Channeling Despair into Activism
Pat Robertson vividly remembers the year 1969, when she was 14 and her parents wrestled with buying their stately home at 950 Palmer Avenue, then known as the Joshua Chase House. She says her parents couldn’t really afford the house—it was $89,000, which was a huge stretch for the couple raising four children. Pat recalls, “After church one day, my dad tried to interest my mom in another, less expensive house that was for sale on Georgia Avenue. My brother and sisters and I got out of the car, and ran all around that house and through the backyard. We thought it was great.” Her mother refused to get out of the car. She had fallen in love with the 1926 Mediterranean on Palmer, and if they couldn’t afford it, she’d just as soon stay in Maitland.
As is often the case when it comes to real estate transactions, the wife prevailed. Page Schenck convinced Jay, who with his brother Virgil ran the Schenck Company beer distributorship, that she would be willing to sacrifice other budget items in order to move into the Chase House. And Jay held her to it. Pat remembers that they lived in the house without living room or dining room furniture for more than a year. But Page was content because she loved every inch of the house, even unfurnished. “Mom and Dad could make do with less, and wanted their kids to do the same. They didn’t believe in buying things on credit. My sisters and I had a meager clothing allowance. We made our own clothes.” One year, when Pat and her younger sister were teenagers, they both asked for 10-speed bikes for Christmas. “We came down Christmas morning, and they had gotten us one 10-speed bike, and it was a tandem,” laughs Pat.
Page instilled in Pat her love for the craftsmanship of an old home. “Every detail of that house – the windows, the door hardware, the light fixtures, the slate floors—was a work of art,” remembers Pat.
In fact, they studied together the original letters that citrus magnate Joshua Chase had written to the contractor while his house was being built, and the original plans, which were lovingly stored in a brown suede bag. In a stroke of kismet, they discovered that the plans were dated April 1, Pat’s and Page’s shared birthday.
The house exuded history. Pat said that each of the beautiful mahogany bedroom doors had door knockers; evidently the house received overflow guests from the nearby Alabama Hotel in the 1930s and 40s. The original floor tiles had been used as ballast on a ship that came over from Europe in 1925. Over the garage, there were two servants’ rooms that had dial recievers on the wall; each bedroom in the main house had a buzzer that communicated with the receiver to summon the servants to the appropriate room. The Schencks didn’t have live-in help, but the kids had a grand time playing with the buzzers from a bygone era. The house also had its own incinerator and chimney for disposing of trash, common in the 1920s but a curiosity in the 1970s.
In the late 1980s, a friend created this video of the picturesque home:
“The thing that I most loved about the house was the textures,” says Pat. She waxes poetic about the nooks and crannies that adorned each room, the rough plaster walls, the curved ironwork railings, the cold slate floors that brought relief even in the hottest months. Pat says spending time in their grandparents’ house engendered a love for historic homes in her own children. “My son has bought a 100-year-old house in Asheville that he’s having to put a lot of work into, but he loves it, and it’s worth it.”
After Jay Schenck died in 2004, his heirs put the 5,264 square foot historic home on the market. These photos were taken to market the home:
Unfortunately, the siblings couldn’t reach consensus on whether to list it on the Winter Park Register of Historic Places, which would have protected the house from demolition, but had the potential for reducing the selling price. Pat prayed that someone would buy it who would cherish the house, its history and its eccentricities, and not just want the prestigious lakefront lot. But this was not to be.
The new owner immediately began demolition on the house he purchased for $3.3 million. A wrecking crew arrived on property, and demolished all but the pergola, two fireplaces and the wall between the garage and kitchen. Pat went to the property and walked among the rubble. “It’s good I went alone, because I wailed like a hyena,” she says. “I just couldn’t believe it.” She harvested a piece of green tile from her girlhood bathroom that she cherished, and a tiny scrap of curtain. “It was all that was left.”
In place of the 1926 Chase-Schenck House, an 11,800 square foot mansion, complete with his-and-her dressing rooms, travertine floors and a “grand staircase” rose up to take its place. In 2010, the owner stopped making payments and the bank foreclosed on the double-wide hacienda, pictured below:
In 2011, Fifth Third Bank sold the house to the current owner for $2.65 million.
As a result of what happened with her parents’ house, Pat got active in historic preservation. “You have to take the poison in your life and make something good come from it,” she says. She credits serving on the Casa Feliz board as part of her healing. “If I can help save other significant Winter Park homes from ending up like my parents’ did, I want to help do it.” Currently, Pat serves on the steering committee of Preservation Capen, which will oversee the move of the 1885 Capen House this December. She’s convinced some of her siblings, who were chagrined at the demolition of their parents’ home, to contribute financially to saving the Capen House.
She has a reputation in the community as being a diplomatic and effective advocate for keeping Winter Park true to its roots. “If I had to name the five people who have given the most to preservation in this community, Pat’s name would be among them,” says Jack Rogers, who served with Pat on the Friends board. “She has made Casa Feliz a better organization, and Winter Park a better city. Her energy is a force of nature.”
One house that will never meet with the wrecking ball is Pat’s own lakefront home on College Point, an eclectic Italianate house with craftsman-style features, where she lives with her husband Randy. They purchased the home from Thad and Polly Seymour in 2007, and like her mother before her, Pat knew instantly when she crossed the threshold that she was meant to live there. “I’ve never been in a house with such clean, good energy. I told Randy, don’t tell me what the taxes are, because then I won’t want to buy it, and I’m going to buy this house.” The 1933 house is listed on the Winter Park Register of Historic Places.
Looking ahead, Pat hopes that Winter Park will heed the wakeup call to prevent future demolitions of the homes that add so much to the community. “These special homes truly define Winter Park, and once they’re gone, they’re gone. I’m optimistic that Winter Park’s preservation ordinance will be strengthened to safeguard our architectural history.”
If that happens, it means that Winter Parkers would find it a lot more difficult to demolish a 1926 landmark home to build an oversized faux chateau with an in-home theater. But then again, maybe we could all learn to make do with a little less.