In recent years, anyone driving down Orange Avenue from Winter Park to Orlando passed by this eyesore:
Of course, the house at 1509 North Orange Avenue hadn’t always looked this way. When it was constructed in 1926 for the Babcock Family, the house was a gleaming example of the Spanish eclectic architecture that would become so popular in Central Florida in the years that followed. The stucco, barrel-tile roofed structure attracted buyers to the new neighborhood by Walter Rose’s Central Florida Development Company. Orwin Manor—so named because it straddled the border of ORlando and WINter Park–was the first neighborhood in the area built with streetlamps, sidewalks, and a sewer system. The deed to the land specified that the buyer “shall at no time erect any dwelling on the above described premises costing any less than $7,500.00,” a princely sum at the time. The Babcocks’ home did not disappoint—its striking façade was detailed with arched French doors leading to shallow ironwork balconies, rounded arch vents, an asymmetrical recessed entry with decoratively sculpted plasterwork, and a beautiful side Florida room with arched windows. Clearly, this house was built to stop traffic on what was then called “Dixie Highway,” the only two-lane road between the two cities.
Through the years, the house was occupied by a series of prominent families, including citrus magnate JM McCord. Yet in recent decades, disrepair overtook the house’s original glory. Sheets of paint peeled from the façade. Overgrown shrubbery and ‘trash trees’ obscured the house’s architectural detailing. Six rusted vehicles cluttered the yard.
It would be reasonable for a passerby to assume that the house, which occupied this valuable piece of real estate a five-minute drive from both downtown Winter Park and Orlando, was not long for this world. Over the past 20 years, houses in better condition than this have been demolished on a weekly basis in Winter Park. Surely, even preservation pioneers would consider this dilapidated doozy “too far gone.”
Enter Aimee and Michael Spencer. Newly relocated to Winter Park, the Spencers had a penchant for old houses. They had restored a 1924 house in Colonialtown in the City of Orlando and painstakingly built another in Historic Flamingo Park in the City of West Palm Beach to “look like it was built in the 1920s”. Their work was so convincing that they frequently got questions from people wondering about “the restoration.”
Still, when they crossed the threshold with their real estate agent, the house was a full-on assault on their senses. See for yourself:
Sheets of paint hung from ceilings, rust-stained from years of roof and plumbing leakage. Floors and windows hadn’t been maintained for decades. The piles of clutter and boxes created a labyrinthine effect, stacked in nearly every room. The kitchen was squalid, with rusted cabinets hanging from their hinges. During their visit, the couple counted six cats and four dogs.
But the Spencers liked a challenge. They saw beneath the clutter and grime the bones of a structure that would be extremely costly if impossible to rebuild. Plus, Michael, a general contractor and construction manager for SeaWorld, had a lot more know-how than your average homebuyer. They rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
The first step was to discern what jobs they should farm out and what they could realistically tackle themselves with their three-year-old daughter, Ava Grace, nipping at their heels. In the former category they put the roof, which was painstakingly repaired—section by section, tiles were removed, subroof replaced, and then tiles reinstalled. The electric and plumbing systems were completely replaced. The exterior of the house required extensive scraping and repainting. Interior plaster ceilings and walls had to be replaced because of water damage.
A lot of the work involved a complete restoration of the original doors and windows. The Spencers teamed with CCS Restorations of Sanford for the work. While it might have been easier to replace rather than restore, the quality of the original woodwork was apparent. Though shabby in appearance, the heart cypress sashes had no rot, despite at least 30 years of neglect. Plus, according to Aimee, “new doors and windows rob a historic house of its soul.” The Spencers removed the windows a few at a time, drove them to Sanford, and restored the jambs themselves while CCS tackled the sashes. Seeing the beautifully restored and reinstalled windows and doors, it would be difficult to argue that their labor was unjustified. The soul of the house flourishes.
The backyard required a full-scale excavation. When all was said and done, they had hauled 4 dumpsters full of trash from the property. When they thought they were done, they uncovered a Suzuki Samurai hidden in the back yard’s overgrown vegetation.
The interior of the house is an anomaly–it retains its historic character while gleaming with newness. The special Benjamin Moore metallic blue paint shimmers as sun streams in through the French doors. Although many of the fixtures in the bathrooms and kitchen are new, the Spencers took care to choose things that were period-appropriate. They were also able to reuse the ‘subway’ tile from the original bathrooms for the butler’s pantry and backsplashes.
By May 2012, the home was ready to occupy, although the couple continues to chip away at painting and yardwork. Ava Grace now occupies a pink-painted room with dark brown stuffed monkeys and polka dots frolicking on the linens. The Spencers have received broad recognition for the project. In 2012, the house was named to the Winter Park Register of Historic Places. Earlier this year, the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation presented the Spencers with an Outstanding Achievement award. The website of “This Old House” features the house’s restoration. It’s easy to see why:
Here are some after shots provided by the Spencers. Preservation Winter Park has verified with our own eyes that in fact, these ARE the same house:
And although the Spencers “intend to be repainting this house when (they’re) 80,” the rehab has made financial sense as well. Purchased for $275,000, after complete renovations the couple will have invested less than $200 per square foot for a house with all new mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, insulation, waterproof membrane and original tile roof, and refinished or new finished in place hardwoods. The estimate even includes the cost of a future swimming pool and fenced backyard.
Still, Aimee says the greatest rewards for their labor are intangible. “People have gotten so far away from caring for their own homes. The further away you get, the less appreciation you have for the richness of the materials, which combine function and beauty. With this home, we’ve gotten to witness a Phoenix rising from the ashes.” She also hopes that their persistence will teach Ava Grace that “anything worth having is worth the work.”
Looking ahead, Aimee plans to become more active in historic preservation in Winter Park. “I hope the city will start to put a higher priority on protecting historic houses. We need a stronger ordinance, and better incentives for people to have their houses listed.” She serves on the Friends of Casa Feliz’s advocacy committee, and is eager to share with Winter Park some of the preservation successes she witnessed during her years in Orlando and West Palm Beach.
Meanwhile, there’s more crown molding that needs to be painted, and some screens to repair. The Phoenix has risen, but he needs to be fed.