PHOTOGRAPHS BY RAFAEL TONGOL
Betsy Rogers Owens has spent the past decade overseeing the house her grandfather designed, but she introduces it to a visitor with the admiration of someone who has just discovered its simple splendor.
Come see its intimate courtyard, lined with bricks recovered from an old Orlando armory, she says. Note the “human scale” of the residence, which was inspired by a Spanish farmhouse. Appreciate its “wonderful, shaggy appearance,” with a broken archway designed to simulate aging.
Casa Feliz, designed by James Gamble Rogers II, was built in 1933, when Winter Park was too young to worry about preservation.
Yet, along with the eminent architect’s many distinguished homes, his legacy includes a deep respect for the past. Most of his work was inspired by traditional styles he thought best suited Winter Park and its Old World ambiance.
Rogers’ outspoken granddaughter is now executive director of the Friends of Casa Feliz, the nonprofit organization that operates the Casa Feliz Historic Home Museum.
Owens’ legacy has become a crusade aimed at protecting other historically significant homes. But her advocacy has placed the 49-year-old mother of two at the center of a noisy debate about preserving the city’s heritage on the one hand and protecting property rights on the other.
In November, Owens and fellow preservationists prevailed when the Winter Park City Commission voted 3-2 for a strengthened historic-preservation ordinance. Commissioners Carolyn Cooper, Tom McMacken, and Greg Seidel were in favor while Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel and Mayor Steve Leary were opposed.
Among other changes, approval of historic-district designations will now require an affirmative vote from a simple majority of homeowners instead of the previous 67 percent. Ironically, a city that touts “heritage” in its slogan had the toughest criteria in the state for district formation.
The morning after the contentious vote, Owens was gratified but not gloating.
“I have pretty thick skin,” she notes. “I don’t worry about personal attacks, but I do hate the deception. We provided study after study, produced by independent academic sources, on the economic benefits of preservation. The property rights folks countered with a ‘study’ featured in an online publication devoted to debunking global warming — I’m not making this up — and criticizing Pope Francis for his ‘liberal politics.’”
It’s frustrating, Owens says, when intelligent people “buy a false bill of goods.”
Harsh words on both sides — some of them personal in tone — were spoken during the run-up to the pivotal commission meeting. While many homeowners expressed reasoned concerns and asked thoughtful questions, others called Owens a busybody and a socialist. One Facebook post even compared preservationists to Nazis.
Perhaps most vexing to Owens was the claim that she cared about historic preservation only because she wanted to protect her grandfather’s remaining homes. Nonsense, she says, insisting that it was the city’s character she was trying to protect, not the work of any particular architect.
“I’m just glad most people seem to respond to good, empirical information instead of hyperbole,” she adds, while admitting that she can sometimes be guilty of hyperbole herself. “The commissioners knew the issue. They had done their homework.”
There’s no debate over the fact that Winter Park has been losing old homes for decades. Even the most ardent preservationists would concede that the majority of those homes — some of which were impractical to remodel — won’t be particularly missed.
Others, however, were of historic importance. And a few — like Casa Feliz and the Capen-Showalter House — were saved only through frantic community fundraising efforts.
Owens points out that since Winter Park’s first historic preservation ordinance was passed in 2001, just 82 historic buildings and two historic districts — College Quarter and Virginia Heights East — have been designated.
She adds that only 14 percent of the local structures eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places — a largely honorary recognition — are also listed on the Winter Park Register of Historic Places, which offers protection from hasty demolition.
“I would say 2001 was when I really became passionate about this,” Owens says. “I saw that things were changing in Winter Park — which is inevitable — but some of the changes weren’t for the better.”
Fellow preservationists use words like “blunt,” “transparent” and “energetic” to describe Owens. To read her spirited, occasionally wonkish blog, Preservation Winter Park, is to get an education about both architectural history and preservation policy.
If Owens is a wonk, she’s an entertaining one. She’s chatty, articulate and frequently flashes an oversized grin. Though she can be sarcastic — sometimes in a self-deprecating way — she seems to have little in common with the strident, confrontational figure whom her opponents describe.
“The public that shows up at City Hall sees her as intractable,” says Jeffrey Blydenburgh, an architect who worked with Owens on an ad hoc citizens committee that recommended changes to the ordinance. “I don’t see it that way.”
Stephen Pategas, a landscape architect who is vice chairman of the Friends of Casa Feliz, agrees. “Betsy will take time to analyze the situation and doesn’t jump to any conclusions,” he says. “I would call it passion with a purpose.”
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Owens was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in Winter Park. Her father died when she was 5, and her mother, Peggy, married Jack Rogers, the son of James Gamble Rogers II, when Owens was 7.
“After my father died, I was living in a house with my mother, my grandmother and my great-aunt,” Owens recalls. “I had these three women doting on me. The next thing I knew, I was on my way to Winter Park.”
Jack, who joined and eventually led his father’s architectural firm, became her adoptive father and her connection to the Rogers design tradition.
Because Jack, a widower, already had two sons, Owens got two ready-made brothers: John, now 49, who teaches at Winter Park Tech; and Geoffrey, now 46, who owns an advertising agency in Portland, Oregon.
Owens becomes emotional when discussing her biological father and her stepfather. “My mom married two of the greatest men on earth, as far as I’m concerned,” she says.
“They were both renaissance men,” she continues. “They were both senior class presidents and both valedictorians. I was so fortunate to have a second chance at having a fabulous family.” (Her biological father was, coincidentally, also named Jack and was an engineer.)
Of her adoptive father, now 76, she speaks in reverent tones. He is, she says, “a gifted, kind and humble man.” Jack’s brother — Betsy’s uncle — was Gamble Rogers IV, the late Florida folksinger who she remembers as “Jimmy.”
As for her legendary grandfather, Owens recalls him in his later years as a quiet, methodical man who squeezed his own juice from temple oranges, swam in Lake Osceola and drove around town in a Volkswagen Beetle he dubbed Sputnik.
He didn’t like vacations much, Owens says, and seemed ill at ease on the family’s farm in Georgia. “He was a presence in our lives, and wonderfully generous with us,” she recalls. “But he wasn’t a warm and fuzzy person. I got the sense that he didn’t quite know what to do with younger children.”
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After earning an economics degree at the University of Virginia and an MBA at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Owens worked for seven years as managing director of the West Virginia Roundtable, a nonprofit CEO group in Charleston. Her journalist husband, Paul Owens, had taken a job at the Charleston Daily Mail.
She got the chance to come home in late 2001, when Paul was hired as an editorial writer for the Orlando Sentinel, where he is now opinions editor.
At the time, Casa Feliz had just escaped the wrecking ball and had been moved to city property abutting the Winter Park Golf Course. That effort, led by Jack Rogers, spurred the city to take inventory of its significant structures and adopt its first historic-preservation ordinance.
In 2004, Owens became the part-time executive director at Casa Feliz, which serves as a special-events space as well as a museum. “I guess I had the right name,” she says. The Owenses’ children — Meg, 19, a student at New College in Sarasota; and Jack, 15, a student at Bishop Moore High School in Orlando — are adopted. The family lives in a circa-1940s Orwin Manor home that sits just outside Winter Park’s city limits.
Owens says her Orlando address has led some to label her an interloper, despite her Winter Park roots and leadership of Casa Feliz.
“I grew up in Winter Park. My family has a long history of making contributions to Winter Park,” says Owens, who sings in the Bach Festival Choir at Rollins College. “My heart is here.”
On behalf of the Friends of Casa Feliz — about 150 strong today, according to Owens — she has fostered an appreciation of the city’s architectural heritage by promoting such events as the James Gamble Rogers II Colloquium on Historic Preservation, held each May.
But it wasn’t until another high-profile historic home was threatened that Owens became truly immersed in preservation issues.
After hearing one day in 2013 that the 1885 Capen House — now referred to as the Capen-Showalter House — might be demolished, Owens posted the news on her blog and helped to make the issue a citywide cause célèbre.
Moving the house — a scheme that had saved Casa Feliz — emerged as the only solution. But there was a problem. Because of Winter Park’s tree canopy, the streets couldn’t accommodate the two-story structure. Still, Owens and others who rallied to the cause remained undaunted.
Owens recalls that the notion of floating the home across Lake Osceola to a vacant lot owned by the Albin Polasek Museum & Gardens was the result of a brainstorming session among a group of preservationists and contractor Frank Roark, who eventually supervised the move and the restoration.
Debbie Komanski, executive director of the Polasek, remembers getting a call from Owens as discussion and debate raged over how — and whether — to save the house. “Have I got an idea for you,” Komanski recalls hearing from her Casa Feliz counterpart. “Betsy’s very, very bright, and she likes to figure out solutions,” Komanski says.
The donated structure, which was famously sawed in half for the trip by barge, reopened in October. It now houses Polasek offices on the second floor while the first floor is available for community functions.
The project cost about $1.1 million, Komanski says, and funds were raised through a partnership among the Polasek, the Friends of Casa Feliz and the Winter Park History Museum. More than 400 individuals, many of them encouraged by the involvement of Rollins College President Emeritus Thaddeus Seymour, made donations.
“Going through this experience with the Capen-Showalter House helped Betsy and the board of Casa Feliz figure out what their mission was,” adds Komanski.
It also reinforced Owens’ view that trying to raise a million dollars every time a significant home was threatened wasn’t an effective preservation strategy. What was needed, Owens believed, was a stronger historic-preservation ordinance than the one adopted in 2001.
Determined to head off future last-minute rescue efforts, Owens and an ad hoc citizens committee spent more than a year studying preservation policies in other cities and cobbling together a revised ordinance tailored for Winter Park.
In addition to Owens, Blydenburgh and Pategas, committee members included Frank Hamner, a Winter Park attorney; Dykes Everett, owner of a land and natural-resources consulting company; and Scott Hillman, a real estate broker.
The city’s appointed Historic Preservation Board, which had been tasked with suggesting new incentives for individuals to voluntarily seek historic designation, eventually incorporated most of the committee’s suggestions in its own ordinance revision.
So it’s basically a hybrid document that passed on first reading during a marathon meeting attended by scores of opponents and proponents.
Most significantly, the threshold to form a district was lowered from 67 percent (or from 58 percent, a compromise offered in the draft submitted by the Historic Preservation Board) to 50 percent plus one, which is what the ad hoc committee had sought.
Nearly a dozen less-consequential amendments were approved by commissioners. However, an amendment proposed by Sprinkel that would have allowed individual homeowners to opt out of districts failed on a 3-2 vote.
Jack Rogers, who was among the 46 speakers addressing commissioners, insisted that the ordinance would enhance property values and asked, “Are we forgetting why we chose to live here in Winter Park?”
Districts are indeed good for property values, Owens argues in her blog. “Historic district designations give potential homebuyers the assurance that the neighborhood’s appearance will endure over time, and that they can reinvest in sensitive improvements to their own home without the fear that neighbors will undermine this investment.”
Even after lowering the voting threshold, Owens says, it will be no easy task to form a district.
At least half the homes in the proposed district would have to be considered “contributing” to the neighborhood’s historic character before designation would even be considered.
Then, 20 percent of property owners — at least half of whom would have to live in contributing homes — would petition the city, which would in turn conduct a study, write a report and disseminate it within the proposed district’s boundaries.
Finally, with the lower bar in place, an up-or-down vote would be held. Property owners who didn’t cast ballots would be counted as no votes. “There’ll be all kinds of hoops to jump through,” Owens notes.
As few as 12 homes could theoretically constitute a district, according to language in the ordinance. But how many new districts will actually come to pass is unknowable.
Plus, outside the two existing districts, nothing in the ordinance would prevent another Casa Feliz or Capen-Showalter House fiasco. Although some cities can simply decree historic status, in Winter Park individual homeowners must seek designation for their properties.
“That’s why we now have to focus on improving incentives” to get people to register their homes and start the district formation process, says Owens.
The issue of incentives is potentially fraught with contention. Should owners of historic homes — many of whom are likely to be affluent — get tax breaks for improving their properties? A sure-to-be-lively debate will play out in the coming months.
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Whenever Owens needs a reminder of why any of this matters, she can walk from her tiny office on the second floor of Casa Feliz to a downstairs room, where her grandfather’s sturdy drawing table occupies a corner and images of his graceful homes and other buildings adorn the walls.
“What appeals to me about my grandfather’s architecture is his artistry and attention to detail,” she says. “Nowadays people build to impress. He didn’t. His homes are of a human scale, built to nestle into the surrounding neighborhood rather than jut out from it.”
It’s serious business, and Owens takes it seriously. But those close to her know her as wickedly funny, with a keen sense of irony. Her Facebook friends enjoy her wry observations about family life and her pointed political commentaries.
Sometimes she’s just silly. “Which is more depressing?” She posted recently. “That Dennis Miller is 62 or that Adam Ant is 61 today?”
On a list entitled “25 Random Things About Me,” she opines that she’d make a good actress, recalls childhood anxiety over her large shoe size and confesses that her favorite TV show is Survivor because “I love all the Machiavellian intrigue.”
After good-naturedly ridiculing a reporter’s embarrassingly obsolete cell phone, Owens owns up to the fact that she has “an obnoxious sense of humor — I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut when I have something I want to say.”
Additional reporting by Dana S. Eagles.