A few weeks back, we asked our readers to tell us about their favorite house in Winter Park. While there were some predictable (and excellent) choices—The Palms, Casa Feliz, that-amazing-red-brick-house-on-Seminole-that-everyone-drools-over—it was a pleasant surprise that a number of respondents said that they were LIVING in their favorite Winter Park house. This was a good excuse to visit, and profile, two of them:
“This house IS Winter Park.”
Lots of houses look wonderfully old on the outside. They have gorgeous historic wrought-iron, hand-hewn balconies, and charming architectural features that please the eye and the soul. Then you go inside, and you might as well be in a five-year-old Isleworth mansion. All signs of yesteryear have been eradicated to ‘meet the needs of today’s homeowner.’
Delightfully, this is not the case with Sally Flynn’s 1929 Virginia Heights home. Precious little has changed since the day she laid eyes on it in 1966, save a few cosmetic touches and the expansion of the family room, and today the house is even more soulful inside than it is outside. The Spanish style house sits on just over an acre on the west shore of Lake Virginia, and Sally has an unobstructed view from her porch of the only large plat of undeveloped land on the lake—the Windsong Preserve. “Every time I pull into my driveway,” Sally says, “I feel I’m the luckiest person in the world.”
If Hollywood were to design a set for an idyllic childhood home, it couldn’t come closer than this one. Sally raised her five (now adult) children in the house. She reflects, “this house IS Winter Park to my children,” only one of whom still lives in Florida. Although the rooms are very large, with original plaster, antique decorative light fixtures, gorgeous magnolia ceiling beams, and crown molding, there isn’t a piece of furniture that couldn’t withstand a sick child reclining on it, or a dog’s muddy paws. The huge dining room is populated by family antiques—none of them overly fancy or off-putting, the kind of furnishings that root you to a simpler past. None of the upholstery really matches, yet it is the most unintentionally elegant home I have ever been inside. “I’ve never had a decorator,” says Sally. “Never had much interest in that.”
The house boasts a large, farmhouse kitchen with lots of original cabinets, homey wallpaper, formica countertops and a kitchen table that says, ‘come sit down.’ There’s a sweeping expanse of lawn between the house and the lake, whose rose garden was removed so it didn’t interfere with her three sons’ backyard baseball games. If you listen carefully, you can almost still hear the squeals of children running the bases, chasing each other up and down what has to be the most inviting staircase in Winter Park, or running laps around the downstairs. Perhaps, though, this is because a bevy of Sally’s 12 grandchildren have just recently departed from spending a week spring break at Camp Grammy.
And while, let’s be honest, you cannot own a grand house full of lovely antiques on an acre of land on Lake Virginia without being a person of some means, Sally’s humble, New England pragmatism pervades every part of her person. For instance, the 3 ½ bathroom house initially had no shower. She eventually added one in the kids’ half of the upstairs to satisy her brood of athlete teenagers, but the master ‘suite,’ if you could call it that, still has only the original tub, sink and toilet. “For heaven’s sakes, what more do I need?” says Sally, whose drip-dry grey bob hairstyle is about as unfussy as they come.
And, sitting on Sally’s sun porch overlooking a still Lake Virginia on a bright, breezy spring day, I’d be hard put to think of any need this house wouldn’t satisfy.
Marjorie’s Happy Place
Bet you didn’t know that, on the south shore of Lake Osceola, there’s a 99-year-old house that sits on 4 (count ‘em) otherwise undeveloped acres. And if walls could speak, Bryan and Marjorie Bekaert Thomas’ house could almost dictate a history of Winter Park. The 1915 English arts and crafts style house, once called “Pine Needles,” was built on the former site of the famed Seminole Hotel, which burned in 1902.
Accented by trellises bearing fuchsia bougainvillea, the 4700 square foot woodframe house has always been home to prominent Winter Park families. Built for Mr. and Mrs. Harley Gibbs, old “Winter Park Forum” articles tell stories of the gracious society entertaining that took place there. The subsequent owners, the Freemans, also fêted Winter Park’s gentry. Their daughter Billie Freeman Greene, who would raise her family there, was a well-known botanist, watercolor artist and published author. Billie’s husband Ray was a top administrator at Rollins, developed Greeneda Court on Park Avenue, and served as Winter Park mayor in the 1950s.
When the Thomases moved to Winter Park in 1982, Marjorie had her sights set on another house across the lake, but wondered whether the house was priced fairly. For comparison purposes, her real estate agent took her to Pine Needles, which was a much bigger house on much more land than the couple had considered purchasing. Marjorie fell madly in love. “I knew the instant I crossed the threshold,” she remembers. Bryan needed convincing—they lived in the house five years before he would admit he had grown to love it as much as she did from the start.
Yet the house is not what you would expect from the founder and owner of a multi-million dollar news production company, Ivanhoe Broadcast News, and someone who spends her spare time playing polo. Marjorie is a steel magnolia—a shrewd businesswoman with the easy laugh, warm smile and gentile accent of a North Carolina belle.
“I hate McMansions,” says Marjorie. Indeed, her house, grounds and furnishings bespeak a lack of pretension wholly absent in squeaky-new homes dripping in travertine. Like Sally Flynn’s, Marjorie’s kitchen is somewhat cluttered with projects and looks as if someone actually prepares food there. There are four fireplaces with well-worn hearths. The huge yard is wild, with mown turf mixed with sand where you might expect manicured boxwood. It’s perfectly suited to long games of fetch with her beloved dogs–an Australian shepherd and a Border collie.
And while it’s a large house for two people, Marjorie and Bryan use most of the rooms. They recently moved all the furniture out of the grand living room, with the wall of windows overlooking Lake Osceola, so that they could practice yoga there. Bryan works from home in the remodeled servant’s quarters, and they frequently host out-of-town guests. Marjorie’s favorite room in the house? One of two sun porches. “I love nothing more than to sit here on Sunday and read the New York Times.”
As much as she cherishes the house, Marjorie loves the property even more, and has resisted numerous tempting offers to sell off portions of it. She told one suitor, who kept upping the ante, “Do NOT call me again. I do not want to have to say ‘yes’” she laughs. Her long-range plan is to move into the 1600 sq. foot guest house, designed by James Gamble Rogers and recently updated, and to rent or sell the house and grounds. This pattern was established by Billie Greene, who continued to live in the guest house for years after Marjorie and Bryan occupied the main house. Marjorie happily yielded to Billie’s tending flower beds around the property, and harvesting bouquets for the Winter Park Library next door.
It’s only appropriate, on one of Winter Park’s most storied properties, that history will repeat itself.