The Founders Wanted a Gilded Age Utopia

By Randy Noles
Smartly attired visitors to the Seminole Hotel arrived in style aboard a horse-drawn trolley.

Other than its distinction as the year Winter Park was incorporated as a town, 1887 was not a particularly significant 12-month span. It does not evoke any powerful associations in the manner of, say, 1492, 1776, 1865 or 1945.

It was the height of the Gilded Age, a term coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley in their book The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873). The authors did not mean this as a compliment.

Gilding refers to applying a thin layer of gold leaf or powder over wood, stone or metal to give it a deceivingly expensive appearance. Because the Gilded Age was notable largely for ostentation and corruption, the description was apt.

Winter Park’s founders, largely Northeastern and Midwestern sophisticates, were products of the Gilded Age and made their money as speculators, developers and captains of industry.

But they also were, by all accounts, honest and upright men who never considered the possibility of lining their pockets through the sort of fly-by-night real estate schemes then rampant in Florida.

Instead, they sought to create a community that would thrive for generations to come. It had to be beautiful, of course. But it also had to offer rich cultural opportunities and an institution of higher education equal to any found in Massachusetts or Chicago.

And, with the bitter taste of Reconstruction still lingering, it had to be a progressive community, where the races lived in harmony, if not in parity. After all, a content and peaceful African-American population was needed to work in homes, hotels, businesses and groves. (Ironically, a politically savvy black resident would be crucial to incorporation, the anniversary of which this publication celebrates.)

In short, Winter Park had to be the sort of place that the founders and their moneyed peers, who had the means to settle anywhere, would be proud to call home.

There is, of course, more than a hint of condescension in much of what the community’s early boosters believed, and in the ways their frontier utopia was promoted. It was, after all, 125 years ago, and sensibilities change.

But had these adventurous entrepreneurs been less scrupulous and idealistic, a community that is today the gem of Central Florida might have turned out to be something very different.

In this issue of Winter Park Magazine, we seek to tell the city’s story in a thorough but readable way. That would not have been possible without the help of numerous people who love the city and its history. Among them: Steve and Gayle Prince Rajtar, Kenneth Murrah, Allan Keen, Allen Trovillion and Barbara Trovillion Rushing.

We are also grateful to Clarissa Howard, director of communication for the City of Winter Park; Susan Skolfield, executive director of the Winter Park Historical Association; Barbara White, archivist at the Winter Park Public Library; Peter Schreyer, founder of the Hannibal Square Heritage Center and executive director of the Crealde School of Art; Erika Spence, marketing and communications director at the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce; and Wenxian Zhang and Darla Moore, department head and archival specialist, respectively, of Archives and Special Collections at the Rollins College Olin Library.

Equally invaluable were the following books and manuscripts: In Their Own Voices: Six Winter Park Notables Tell Their Stories, by Kimberley T. Mould (2003); Rollins College: A Centennial History, by Dr. Jack C. Lane (1980); Orlando: A Centennial History, by Eve Bacon (1975); and A Guide to Historic Winter Park, by Steve and Gayle Prince Rajtar (2008). Past articles by the Rajtars for Winter Park Magazine were also highly useful.

Randy Noles

Editor/Publisher • (321) 217-8034

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