Tag Archives: Winter Park

Winter Park Memories and Casa Feliz

Winter Park Memories and Casa Feliz at night, with yellow light from inside the arches of the brick building
Winter Park memories and Casa Feliz were both on the docket on a recent road trip.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

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.

A three-story apartment building in Winter Park
My first apartment ever. The part of the building that looks like an afterthought? That was the master bedroom.
Cathy Salustri

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.

Winter Park Memories and Casa Feliz

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.

A 1930s-era brick mansion in Winter Park
Casa Feliz in Winter Park.

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. I anticipated walking with my Winter Park memories and, later, a talk at Casa Feliz.

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.

Winter Park’s El Cortez Looks About the Same

a sign that reads "History Property – All Grills are Prohibited on Property" in Winter Park — Winter Park Memories and Casa Feliz
I had no idea my first apartment was considered historic.

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.

The entrance to an apartment building in Winter Park — Winter Park Memories and Casa Feliz
While exploring Winter Park, I wandered over to my first grown-up living rom. Pictured: the view of the living room. The air conditioner may be new, but not much else looks to have changed.
Cathy Salustri

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. While 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.)

a plate of stuffed cabbage in Winter Park — Winter Park Memories and Casa Feliz
The stuffed cabbage at Winter Park’s Bosphorous is worth the trip.

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.

A Talk at Casa Feliz

At Casa Feliz, a mansion moved from the lake to save it from demolition, I gave my talk. After the talk, I 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.

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Road Trip: Winter Park’s Alfond Inn is both hotel and art museum

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.

Henry Plant's The Seminole

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.

This article appeared originally in Creative Loafing Tampa.