Curtains for downtown

It's moving day for Phil Rampy, and the man who remade Thornton Park has workmen on every floor of his new Washington Street townhouse. The furniture -- all new, all taupe and white -- comes later in the week. But already the break from his past is clear.

Sleek in its heavily designed interiors, the narrow, three-story townhouse is blocks away but worlds removed from the Amelia Street home Rampy built in 1990 to resemble others in the Eola Heights historic district. That first house, he says, went up while the 37-year-old former architecture student was still seeking his identity; the search ended when he began to add restaurants, a salon and a pink promenade to the ailing Thornton Park commercial strip, making his name and accelerating the renaissance in the area east of Lake Eola Park. Anchoring one end of that strip, the townhouse he designed for himself has a rooftop garden from which, Rampy says, he can look out upon "everything I've accomplished." He's not looking back. Indeed, among his Amelia Street furnishings only the baby grand piano will make the move.

It comes in this day through a second-story balcony.

Yet there is much more to that particular opening. Like the oversized entrance to some royal chamber, the small balcony is framed by long, white canvas curtains; rising to the roof line a full two stories above, the drapes hang not inside but outside the building, a signature flourish in a neighborhood otherwise defined by front porches and picket fences.

It is, quite simply, a window into the developer's soul.

From Celebration to the abandoned Naval Training Center, designers are rushing to plot compact, contained villages with pedestrian-friendly settings and a mix of housing and retail, often around a commercial core. But those are all new developments, planted like seeds and nurtured from the ground up.

Rampy is doing the same from the inside out, where the threat to the status quo is much more daunting. His goal is simple: He wants to shake things up. Put something in his way, and he only pushes harder.

But only because he believes he's right. And his track record shows he is. He's stomped on a few toes, brushed aside objections to traffic woes and helped cause downtown rents and home prices to climb like a jet on takeoff. But no one denies him credit. And in areas around Orlando's core, as evidenced by those who showed up for a recent downtown planning summit, residents now recite this refrain: We want to be more like Thornton Park.

And what will Thornton Park become? Probably a lot more like Phil Rampy.

Since 1992, when Rampy got his father to co-sign a loan and set about refurbishing an old sandwich shop into Thornton Park Cafe, the projects have not slowed. This month he unveiled his biggest yet.

Thornton Park Central will fill almost an entire block of Summerlin Avenue, with small retail stores along the sidewalk and 40 to 60 rental apartments above in a building with a staggered height four to six stories tall. The design -- with two rounded, curvilinear domes -- also includes a theater and, hidden behind the building, a 350-car garage.

"I'm not done with curtains, by the way," he says. "I've got two more things with curtains coming on."

The most ambitious is the Eo Inn, a total redesign of the formerly decrepit and fire-damaged youth hostel at Robinson Street and Lake Eola Park. Transformed to include a restaurant and sidewalk cafe out front and 21 rooms upstairs at rates from $129 to $229 a night, the inn opens this summer with flowing white drapes separating its new balconies, plus a roof garden with palm trees, "and these huge pieces of fabric flowing on top of it," says Rampy, who goes on: "I've actually done a wall fountain that's going to hang from three stories all the way down and pour water down to the ground. And then I've added on the back to enter the building these enormous, Egyptian-looking drapes -- kind of a drive-though kind of thing. So now it's become a very exciting facade."

Then there's his new office. Located next to the renovated home that anchors Olde Town Brokers, which Rampy co-founded in 1994 with his Amelia Street neighbor, the new, two-story building is fronted by a checkerboard square of white and off-white panels. In the center will hang more white curtains, this time draping all the way to the ground. There also will be an outside chandelier. And, planted out front, 30-foot tall white banners. "Nothing written on them, just flowing pieces of fabric," he says. And this: He plans to mount speakers outside to broadcast classical music onto the street. "Well, not just classical," he says. "Madonna, all different kinds of things, so people will hear music all the time when they're walking down the sidewalk."

The city's noise abatement code might prefer otherwise -- not to mention the tenants of Thornton Park Central, which would be built right across the street. But Rampy is undeterred when he's trying to make a point, and this one is key: "Those little things," he says, "give life to an area."

Challenged on his seemingly hodgepodge contributions to a historic district dominated by 1920s-era bungalows, he replies that it's all quite deliberate. "Because, you know what?" he says. "I like all different kinds of things. I like country music, I like classical music, I like house music -- I like all of it according to whatever mood I'm in. I have a farmhouse in Alabama with a bunch of cows, OK? It's the most crude, 1860s farmhouse you've ever seen, and I absolutely love it. I go up there and work in my garden and work with my cows and have a wonderful time. And I come here and I have a very sleek townhouse which I'm having built, which is absolutely state-of-the-art and computerized and stainless steel. But I have different moods I like to play with. I think everybody does. It's not just me."

He continues: "I don't think you want to put people in a capsule of architecture that says, 'Here's a form you live with and you abide by this, you stand by it and you live by this style that I've given you.' There's a little bit of style all over this neighborhood for everybody. Some people like the Veranda" -- a bed-and-breakfast Rampy purchased with investors last year -- "because it has those charming porches and picket fences. Some people like my townhouse because they think those drapes are really cool. There's different things for everybody. And that's OK; everyone doesn't have to like the same stuff."

And those who grouse that he doesn't seem to care about compatibility?

His reply is soft but swift. "That's just narrow-mindedness," he says. "We can't do anything about that. That's beyond my control. They need to work on their own personality. I can't help them with that."

Naturally not everyone shares Rampy's vision, although only recently has he been able to distinguish between dislike of his projects and dislike of his person. Mention certain opponents, and he spits back: "They don't like me because I'm gay." True, at least one person once complained that Rampy just wanted to create a gay neighborhood. An influx has occurred -- in fact, it began long before the district's current desirability -- but the charge is deflated by the far greater number of male-female couples seen any weekend tending to their landscaping, walking their dogs or munching at sidewalk eateries.

Rampy's own intolerance veers more toward impatience, mostly aimed at people who can't see what he sees. "It's OK, I think, to have an ego as long as you don't let the ego get in the way of learning more," he says. "And I've got no problem with someone telling me they don't like what I do. That's OK. But if you don't like what I do, tell me why. Explain to me why. Give me a reason. And that's not egocentric, I don't think. That's just, you know, wanting an intelligent answer."

Flashes of anger are not to be feared so much as endured. "We both have the same temperament," says his younger sister, Maria Blanchard, who works alongside him at Olde Town. "We're a little explosive. But then it's gone; it's there and it's over. It's not something that stays with us."

Critics of his developments actually have been few, if persistent. And they've seized almost exclusively on the issue that clogs development all over the region, from Orange Avenue to Park Avenue: traffic.

Though Washington Street -- the spine along which Rampy's commercial revival, sparked by multiple investors, has centered -- has long harbored small businesses, the short strip's decline kept traffic away. Now alive with new and renovated housing, two hair salons, a few quirky shops and four dining spots, Washington Street today is a draw that attracts not only the neighbors but also people from much farther out who are responding to its charm. Only Dexter's of Thornton Park, with 10 parking spots behind the restaurant, and the David James salon, with 13, offer some customers easy access; everyone else is made to fight for parking on the street.

"Did it create more traffic? I don't know," Rampy hedges, before slipping into his aggressive defense. "I don't even think that's a valid thing to bring up in an urban environment. I mean, yes, it brings more traffic. It's a given: Any urban development brings more traffic. However, it is an urban area. That's what it is. We cannot get away from that. You cannot kill that. If you do, you have urban decay.

"We know it's going to have more traffic," he says. "Now, how do we accommodate that to work? Do we put in more transit? Do we put in more bicycle paths, better sidewalks, whatever? My solution was, yeah, you put in wider sidewalks and people will walk in the right environment. And they do walk. If you walk down here during lunch, any time of the day, there's people walking all over the place. And those sidewalks are big enough that people can walk together on them; they don't have to walk in single file. And it works."

Those sidewalks represent Rampy's one big fight. It's also the one that hit him the hardest.

United by the developer, a coalition of Washington Street businesses called for the wider promenade three years ago. Property owners who petitioned the city to do the work agreed to pay for it -- but not everyone who was expected to chip in was a willing participant. Fueling the debate was the fact that some of the highest bills would hit those least eager or able to pay.

Until that time, Rampy -- working by then with Gerald Balz, a retired government worker and Winter Park resident who set up an investment trust and hired Rampy to run it -- had been working one building at a time. He'd never before needed consensus. Suddenly people were lining up against him. Julius Blum, who owned the building from which he'd run American Plumbing Supply for 36 years, was one of the most vocal. As the battle peaked, Balz testily offered to buy Blum out, though hardship cases received more subtle offers to have their shared paid for them.

"Phil believes a lot in fairy tales," says Blum, insisting that Rampy's celebrated makeover only continues the commerce that's existed on the block for as long as Blum's been there. "But he's successful and he's made a lot of money, and more power to him."

Blum is unforgiving about his eventual bill for the streetscape -- about $13,000, he says. But he'll make nearly three times as much this year in rent from David James salon, which leased Blum's building and spent several hundred thousand dollars to upgrade the interior and put parking on Blum's vacant lot next door; the former plumbing supply store now dispenses wine and espresso with its haircuts and manicures. And that's Blum himself sitting there in the shade on the low wall outside, wearing a blue jacket with "David James Parking Patrol" stitched across the back. The retiree volunteers at his post during most lunch hours and loves it; he won't begrudge Rampy his success because he shares in it.

"We've got our little corner there and whatever they do in the neighborhood only enhances us," Blum says today. "They bring more people in there and there'll be more business for us. The only problem I have is keeping the restaurant parking out of the lot."

Rampy is the first one to tell tales on himself, and among those he readily volunteers are those that contrast with his current high style.

When he arrived to interview for his first summer job with the local firm Architects Design Group, he says he carried his drawings in a burlap feed sack from back home in Alabama.

He attended school not in a rural one-room schoolhouse but in a single building that housed K through 12. After junior college he enrolled in the architecture program at Auburn University, where he bought a trailer and installed a carpet that looked like wood floors "'cause I couldn't afford wood floors." When friends marveled at his hip design scheme, he was mortified. "I didn't realize I was being cool," he says. "I thought I was doing it because it was really nice. And all of a sudden I'm like, I ain't so chic. So immediately I started to study quickly. I immediately got rid of my trailer, got a house with wood floors downtown and began to spice up my life.

"And then," he goes on, "my professor, Michael J. Hubbs, he comes up to me in architecture class one time, looks at one of my projects and goes" -- here Rampy slips into a solemn tone of disapproval -- "'Oh my god, I have never in my life seen anything like that.' He said, 'You know, I don't know what to tell you, except that you have an incredible sparkle and flamboyance.' He said, 'So don't ever lose your flamboyance, because it will probably take you a long way, and maybe some day you'll learn something about architecture.'

"He hurt my feelings so bad!" Rampy laughs. "So whenever I think about what I'm doing, I always remember, 'never lose your flamboyance, it's the greatest thing you'll ever have, because so many people are afraid to express that.' And it was great advice.

"But of course, I got better architecture, because I hired people who knew how to do the architecture portions I did not know how to do."

His grand gestures are not limited to design. When trying to sway a Tampa restaurateur to set up shop in the Eo Inn, Rampy rented a limo, packed it with friends, drove them over for dinner, picked up the tab and then hit a wrestling match. His Christmas parties are legend. Two years ago he hosted wearing a black tuxedo; on the back an artist had painted a full-size female nude. "Phil knows a lot of what I guess you might call pretty people," says Mike Baker, a friend. "When you get 300 people and everybody's dressed up and the alcohol starts flowing and Phil gets out on the dance floor with his painted tuxedo and his dark glasses and a cigar and a martini, it's a sight to see."

The baby grand piano reveals other traits. Rampy had always wanted one; with the sudden realization on a day about six years ago that he could afford it, the purchase was a virtual impulse buy. "I woke up that morning and told a friend of mine, 'I'm going to buy a grand piano today, I think I have enough money," he says. Could they deliver it that day? No. Could they deliver it that day for an extra 100 bucks? Sure. "By the time my friend came back by that afternoon," Rampy says, "I had the piano and I was playing it."

The fact that he is driven and impatient comes as no surprise to code, planning or permit officials who have had to deal with him.

Rampy holds a certain animosity for Jodi Rubin, the Orlando official charged with seeing that projects adhere to historic-preservation standards. "I feel as though she could give a little bit more latitude to things than she does, and should," says the developer, who favors projects that he says bow to the past but don't re-create it. Witness the Eo Inn -- which, despite its complete makeover, Rampy has now requested be granted landmark status, a designation that would excuse the developer from adhering to certain rules governing such things as parking for the downstairs restaurant.

He continues: "I think sometimes [Rubin] tries to gravitate toward one set of historic values that I don't necessarily believe are inherently true. I add something to historic preservation that some people don't necessarily agree with, and that is: economics. We live in a society that thrives upon economics. You gotta make things work or they won't last."

Rubin won't discuss Rampy.

"Somebody that's really passionate, they won't necessarily understand why somebody else doesn't see what they see," says Rich Unger, chief planner for the city. "If somebody knows where they want to go, details and obstacles are of minor significance. That's not atypical for developers, and it's certainly not atypical of creative individuals."

Is he making apologies? Not exactly. "The building officials did come to me and ask about the curtains," Unger concedes. "My response was, 'Did they violate any building codes?' No."

In fact, Unger sees larger ambitions at work. "Most artists will tell you they do something and they want you to have a reaction. They want someone either to love it or hate it. The worst thing you can say is, hmmmm, that's interesting," he says. "It's almost like a child, where if they want attention they can get it one of two ways: Be nice and mommy gives them a candy, or be real ornery. ... That is true of artists and architects, and I think that is true of Phil: Love it or hate it, but don't not care.

"We need the sort of thing that the Phil Rampys do," he says. "I'm not saying we need everything to be the sort of thing that the Phil Rampys do. But we certainly don't need everything to be the sort of thing that the humdrum, average, Joe Blow, off-the-shelf design would be. That's not what we want. We want some excitement."

Says John Tanner, an Olde Town broker: "It's not like Williamsburg or a town that has a bunch of architectural history that you wouldn't want to change. It's needed life, and Phil has been that spark."

It's a slow turnaround that Rampy and others are ready to run with. As recently as the mid to late '80s, when downtown renovations were rampant and residential rehabs were starting to sell well, "The city harassed us all to death," says Jim Savco, who sold Rampy his first downtown home, on Jackson Street. "I make no qualms about it. They were pricks; they were jerks. I don't know what caused that, what made it that way. But they seemed to always go out of their way to make it difficult."

Rampy has even been asked to sit with agents of Zom and Post Properties -- two corporations both building new, high-end apartments downtown -- on a panel hosted by the Urban Land Institute, whose consultants are driving Mayor Glenda Hood's downtown planning push. The invitation came in a meeting that included City Commissioner Don Ammerman.

"And I love the way they put it to me," says Rampy. "It wasn't one of those, 'Phil, we want you to sit here and get your professional opinion about, you know, how wonderful you think Orange County and the city are.' It wasn't that at all. They said, 'Phil, you know what we want you to do? You're a little hellion,' basically is what they said, 'and we want you to sit down here and just tell everybody what it's like, what you've gotta go through, what you've had to do, where you came from to get it here, and where you're going with it."

It's a chance, he says, that he'll relish "like a kid in a candy store."

"That may be a self-description, but it's not a description from anyone there," Ammerman says of the "hellion" characterization. Still, he says, "When you take something that becomes a thought, and a thought becomes a vision, and a vision moves to a plan, and a plan moves to a reality, and the reality becomes an example, you can't ask for anything better than that.

"We need to reward that type of entrepreneurial outlook."

"The neighborhood was never a bad neighborhood," says Jim Savco. "This crap about it being rundown and horrible and dangerous, that's a bunch of bull." Even in the '80s, he says, "Property values were increasing tremendously. But the real desire would be summed up in three words: Walk to Dexter's. Those three words are like the yuppie marching song."

Dexter Richardson's Winter Park-based franchise arrived in 1996, wooed by Rampy as he had wooed and would woo others. But its role as a catalyst for Thornton Park "was only proven after the next project went in," says Rich Unger. "Somebody had to take the first step. And when you take the first step and the ice doesn't break, then you can take the next step."

Savco recalls Rampy and a friend sitting years ago on the porch of Rampy's former house at Thornton Avenue and Jefferson Street -- now known around the neighborhood as Pineapple Place -- and the discussion that forged an identity. Savco spoke of two streets in his Ohio hometown; on the one fronted by picket fences, home prices were doubled. That led to the picket fence idea -- Rampy helped cut the pineapple outlines for his still-standing fence himself -- and a search through plat books for a place name. Rampy says he picked Thornton Park. Charm was hardly the goal. "Once you give it an identity, and not just call it downtown," says Savco, "you increase the property values."

The result: Homes at $200,000-plus and high turnover in pricey rentals, with a parade of tenants who frequently are trying the neighborhood on for size before investing themselves. Renters still call looking for something they can have for $500 or less, "and it just doesn't exist," says Bob Sanders, who manages about 100 rental and lease properties for Olde Town in several downtown neighborhoods. "They'll call on [a] house that rents for $2,500 and they'll think it rents for $800. But that's kind of ending now. I hear that less and less. The word's out that downtown has regentrified."

It's also true that more than a few longtime residents have answered a knock at the door to find a sales agent who said they weren't charging enough from their tenants. "We don't set the prices," says Sanders. "We're just aware of the market value. And there's an awful lot of people down here who have no clue. They're still renting the place really cheap."

Rampy himself says he fielded an offer about his townhouse even before he moved in. But he's not interested. Not yet.

He talks of opening the doors onto his balcony and sitting down to play the piano, its sounds drifting out into the street. And from any window he hopes soon to look out and see a fountain, 15 feet high, that he helped the neighborhood association select to fill the roundabout at Washington and Hyer streets. Titled "The Four Rivers," it depicts four women, their bare breasts jutting out in all directions.

Affirming the choice of his neighborhood as home, he says, "You can't say I don't practice what I preach."

Or that he won't continue to shake things up.

Scroll to read more Orlando Area News articles


Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.