The modest wood-frame house shown on Winter Park Magazine’s cover isn’t the sort of mansion you might expect to find along Lake Berry’s shoreline. In fact, you’ve probably never even seen the house, since it sits, unoccupied but lovingly maintained, in the midst of the Genius Preserve, a lush 48-acre site owned by the Elizabeth Morse Genius Foundation.
The preserve is a privately owned oasis of Old Florida adjacent to the upscale Windsong subdivision. Next to the house, known colloquially as the Ward House, is a restored citrus packing plant — unused, but pristine — while a short walk away is “Wind Song,” the Spanish revival manor once occupied by Hugh and Jeannette Genius McKean.
Wind Song was originally built in 1936 by Jeannette’s father, Dr. Richard Genius, on land inherited from his father, Charles Hosmer Morse. Jeannette’s mother, Elizabeth Morse Genius, had died in 1928. Morse, Jeannette’s grandfather, was the Chicago industrialist who developed much of Winter Park in the early 1900s, and lived here year-round following his retirement.
That more opulent house, abutting Lake Virginia, is likewise unoccupied. But it remains furnished, just as though Hugh and Jeannette, iconic Winter Parkers who died in 1995 and 1989, respectively, were still in residence — perhaps upstairs preparing for the arrival of dinner guests.
If the whole setup gives you a slightly spooky Twilight Zone-type vibe, you aren’t alone. This is, indeed, an unusual piece of ground — steeped in Winter Park lore and swarming with prominent ghosts.
But since this was Morse-Genius-McKean property, how did the Ward House come to be there in the first place?
The answer is, it wasn’t there in the first place. It was originally built in 1886, on property nearby that was part of the 152-acre tract sold to Windsong’s developers. The foundation board voted to move the Ward House — and, thankfully for local historians, the packing plant — to its present site in the 1990s, thus sparing them from demolition.
It’s one of those quirky only-in-Winter Park stories.
Despite its moniker as the Ward House, the homey Cracker classic was originally built by Dr. Nathan Barrows, a transplanted New Englander who practiced medicine but became a professor of mathematics at newly founded Rollins College when he moved to Winter Park in 1885. He was also an original college trustee and a signatory to the town charter in 1887. (Winter Park wasn’t incorporated as a city until 1925.)
By all accounts, the Barrows family — which included wife Susan and two sons — created a lovely home with verdant grounds. “[Barrows] has built a neat and comfortable house, and has got trees, vines, flowers, vegetables and grass well started,” enthused a reporter in an 1887 edition of Lochmede, a local newspaper. “Those who think it takes 10 years to make a home in Florida should go and see what can be done in one, if only a little thought and care and muscle are put out at interest during the time.”
When his health began to fail in the 1890s, Barrows and his family returned to Massachusetts, where he died in 1900. Susan Barrows then sold the house to H.A. “Harley” Ward, yet another important but sometimes overlooked figure in Winter Park history.
A civic jack-of-all-trades, Ward was the local agent managing the interests of Charles Hosmer Morse. He was also a former alderman and mayor, and an entrepreneur involved in business ranging from banking to insurance to agriculture.
Ward died in 1954, but his family continued to own the house until 1965. It was eventually acquired by the Winter Park Land Company, which Ward had served as vice president, then by the Elizabeth Morse Genius Foundation, which was founded by Jeannette in honor of her mother in 1959.
“My dad and his seven siblings all grew up there,” says Harold A. Ward, an attorney with Winderweedle, Ward, Haines & Woodman whose clients include the Charles Hosmer Morse Foundation — which supports the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art — and the Elizabeth Morse Genius Foundation. “When we restored the house after it was moved, some minor additions my grandfather added were removed — so it should be about as Professor Barrow originally built it.”
The painting of the Ward House was done by Stephen Bach last year in recognition of the law firm’s 85th anniversary. Bach’s work has appeared on the cover of Winter Park Magazine more than that of any other artist. That’s a testament not only to the breathtaking quality of his work, but also to his penchant for choosing local subjects.
And, of course, his versatility. Bach is equally adept at painting images of moody urbanscapes, lush landscapes and quaint Cracker-style houses.
Bach, an Orlando native who trained at the Pratt Institute in New York City, began his career traveling across the U.S. to paint murals in nearly 500 Olive Garden restaurants in 47 states. (The parent company of the ubiquitous Italian eateries, then General Mills and now Darden Restaurants, is located in Orlando.)
Fifteen years ago, Bach decided to pursue his goal of becoming a fine-art landscape painter. He works out of MacRae Art Studios, now located at 1000 Arlington Street, Orlando, and travels to festivals around the country.
He has emerged as the go-to artist for special-event posters. His painting, Veteran’s Fountain by Night, was selected as the official poster of the 2013 Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival. And, for 10 of its 14 years, he was the poster artist for the Winter Park Concours d’Elegance, an annual collector-car show.
In addition to classic cars and rural landscapes, Bach is fascinated by homes and commercial buildings. His knack for capturing the personalities of structures is why he was asked to render a portrait of the historic Capen-Showalter House, which appeared on the cover of the Winter 2016 issue of Winter Park Magazine.
For more information about Bach’s work visit stephenbach.com or mcraeartstudios.com.
— Randy Noles