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Capen House update: saved, just barely 

But will rehab fever ever spread in Orlando?

click to enlarge PHOTO BY RICHARD REEP
  • photo by Richard Reep

Sawn in half like a magic trick gone horribly wrong, the Capen House sits next to the Albin Polasek Museum on Osceola Avenue. Last summer, after the property’s new owner declined to live in the historic 1885 residence “as-is” – instead deciding to tear it down and build something with all mod cons – Betsy Owens, executive director of the Friends of Casa Feliz, stepped in. Owens worked with the Polasek Museum and the Winter Park Historical Association to garner enough support to lug this house down onto a barge and across Lake Osceola to its new home.

“The community has really gotten behind this,” Owens said in a recent interview, “and while we’re still in need of some funding, we expect a very good result.” Fortune favored this structure, once home to the Capen family, who, in the 1880s, developed the Dinky commuter rail line linking Winter Park to Orlando. When the contractor-magicians stitch it back together, the house will serve as a meeting and event space and offices for the museum.

Fortune, however, may be running out for the historic structures remaining in our region. With 19,000 people per month moving to Florida, the pressures of growth are washing away these structures in favor of McMansions. Pretty soon, everywhere will look like everywhere else. The market for new homes is huge, and when people move to Florida to get a new start, they frequently combine this with a brand-new home as well. Government, Florida-style, too often behaves like a tool for this market, weakening or eliminating any constraints to growth. In the past, the city of Winter Park supported this growth mentality through its anemic historic preservation ordinance, which Owens cites as “the most permissive in the state.” The new and shiny, it seems, wins over the old, even in tony Winter Park.

Rehab fever has gripped many if not most of the nation’s cities, and judging by the bandwidth of shows like Nicole Curtis’ Rehab Addict, it has deep roots. These roots have yet to set down into Florida’s sandy soil, however. Disengagement, and a little too much trust in the invisible hand of the market, assure that a few will capitalize on this opportunity, at the expense of the many.

Owens is optimistic, however. “There’s reason to be hopeful. Winter Park is working to strengthen its ordinance to close loopholes that have allowed unfettered demolitions of historic resources,” she said, referring to a recent consultant recommendation that the City Commission will vote on in the near future. And there are a scattered handful of structures left to honor, unlike many neighboring communities that have completely obliterated their past to make room for mobile home parks and highways.

The Capen House, in the meantime, sits queerly agape, a metaphor for our split minds about our past and our present. With many small shadows cast over 2014’s bright future, we need no magicians; instead, we need to reconnect ourselves to each other, one nail at a time.

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