Theodore L. Mead’s namesake urban oasis is a tribute to imagination, beauty and persistence. But the path has taken some twisted turns.
Imagine a sprawling, primeval jungle nestled the heart of Winter Park, unchanged and untamed for centuries, surrounded on its periphery by attractive homes and located just minutes from Park Avenue and Rollins College.
In 1937 an intrepid former Boy Scout and an urbane professor explored the 48-acre site, on which they discovered a small lake and encountered deer, bobcats, wild boar and, not surprisingly, an alligator that they later estimated had to be at least 18 feet long.
Undaunted, the duo decided that the mysterious morass should be transformed into a beautiful botanical garden that would pay tribute to their recently deceased friend, horticulturalist Theodore Luqueer Mead.
Today, Mead Garden is an ecological jewel, albeit an unpolished one. Tucked away at the end of South Denning Drive, across the railroad tracks and bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue and Howell Creek, it has enchanted casual visitors and serious naturalists for decades.
By the 2000s, however, this urban oasis was in decline. Beyond mowing the grass, the City of Winter Park did little to improve the site. It was simply too big and too expensive to maintain as a true botanical garden, so it became an oversized park, breathtaking in places but marred by overgrown pathways, rotting boardwalks, a handful of ramshackle buildings and even city vehicles parked adjacent to a metal maintenance shed.
What a difference a few years — and a small army of volunteers — can make. Today, Mead Garden is being reclaimed, revitalized and reinvigorated. And, although plans are preliminary and funding has not been secured, there’s serious discussion of a new multipurpose facility being built on the grounds.
“This is a place that has meaning to a lot of people in Winter Park,” says Cynthia Hasenau, executive director of Mead Botanical Garden Inc., the nonprofit organization that now leases the park from the city and operates its facilities. “And what’s happening here now is the result of exemplary volunteers.”
Mead Garden isn’t, and never will be, a meticulously manicured and skillfully sculptured picture-postcard of a place. The setting is meant to be natural and unspoiled; an anomaly in a city where everything appears preternaturally orderly.
But its origins are quintessentially Winter Park, from the interesting characters who founded it to the fierce protectiveness of the citizens who have cherished it and nurtured it through nearly 75 years.
THE PAMPERED GENIUS
In 1867 a 15-year-old boy stood admiring a Jacquard loom at the Industrial Exhibition in Paris, absorbed in the complex working of the machinery. It had been easy for Theodore Mead to talk his well-to-do parents, Samuel and Mary, into letting him leave school and their home in Fishkill, N.Y., to tour France, Italy, Germany, Russia and Scandinavia.
It was so much fun seeing modern machines at the exhibition, as well as such oddities as Galileo’s dried index finger at an Italian museum, that the youngster didn’t want the trip to end. His mother, who had accompanied him, was compelled to bribe him with $50 worth of butterflies before he would agree to return.
During this and previous European vacations, “Teddy” much preferred inspecting collections of machines and insects to marveling over great works art. Consequently, he was thrilled with the butterflies his mother had bought him and soon became obsessed with the winged creatures.
He spent the summer of 1869 at the West Virginia home of William H. Edwards, the acknowledged North American expert on lepidoptera, the study of moths and butterflies.
Two years later, Mead accompanied the Edwards family on a government-sponsored mapping expedition of the Colorado Rockies There they discovered 20 new species — and named three of them “meadii.”
While in Colorado, Mead also explored on horseback what would become the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument and later collected more butterflies in Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.
In 1874 Mead enrolled at Cornell University, where three years later he earned a degree in civil engineering. Upon graduation Mead sold his burgeoning butterfly collection, which he claimed had become one of the largest of its kind in the world, to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. He then turned his attention, for the most part, to horticulture.
As always eager to facilitate their son’s interests, Mead’s parents took him on a six-month-long nature trip to California, travelling by steamer from New York through Panama and up the coast to San Francisco, then returning via Salt Lake City and Chicago. Along the way he collected new species of cacti and, despite his avowed pivot to plant life, even more butterflies.
In 1881 the Meads moved to Florida, where Samuel bought his accomplished but indulged 29-year-old son a 200-acre grove in Eustis. The family hoped that citrus and other cash crops would fund his increasingly ambitious horticultural experiments.
Mead married Edith Edwards, daughter of his butterfly-hunting mentor, the following year and settled into a quietly satisfying life as a gentleman grower. An 1886 freeze, however, wiped out his citrus crop, prompting him to move further south. He bought 85 acres, including a 22-acre grove, around Lake Charm in Oviedo.
That same year, the Meads’ daughter, Dorothy, was born, “charming and strong and robust.” But the child contracted scarlet fever at age 4 and died “after 17 dreadful days and nights.”
Following the loss, Mead spent even more time gardening. He ordered palm seeds from England and Italy and patiently waited years for them to germinate. By 1894 he had as many as 250 palms in pots. But he gave up on palms after losing them all in yet another freeze.
This time, however, something positive came from the frigid blast. Mead hypothesized that overhead water irrigation of citrus trees might allow them to survive by encasing the fruit in a 32-degree ice cocoon. He installed a pump and irrigation system and proved the concept on several dozen of his own trees. It’s a technique still used by growers today.
Regardless, Mead’s attention increasingly turned to flowers. His approach to hybridization was to create new types of plants that combined beauty and commercial value, whether the process was difficult, as with orchids, or simple, as with daylilies.
According to horticulturist Henry Nehrling, who then lived and worked in Gotha, the low-key Mead was a more accomplished hybridizer of plants than the far more famous Luther Burbank.
The childless Meads also took an active interest in the young people of Oviedo. Edith taught several young girls to play the piano and was a founder of the Oviedo Woman’s Club. Mead, with his jolly demeanor and white beard, played Santa Claus in local Christmas pageants and became Oviedo’s first Scoutmaster.
It was through the Boy Scouts that Mead met John “Jack” Connery, an eager troop member who would later join forces with Rollins professor Edwin Osgood Grover to make Mead Garden in Winter Park a reality.
THE PROF AND THE SCOUT
Edwin Osgood Grover is barely remembered today. There is one small street named for him — Grover Avenue, near Mead Garden — and a commemorative stone along the Rollins Walk of Fame.
But he’s ubiquitous in Winter Park history as a dreamer and a doer; a writer and a poet who frequently descended from his ivory tower to make a practical difference in the community.
Grover was born in Minnesota in 1870, but was raised in Maine and New Hampshire, where he wandered in the thick woods and developed a love for nature.
While attending Dartmouth College he worked as a reporter for the Boston Globe and edited the Dartmouth Literary Monthly. After graduating in 1894 with a degree in literature, he enrolled in graduate school at Harvard. However, instead of earning an advanced degree he chose to visit Europe and the Middle East, an adventure he managed despite having only $300 to his name.
Upon his return to the U.S. in 1900, Grover worked as a textbook salesman in the Midwest and shortly thereafter became chief editor of Rand McNally in Chicago. He formed his own publishing company in 1906, but sold his interest six years later and became president of the Prang Company, a manufacturer of crayons and watercolors.
After “serving a sentence of [almost] 30 years in the publishing business,” Grover was ready to retire. Then, in 1926, a call from Rollins President Hamilton Holt prompted a change of plans. Holt wanted Grover as the college’s “professor of books,” making him the first academic in the U.S. to hold such a title. Intrigued, he accepted.
At Rollins, Grover helped students publish the college’s first literary magazine, Flamingo, in 1927, and for the next two decades was “editor” of the Animated Magazine, which was not a published work but a series of lectures featuring national figures from politics, literature, the arts and even show business.
Grover was also a charter member of the University Club of Winter Park and helped found Winter Park’s first bookstore, The Bookery. He encouraged his wife, Mertie, to spearhead the opening of a day nursery for the children of black working mothers.
When Mertie was killed in an automobile accident, Grover asked that funds in her name be donated for the establishment of a children’s library on the predominantly black west side.
A man of varied interests, Grover was a friend of Mead’s and a follower of his work. Coincidentally, one of Grover’s brightest students was Connery, who had been one of Mead’s Boy Scouts and, while attending college, had continued to assist the aging horticulturalist.
Upon Mead’s death in 1936, Connery inherited his grateful mentor’s collection of amaryllis, hemerocallis, fancy-leaf caladiums and more than 1,000 orchids. Mead’s young protégé had been a student curator of the Rollins Museum of Natural History, so he knew horticulture. And he had been faithfully caring for the plants at Mead’s now-unoccupied estate.
But he knew that a more permanent, long-term solution was needed if the collection was to be saved.
Connery and Grover hoped to establish some sort of memorial garden that would pay homage to a man they both admired while providing students a place to study plants and nature.
But where? Grover had considered pushing Rollins to buy Mead’s Oviedo property. Connery, however, thought he had a better idea. Would Grover be willing to join him for an expedition?
That’s when the duo explored the untamed site of what would become Mead Garden. Excited by the possibilities, they hurried to the office of real-estate developer Walter Rose, who owned 20 acres buffering his subdivision, Beverly Shores. After hearing out Grover and Connery, Rose agreed to donate his property to the city.
James A. Treat, a former Winter Park mayor, gave another six acres that included an egret rookery and the heretofore hidden lake that Grover and Connery had discovered. The diplomatic Grover promptly named it “Lake Lillian,” for one of Treat’s granddaughters.
R.F. Leedy, a Park Avenue clothing merchant, was persuaded to kick in a tract bordering Pennsylvania Avenue, and a Jacksonville woman, Mary Bartell, turned over 20 acres of high ground where today’s entrance greets visitors.
Orange County owned a quarter-acre encompassing a clay pit. But the county agreed to give it up and the clay was eventually used to bolster the garden’s meandering nature trails.
On May 11, 1937, Theodore L. Mead Botanical Garden Inc., a nonprofit organization that would operate the garden, was formed. At its helm were Grover as president and Holt as honorary president. Connery was named director and executive secretary.
Thanks to Grover and Connery, the acreage had been assembled. Now what?
THE SOWING AND REAPING
During the Great Depression, the city certainly didn’t have the funds to transform nearly 50 dense acres into a botanical showplace. Luckily, however, neither Grover nor Connery was easily daunted.
Grover secured a $20,170 grant from the Works Progress Administration. But the grant required that the city, which was already in default on $90,000 worth of municipal bonds, put up matching funds.
Connery saved the day when he gave the city an assortment of palm trees and Mead’s plant collection, which the WPA agreed to accept as the equivalent of a cash contribution.
With funding in place, WPA workers fenced the property and built and landscaped two main entrances, one in Winter Park and one in Orlando. That way, Grover noted, “the two cities could be tied together with a bond of beauty.”
Swiftly flowing Howell Creek was deepened between Lake Sue and Lake Virginia, a distance of more than a mile, and three waterfalls were created along the route.
Three miles of clay trails were carved through the tangled vegetation and a half-mile trail was built along Howell Creek from Lake Virginia to Pennsylvania Avenue. Plants from Mead’s collection were placed along “Brookside Trail.”
Two greenhouses sheltered the remainder of Mead’s plants while a broad, sloping area was cleared in preparation for an amphitheater, which wouldn’t be built until 1959. Azaleas, daylilies, amaryllis, gladiolas, caladiums and gardenias were planted everywhere, along with hundreds of palm trees.
Mead Garden was informally open to visitors during construction. One of those visitors — who, fortunately, bought ink by the barrel — would make the project a pubic crusade.
Martin Anderson was on an afternoon stroll with his two young daughters when he encountered Grover and Connery, busy inspecting progress, along one of the completed paths. “This is the finest thing ever to happen to Central Florida,” Anderson told the duo. “Who is responsible for this?”
Anderson was not only publisher of the Morning Sentinel. As luck would have it, he was also an avid gardener and a collector of orchids. Grover and Connery won an enthusiastic and influential patron in Anderson, who wrote an editorial the following day extolling the garden and donated substantial advertising space to its promotion.
Mead Botanical Garden officially opened on Jan.15, 1940, in a formal ceremony that included local dignitaries and elected officials. Grover, who presided over the proceedings, laid out a grand vision of a garden encompassing unspoiled natural areas and greenhouses for exotic plants and even aquariums, which were never built.
For years, though, Mead Garden was arguably the most beautiful spot in Central Florida and a fitting tribute to the genius of Mead and the persistence of Grover and Connelly.
“The project represents the value of $43,000 and thus far has cost neither Winter Park nor Orlando anything,” Grover pointedly noted, presaging a dispute that would contribute to the garden’s decline more than a decade later.
“What a wonderful spot and a precious jewel for the community. This could be a legacy project; something that will endure 100 years from today.” — Phil Kean
THE WINDING PATH
By the early 2000s Mead Garden was showing signs of neglect. Perhaps its relatively obscure location in the midst of a residential neighborhood meant that it received less attention than parks in high-traffic areas.
Perhaps it lacked a new generation of tireless champions like Grover and Connelly, for whom the garden was quite literally rooted in friendship with Mead himself, now dead for 16 years.
Or perhaps it’s because, in 1953, the original nonprofit headed by Grover was acrimoniously dissolved and operation of the garden was turned over to the city.
The rift opened when the city refused to allocate $7,500 for upkeep unless the garden began turning over admission fees, which then amounted to about $10,000 a year, and unless the garden’s private creditors agreed to write off funds they had advanced.
An impasse was reached, and suddenly the garden was entirely the city’s responsibility. “I think my husband would refer to this episode as a ‘pissing match,’” notes one present-day volunteer.
With taxpayers footing the bill, there were seemingly always more pressing priorities for city funds. The contentious admission fee, ironically, was eliminated. But the garden began a long, sad decline that no one seemed to have the power to reverse.
Over the years, various restoration plans were proposed and shelved. In 1988 Mayor David Johnston appointed a 15-member Mead Garden Task Force, which recruited the Orlando Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects to assist in formulating a master plan. Predictably, the document gathered dust.
Enough maintenance was done to keep the property looking respectable, and the amphitheater remained a popular spot for weddings and other special events. Some boardwalks were repaired, a few trails were built and the entry was rebricked.
Generally, however, Mead Garden seemed to have become an anachronism in a city known for its posh shopping district and its luxurious lakeside mansions. Everyone agreed that something had to be done; no one agreed on exactly what.
In 2003 the Winter Park Garden Club, whose headquarters is within the garden, formed the Friends of Mead Garden Inc. The new organization made progress in cleaning up the now-overgrown site.
Although the volunteer “Weed Warriors” and “Butterfly Brigade” were tireless workers, their reclamation efforts became all the more difficult in 2004 after Hurricane Charley tore through Central Florida.
In 2007 the city approved a master plan for the garden presented by Post, Buckley, Schuh & Jernigan, a large architecture and engineering firm. Two years later, however, the national economy collapsed and funds for major improvements had dried up.
Still, lovers of the garden soldiered on, mostly on weekends, and did what they could with limited resources.
“People came out every Sunday and volunteered,” Mayor Ken Bradley told Winter Park Magazine in 2009. “How can the city not support this park? The city would be worse without the park and the Friends of Mead Garden.”
In late 2012, FMG, now called Mead Botanical Garden Inc., signed a multiyear operating agreement with the city that essentially turned over control of the garden to the nonprofit.
Although there are gray areas regarding the division of responsibilities, essentially the city still owns and maintains the property. But for the next 50 years the privately funded organization will run the visitor facilities.
MBG hopes to eventually make the garden self-funding, although there are no plans to begin charging admission, as Orlando’s nearby Leu Gardens does. Income will come from rental fees, which are expected to increase as the facilities are expanded and improved.
Architect Jeremey Blydenburgh, a longtime volunteer and member of the MBG board of trustees, became the first paid executive director. But he quickly realized that a fulltime staffer — one without another business to run — was required. Enter Cynthia Hasenau, previously director of management and executive education at Rollins.
Hasenau will have plenty of help from a cadre of hands-on volunteers, including the garden’s own trustees and advisors as well as members of such organizations as the Winter Park Garden Club, the Florida Native Plant Society, the Winter Park Rotary Club, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops and an array of other civic groups.
She’ll also have guidance from experts such as landscape architect Forrest Michael, who as a child attended family gatherings at Mead Garden.
“We’re all researching what the garden used to be in the 1940s,” says Michael, whose work includes the area around the new Winter Park SunRail station. “There are still remnants here. You can still see some of the original palms.”
Michael’s long-term vision includes connected bicycle paths that traverse the garden and join the SunRail station, Rollins and Florida Hospital.
Another key player will be John Holland, director of the Winter Park Parks and Recreation Department and the city’s representative on the MBG board of trustees. When he started working for the city as a horticulturist in the ‘70s, he actually lived in a small house on the grounds.
“I’m so proud of what’s been done here, says Holland as he points out improvements during a recent tour. “Everybody involved in Mead Garden is very passionate about it.”
Phil Kean, president of Winter Park-based Phil Kean Design Group, has jumped on the bandwagon. The architect has agreed to donate design services for a proposed multipurpose facility on the grounds. He recently led a charrette with MBG boosters to discuss the garden’s future.
“I regularly run through Mead Garden,” says Kean, whose home designs have won a warehouse full of national awards. “What a wonderful spot and a precious jewel for the community. This could be a legacy project; something that will endure 100 years from today.”
Kean envisions a two-story building, modest in scope and organically designed to harmonize with the natural surroundings. It could contain meeting and event space, a reception area and possibly a gift shop.
There isn’t a firm timetable for construction of the facility Kean has agreed to design. Nor is there a budget or a funding source — at least not yet.
But lately, after a long stretch of painfully incremental steps forward, improvements at Mead Garden seem to be happening in leaps and bounds.
THE LEGACY RENEWED
If you haven’t been to Mead Garden lately, you’ll notice right away that it’s changing. In fact, if you glance to the right just beyond the entry gate, at the Legacy Garden and Greenhouse, you’ll get a glimpse of the garden’s future.
The greenhouse, which had fallen into a state of disrepair, has been restored and now anchors a colorful botanical oasis, all thanks to volunteers. The garden’s charming Butterfly Garden has also been revitalized.
And there’s The Grove, a new amphitheater that features a 40-by-60-foot stage, an overhead sail, wooden support poles with Florida limestone at the base and trellises on each side. Spectators bring blankets and lawn chairs and sit on a grassy area facing the stage.
The Grove, home to the Florida Symphony Youth Orchestra, cost about $700,000 to build, with an anonymous donor contributing $250,000, the city allocating $200,000 and the rest raised from individuals, organizations and foundations.
The Discovery Barn, formerly a city maintenance warehouse, hosts an array of activities for youngsters, including an annual Young Naturalist Summer Camp.
At the Community Garden, started with a grant from the Winter Park Community Health Foundation, weekend farmers can rent plots and grow their own organic vegetables. Some of the produce is given to local food banks.
A small pond has been restored and named “Alice’s Pond” in honor of volunteer Alice Mikkleson. The pond is traversed by “Rene’s Trail,” which was named in honor of volunteer Rene Kelly, who died in 2009.
In fact, Mead Garden itself is a tribute to volunteerism and the power of persistence and imagination.
Yet, a fundamental question remains. What, exactly, does Mead Garden need to ultimately become? Can it ever again be an elaborate 19th- century-style botanical garden, replete with unusual and exotic plants? More to the point, should it be?
Sue Foreman, a garden trustee, has given the matter considerable thought. She and others believe that the acreage should combine elements of classic botanical gardens with unadulterated natural expanses. And she believes ecological responsibility should be the guiding force behind redevelopment.
“We’re finding that the trend for botanical gardens around the world is to have them look more like nature, and what’s real today” says Foreman. “Anybody can use Google and see exotic plants. We have an opportunity to build the botanical garden of the 21st century, which encompasses biodiversity, nature and collections.”
She also notes that with 12 acres of wetlands, Mead Garden drains into Howell Creek and carries pollutants to Lake Virginia. In Mead’s day, no one was particularly worried about water management. But now it’s a crucial issue, particularly in Florida.
Mead himself was, first and foremost, a scientist. That’s why Foreman believes he would recognize that today’s botanical gardens need to factor environmentalism into their designs.
Notes Foreman: “I think Mead would be right there with us on this.”