A passion for the past

A small group is gathered in the lobby of the Langford Hotel for a public meeting designed to let us know the fate of this unquestionable, if unofficial, Winter Park landmark. Some people use the hotel as a second home when they're in town, and some just know it as a part of their lives. My brother's first job was as a busboy in the restaurant. My mother and I both got our hair cut in the beauty shop. We had a membership to the pool.

Then, of course, there's the bar.

Everybody has some recollection of it -- and if they did it right, that memory is patchy, insubstantial and includes the hangover. I remember my parents going to drink there, and later, me (a family legacy of boozing. As David Sedaris said, "My family crest is a bottle of scotch and a tumor"). I remember dancing to lounge music so cheesey that "music" doesn't seem like the right category for it, and sneaking across the street from Rollins College to knock back a few before braving our "biology of nutrition" class. (Clearly we weren't listening.)

After listing a number of renovations that will be made to the hotel, including reducing the number of rooms from 213 to 158, opening the balconies on the south side, putting in a new pool, renovating the lobby and providing 3,500 feet of grand ballroom space, Guy Butler, of The Butler-Lemon Group, who will be doing the interior design, comes to a significant point. He tells us that lots of people have told him, "Do what you want, but don't touch the bar." It's a legend and we don't want to see it go.

In the next breath, it seems, developer Jim Clark is talking about how the bar is doomed.

"What was code in 1950 is not code in 2000," Clark tells me after the meeting is over. It's more expensive to renovate than it is to start afresh. The electrical systems, the fire-alarm systems, the inaccessibility to the handicapped -- it all has to be revamped, but, he says, "We are committed to keeping the character wherever we can." That character is evident in bits and pieces like "the grotto," a little alcove carved into a fake rock wall on one side of the bar, with plants painted into the ceiling.

The grotto doesn't really go with the rest of the bar. The Pagoda in the pool area doesn't really go with the rescued cannons. The Seminole Indian mural in the lobby might marginally go with the Mickey Mouse topiary, but you'd have to really make a stretch. The anchor doesn't go with the mega-fabulous zebra-striped walls and can-can girl mural in the private dining room. This retro-shizo decor is part of the charm of the Langford: It is an old lady and it's dressed like one, a blind one, one who forgets she has just put on paisley and adds some plaid, but dammit, she has some cool old stuff. Saving bits and pieces, whether displayed in the new hotel or put in a local museum, doesn't feel like much of a consolation prize, and while the plans for the new hotel look boutique-chic, it's like telling a kid whose crappy old basset hound just died that they can have a beautiful new poodle. We don't want the poodle, we want our old dog. But if bits and pieces are all we can get, we'll take them. And lots of pictures before it's all over.

Winter Park doesn't have a historic-preservation code, a way of legally declaring that a place like the Langford has to be preserved to a certain degree as a part of the city's history.

But Orlando does. For all the complaints one hears about how "if it's older then 10 years they tear it down around here," Orlando has an advantage many cities do not, a historic-preservation officer, Jodi Rubin. It's Rubin's official business to know and guard the pieces of the past that we sometimes fear are slipping through our fingers. But with no PR budget, it's hard to get the word out about how to save the things we claim to cherish. The word is fairly simple: It's our responsibility as a retro-loving public and/or a savvy property owner to safeguard our dear old things. Rubin helps designate historic sites -- but only at our request.

"There is definitely an interest in preservation in Orlando. I think people just aren't aware `how to go about it`," Rubin says during an interview at her desk, which sits in City Hall just around the corner from some photos of local business signs -- Parliament House, McNamara Pontiac -- so lovingly recorded they look like something that could be decorating the walls at Restoration Hardware.

"There is a lot of potential for landmarks, but no one has come forward" to request their designation as such, she says. "I don't know why we don't have more people say, 'Landmark me.'"

And it's just that easy -- followed, of course, by lengthy evaluation processes, and review by the Historic Preservation Board. It all depends on what one is seeking to preserve and how.

Say, for example, you live in a really nice old neighborhood. Yes, the houses are small, but they are classic old Florida homes, and you'd just hate to see some developers come in and throw up those tacky mini-mansions that never quite look like the plaster is dried on them.

You could try to have your whole neighborhood declared a historic district. It's worked for other people. There are six historic districts in the city of Orlando, with 1,600 properties protected under that title.

Historic districts are "initiated by property owners in those areas," Rubin says. When the city knows an area has a good concentration of historic resources, they inventory the buildings, checking to see how old they are and how they've been modified over the years. And they mean every building: a room adjacent to Rubin's desk contains six filing cabinets filled with nothing but building profiles -- floor plans, permits, modifications, like a complete medical history of thousands of homes and businesses since their births.

If they want their area to be designated historic, neighborhood associations will petition homeowners to agree and then draw up their own guidelines as to what will be kept intact and how. For example, she says, "In the Lake Copeland neighborhood, some people wanted to protect themselves from encroachment from the hospital, `and` some people didn't want their relatively new buildings to be controlled. So they made compromises," and came up with a plan. In the Eola Heights neighborhood, residents were "very involved in neighborhood planning" when the state set new development guidelines in 1985. Then they locally declared it a historic district, sought national designation, and got it. If you are listed on the National Register of Historic Places you can get tax breaks. Local protection also may involve some incentives, like property-tax credits and a loan program, and protects the architectural nature of the building more than national designation does. There are a lot of nuances in this involved process, but the guarantee of integrity -- not to mention what the term "historic district" can do for property values -- means it's worth it.

A second type of designation is Orlando Historic Landmark, which can be bestowed on a structure or even just an object, such as a sign. Orlando has 31 of these, including the two train stations, and the best thing about these is that you don't have to own the property to ask that it be preserved.

If you have a favorite site that you'd just hate to see demolished without at least a chance at preservation, the criteria is fairly straightforward: It must be at least 50 years old (so much for the notion that "nothing was here before Disney" ), has to "maintain its integrity, can't be altered too much, and any alterations must be reversible," says Rubin. Again, nuances and complications may arise, but for those upset by the demise of the Langford, the forms to try to ensure that your old favorites stay that way -- at least those located within the city limits of Orlando -- are in City Hall.

The Historic Preservation Board, which decides these things, comprises nine mayor-appointed members who usually work or live in a historic district and have some design or construction experience. They're the ones who decide, too, what changes can be made to historic properties; minor changes don't have to go to public hearings, but bigger ones do.

Some of the things that made the Orlando Historic Landmarks, Landmark Signs and National Register Properties lists are things we're glad we won't have to worry about in the future, things that beautify and add character to our neighborhoods, like the Plaza Theater sign (425 N. Bumby Ave.), the former Beacham Theatre (46 N. Orange Ave.) and Dickson Azalea Park and the Washington Street Bridge (Washington Street and Ferncreek Avenue). Others were a puzzle -- for example, the Porter Paints sign (700 E. Colonial Drive) isn't many people's idea of outstanding, but evidently matched the criteria. If this simple object can merit designation, certainly there are many others not a lot of us may have thought about.

Considering what local sights we might like to protect from the bulldozer was a little depressing in that we realized how many already have been demolished. Like the dead celebrity trade-in game, where you decide which two live stars you'd trade for one good dead one (i.e., John Belushi in exchange for Meg Ryan and Val Kilmer), it's easy to think of two of everything you'd like to have seen not fall under the ax. I'd trade any number of Eckerds for The Bubble Room and the goony-golf course that used to be just down the road from it (only old-timers like me will remember it, but it had a dinosaur and a giant spider). I'd be especially happy to exchange the Eckerd at Colonial Drive and Mills Avenue; it's so ugly, so blocky, so depressingly soulless, that it looks like it just fell there in a tornado and someone forgot to clean it up.

But, with a little help from some other long-time residents, we came up with a thing or two we thought we'd like to see dodge the wrecking ball in the coming years (keep in mind, these are just suggestions, a wish list of sorts, scattered all over and not just in Orlando):

Wally's Mills Avenue Liquors (1001 N. Mills Ave.): There's nothing architecturally spectacular about everyone's favorite watering hole, but it's an old standby, near to our hearts. The naked-lady wallpaper is a classic along the lines of the Fonzie iron-on T-shirt.

Vega's Cafe (1835 E. Colonial Drive): An old, groovy, Jetsons-esque building, one of the few unique structures near downtown. Its slanty, angular style could be from the '50s or "Futurama," and we'd hate to see it ever replaced by a box.

Ross Golden's City of Cars sign (4802 W. Colonial Drive): Like a big, free-standing roadside bit of TVLand, the sign features a retro-cartoon gentleman cruising in comfort and style, an underappreciated work of neon art.

LaBelle Furs (351 N. Orange Ave.): Not the inventory, animal lovers, just the art deco sign that adorns the front of the building. The one on the top of it, Rubin notes, is already gone.

Gatorland entrance (14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail): Who ever would have thought we'd be looking to Kissimmee to help us cement some style around here? The entrance to Gatorland is a gigantic concrete gator head, the mouth of which you must enter to gain access to the old-style Florida attraction. An example of pre-Disney, imaginative, larger-than-life design, it makes an animal attraction an aesthetic one as well. A little homespun whimsy like this adds more personality to an area than we can quantify.

Little Europe: It sounds like a bush-league Epcot, but this little stretch of Park Avenue -- on the north end of the shopping district, where it sort of officially begins, at the corner of Park and Canton -- has retained the charm of Winter Park's downtown main street the way it was 20 years ago, and serves as a lovely lead-in to the sophisticated strip it's grown up to be. The small, shuttered buildings, circular sign posts and window boxes are special but simple, and having had it stay largely as-is while so much has changed around it is like having the grandparents in the house as well as the upcoming generation.

The Booby Trap (2600 Lee Road): OK, it isn't called that anymore, it's called Club Harem, but the twin-breasts-shaped building on Lee Road is a monument to the swinging '70s and a work of genius even Vegas couldn't match. This building is one of the few landmarks Orlando has left, and by that we mean unique points of reference by which to give someone directions: Time was, if you said, "Go right at the big breasts," everyone knew what you meant. But we have one request: Please paint it pink with brown nipples again, like it was in the good old days. Character does not necessarily have to be in good taste -- better a little burlesque style than none at all.

Disney World: A lot of people might think Disney and preservation don't go together, but the demise of classics like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride call for at least a few suggestions of things we'd like to see stay unchanged. Such as:

• The Polynesian Hotel: Lounge before lounge was cool

• The Haunted Mansion: Goony goth perfection

• The Peter Pan ride: Should stay young forever

Certainly more people can think of more things worth saving. Hopefully, armed with the knowledge of how to preserve them there will be fewer Langord-type losses in the future, and we'll be able to blend our past with our future a little more agreeably. Then, instead of a formless-but-functional house, we'll have gone about creating someplace that is home and feels like it.

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