When Only the Dirt is Really Historic

By Randy Noles

For a place that bills itself as “the city of culture and heritage,” Winter Park does little to protect the “heritage” part. The most recent example is the battle over a proposed new historic preservation ordinance.

The most controversial component of the ordinance would allow neighborhoods to request — not be granted, but to request — historic designation with a simple majority of homeowner votes.

The current threshold is 67 percent of all homeowners, not just those who choose to vote. In other words, it’s darned near impossible to get a historic district designated in Winter Park — with predictable results.

Preservationists point out that only two other Florida cities — Ocala and Tallahassee — require a two-thirds vote. And in those cities, it’s 67 percent of votes received.

As appealing as portions of Ocala and Tallahassee are, neither city promotes itself, as Winter Park does, as a historic destination.

Full disclosure: Whatever Winter Park decides won’t really impact me and my family. We live just outside the city limits, in a small unincorporated enclave between lakes Sue and Rowena.

But we do live in a historic neighborhood, although it isn’t designated as such. (Orange County has no provision for establishing historic districts.) Or perhaps I should say our neighborhood would have been considered historic 28 years ago, when we bought our 1925 Florida vernacular cottage.

At the time, we were surrounded by endearingly quirky but meticulously maintained old homes in an array of styles. That, in fact, was what made the neighborhood so appealing.

Many of those homes are now gone, including a vintage bungalow next door, which was replaced by a massive faux Colonial mansion that encompasses every square inch of lot space.

Also bulldozed: A wonderful Spanish-revival monastery and a picture-postcard Cracker classic with a tin roof and sprawling front porch.

Perhaps it would have been impractical to renovate those creaky structures. Indeed, for the amount we’ve spent preserving and improving our old home, we could have built a pretty spiffy new one. But we were attracted to our neighborhood because of its old homes, not in spite of them.

Today our home is among a dwindling handful of genuine oldies-but-goodies still standing. And I harbor no illusions about what will happen to our home, sturdy and charming though it may be, if we ever sell.

Perhaps, then, the way in which our neighborhood has changed might serve as a cautionary tale for Winter Park. Left purely to market forces, in desirable locations where land values are high, vintage homes tend to vanish.

Let’s be honest. Some old homes simply aren’t worth saving, for a variety of perfectly valid reasons. And not every old home that’s been lost in Winter Park was a gem, by any means. In some cases, the state-of-the-art new homes that replaced them will be considered iconic decades from now, as Casa Feliz and the Capen House are now.

But none of that means local governments — especially in places such as Winter Park — shouldn’t make preservation a priority.

By the time this issue of Winter Park Magazine appears, the City Commission will be considering the new ordinance, in some form. Currently the newly comprised Historic Preservation Board is giving it the once-over and may well make changes.

My advice, not knowing what the final proposal will be, is to strengthen historic protections through a combination of incentives for individual homeowners and adoption of an easier path for neighborhoods to apply for historic district status — all voluntarily, of course.

If you want to see what happens in the absence of such policies, drop by my place and we’ll take a stroll around the block.

Randy Noles



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