an authentic, memorable and specific city and the narrower interests of contemporary capitalism. What happens when no one cares? Stuff gets gone, that’s what happens.

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