At 21, I moved into my first non-dormitory apartment in Winter Park. The two-bedroom, one-bath apartment reminded me a lot of the one in Barefoot in the Park. It oozed charm.
Much like the apartment in Barefoot in the Park, that charm, I learned, took fortitude. The apartment had a gas stove, which terrified me, wood floors which weren’t exactly even, and a flea infestation.
I loved it until I couldn’t anymore. I had a one-hour commute to my part-time job (Walt Disney World) and a one-hour commute to college classes (at UCF). Orlando, as the saying goes, is an hour from Orlando.
Now, 30 years later, I can look back at what a mess 21-year-old Cathy was and laugh. Enough time has passed, too, that I can look back on yay life in Winter Park with fondness and nostalgia.
So, when my podcast co-host Rick Kilby asked me to come to Winter Park to give a talk at Casa Feliz, I happily said yes and set to work researching WPA architecture in Central Florida. My research about the WPA in Florida deals mostly with the CCC and Federal One, but I really wanted to take a road trip to Winter Park.
After a nightmarish drive on I-4 (have I mentioned how much I do not like the Eisenhower Interstate System?), I rolled into Winter Park with a couple of hours to spare before my talk. I parked at Casa Feliz and set to strolling. My first stop? My old apartment building, El Cortez.
From the outside, it didn’t look as though any time had passed, other than the addition of a sign calling the property “historic.” I can only assume the owners consider the building historic because it dates to 1923, not because I once lived here.
I didn’t get a good look at anything but the outside, but I did enjoy seeing the building again and remembering the good parts of being 21. I hadn’t thought about my neighbors, Ashley and Stuart, in probably 29 years or so. I know they broke up, but I have no idea what happened to either of them. We were all so young and stupid together, and Winter Park was a great place to be young and stupid: A smaller, seemingly safer version of Orlando, with more charm (there’s that word again), a sushi restaurant within walking distance (I’d be shocked to learn it’s the same owners, but today it’s called Umi Japanese Fusion – “fusion” was not a food word 30 years ago – and if you want real history, here’s where I first ate sushi.)
With not enough time to spare to head to the Polasek or walk around the Rollins campus, I headed to Bosphourous, where I feasted on baba ganoush and stuffed cabbage. I sat at a sidewalk table, sipped my wine, and enjoyed the calm buzz of Winter Park’s downtown as it swirled around me.
At Casa Feliz, a mansion moved from the lake to save it from demolition, I gave my talk, met some lovely people, and packed it all up to head home. As I made my way back home – this time over somewhat less crowded roads, I reflected on the changes in Winter Park’s downtown over the past three decades. It’s a little, for lack of a better word, bougie-r than it felt in 1993, but it still has that charm and, even though someone thought plunking down a Pottery Barn in the historic downtown was an excellent idea, Winter Park remains a special Florida place.