The Alfond is big on art — and on helping fund Rollins students’ educations.
When I lived in Winter Park 24 years ago, I didn’t appreciate the history of the place — I was too caught up in its charm. It’s still charming, but, after doing some research on Henry Plant, I have a new appreciation for why Winter Park exists. As with many things in Florida — especially in the middle of the state — the reason goes back to the railroad.
“No,” says our boat captain as we putter around Lake Osceola and Lake Virginia, “Plant never had a hotel here.” The Winter Park Scenic Boat Tours offer great views of the small town’s stately lakeside homes, but historians their captains aren’t: Not only did Henry Plant build a hotel on Lake Osceola, he built it pretty much where they launch their boats. Seems like the kind of history a tour boat captain should know.
Rachel Simmons, the archivist at the Winter Park Public Library, did some digging and told me that Plant’s Seminole Hotel was a stone’s throw from the present-day Alfond Inn, where E. New England Ave. dead-ends on Lake Virginia. The Seminole was so large it stretched from Lake Virginia to Lake Osceola — ending, she tells me, at the Scenic Boat Tours’ current dock.
The Seminole was one of a string of hotels built across Florida as part of Henry Plant and Henry Flagler’s frenemie-ship. These two men had significant wealth, and they used it to build rival empires in Florida. The stakes were high for the burgeoning state, but for the men, Florida was their playground, a place where they could continuously one-up each other. For example: The Seminole, built in 1885, had 200 rooms. Flagler opened St. Augustine’s Ponce de Leon Hotel three years later with 400 rooms. In 1888, Plant started work on the Tampa Bay Hotel, which would have 500 rooms, with new features: a horse-racing track and 70-foot-long pool. Flagler responded in St. Augustine by opening the Alcazar with a full gymnasium, a 120-foot-long pool, a bowling alley and an archery range. Both men wanted to build the largest wooden structure in the world, and Flagler earned that honor with the 1894 Hotel Royal Poinciana in Palm Beach — but Plant came in second with the 1896 Belleview Biltmore.
Winter Park was part of this playing field. In 1880, the census didn’t count Winter Park as a separate entity, simply as part of the larger Precinct 2, perhaps because of the lack of people. By 1890, thanks in large part to the Plant railroad, Winter Park had a population of 270. In 2010, the census counted 27,852 people — an increase of 10,000 percent. The Seminole had 250 rooms, launches, billiard rooms, a bowling alley, stables, private bathrooms and panoramic views of the wilderness from which this magnificent hotel insulated the guests. People would arrive in Winter Park courtesy of the Plant railroad, and mule-driven cars would take them to the hotel’s front door. It was an oasis of luxury at the edge of the Florida frontier, visited by the elite.
The Seminole burned down in 1902, and a second, smaller one took its place in 1912, lasting until 1970. And that, it might seem, would be the end of grand hotels built with great wealth in Winter Park.
Except it isn’t. A stone’s throw from the original Seminole, Rollins College built and owns a hotel with modern luxuries — not quite the equivalent of The Seminole, but certainly luxurious enough. The hotel’s amenities aren’t the reason we write about it, though; it’s the way the hotel operates that make this a destination in Winter Park. A $12.5 million-dollar grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation (Harold Alfond’s daughter-in-law, Barbara Lawrence Alfond, met Harold Alfond’s son, Ted, when they both attended Rollins in the 1960s) made provisions for building the 112-room hotel, with all the profit going to scholarships for Rollins students (a four-year education at Rollins costs $230,000, slightly higher than Eckerd College and slightly lower than Harvard). To date, the Alfond Inn has funded $4.9 million in scholarships for 35 students.
While Plant decorated his hotels with art and sculpture he collected in Europe (trying, one might assume, to outdo Flagler, who hired Louis Tiffany to design the interior of the Ponce de Leon hotel), the Alfond takes another tactic: The hotel is, literally, an art museum. Paintings, mixed media, photographs and sculpture adorn every floor, and not typical hotel art either. Ted and Barbara Alfond, with their curator, Abigail Ross Goodman, bought 240 pieces and donated it to the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College. From this collection — the Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art — the Alfond rotates pieces throughout its public spaces. Jaume Plensa’s steel-and-stone “The Hermit XI” adorns the outdoor area, lit at night to showcase the steel alphabet letters that comprise the human form. The collection also includes “Sharbat Gula, Afghan Girl, Pakistan,” the stunning Steve McCurry photo that graced the cover of National Geographic. As the Alfond notes in its promotional materials, the variety within the collection is intended as a “visual syllabus” for a liberal arts education. The hotel is a grand gallery in intimate places; while waiting for the elevator, Rachel Perry’s 2010 “Lost in My Life (Wrapped Books)” enchanted me.
As with Henry Plant’s grand hotel, the Alfond welcomes the public — to eat, drink or browse.
After all, it’s a Winter Park tradition.
If you go
The Alfond Inn
300 E. New England Ave., Winter Park.
Also in Winter Park
Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens
633 Osceola Ave., Winter Park. $5.
Bosphorous Turkish Cuisine
108 S. Park Ave., Winter Park.