The Capen House: 520 N. Interlachen Avenue
There are precious few houses in the city of Winter Park as old as the Capen House, located at 520 North Interlachen Avenue. Built in 1885 for James S. Capen, one of the city’s early settlers, the house was initially constructed in a Folk Victorian style, and celebrated by the local community. City founder Loring Chase wrote in Winter Park Scrapbook on September 22, 1885, “Our handsome friend, J.S. Capen will soon move into his new house on the banks of beautiful Lake Osceola. It is an elegant house, but none too good for Seymour, who is the very best of men.” Capen Avenue on Winter Park’s West side is testament to Mr. Capen’s importance as a city father, a former town alderman and developer of the “Dinky Line” train route through the city. Capen was chosen as a member of the committee to greet President Benjamin Harrison when he visited Winter Park.
In 1923, the house was purchased by another prominent Winter Parker, Howard Showalter, who remodeled it to its current Tudor Revival style. The Showalter family built Winter Park’s first and only airfield, which would later become the gridiron where the Wildcats play and cheer on Friday nights.
Last week a demolition permit was granted by the City of Winter Park, allowing the 128-year-old home to be razed after June 13. Preservation-minded people are scratching their heads to connect the dots. How did we get from there to here?
The recent history of the Capen House has been enigmatic. In 2007, Clardy Malugen, the house’s former owner, engaged Steve Feller, a Winter Park architect known for his expertise in working on historic properties, to oversee an extensive restoration. Malugen says she spent over $700,000 restoring the floors and woodwork, and adding new plumbing, wiring, air conditioning, and appliances. “I put my heart and soul into this house,” says Malugen. “There is no other house in Winter Park like it.”
She was so proud of the restored house that she applied to have it listed on the Winter Park Register of Historic Places. The city historic preservation staff wrote in its report that “The Capen House has been kept in good condition through the years, retains its significance and is recommended for listing as a local landmark.” The Winter Park Historic Preservation Board unanimously approved the application and on August 8, 2011, the Winter Park City Commission designated the house as an historic landmark (http://cityofwinterpark.org/Docs/Government/OrdinancesResolutions/2091-11.pdf).
Unfortunately, Malugen encountered severe liquidity issues when the real estate market – in which she was heavily invested – went south. In fact, foreclosure proceedings by Sun Trust Bank were already underway in 2011 when the house was designated. The house was repossessed on July 17, 2012, and the bank enlisted local real estate agent Kelly Price & Company to find a buyer.
On August 1, 2012, Price listed the home for $3.2 million. The following is an excerpt from the description the realtor wrote to market the property: “In the heart of Winter Park, built in 1901 (sic), a historical masterpiece set on Lake Osceola. This traditional four bedroom, three bath home with a detached guest house is spectacular! Throughout this home are beautifully maintained pine floors, three fireplaces, an enclosed sun porch that wraps around the house with gorgeous views of the lake, along with a gourmet kitchen with top of the line appliances… This historic home has kept its charm and character with amazing wood details, glass doorknobs, and unique windows and doors… Do not miss out on this one of a kind lakefront property!” To see photos from the real estate listing, click here: http://www.estately.com/sold/520-n-interlachen-ave
Despite this glowing description, the powers that be clearly believed that the house would be more marketable as a tear down. Like most historic homes, the house has limitations when compared to more modern houses in the same price range: a somewhat odd layout of rooms which doesn’t optimize the lake view, a 1-car garage, and an upstairs master bedroom. Consequently, just two weeks after listing, Jason Searl, an attorney for Gray Robinson representing Sun Trust, wrote to City Planner Jeff Briggs, requesting that the house be stripped of its historic designation. Searl argued in the letter that the bank had already begun legal proceedings to repossess the house when it was listed on the Register, casting doubt on Malugen’s right to encumber the house with the restrictions placed on historically designated properties.
On September 24, 2012 the Winter Park City Commission, doubtless fearing a lawsuit from one of Central Florida’s most powerful law firms filed on behalf of Central Florida’s largest bank, voted unanimously to remove the Capen House from the Register. A month later, the price was slashed to a mere $2.1 million, and the house quickly sold.
The new owners, John and Betsy Pokorny, intend to raze the house and build a new one in its place. The house, John told me, has serious mold and foundation problems, and the layout is untenable for his family’s needs. He has contracted with a celebrated local architect and intends to build a ‘contemporary farmhouse,’ actually smaller than the Capen House. John said that they love Winter Park for its history and charm, and understand the need to save historic buildings—in fact, a few years back, the Pokornys worked with Steve Feller to painstakingly restore their beautiful historic home on Virginia Avenue. They considered remodeling the Capen House to meet their needs, but after meeting with numerous building professionals determined it would have been prohibitively expensive to solve the house’s problems and then ‘retrofit’ the house to their liking. When we spoke, he offered to donate the house to any group willing to move it, and contribute $10,000 toward the move.
It’s as easy to find excuses for the actions of each of the players in this unfortunate drama as it is to assign blame. Yet whether or not you believe the Capen House is salvagable, the fact remains that one of the city’s oldest homes, historically significant enough to be listed as a Winter Park Historic Landmark as recently as 2011, will likely soon be destroyed. In a sense, all of Winter Park bears some responsibility in creating the barometric conditions where this perfect storm, resulting in the destruction of a historic, albeit somewhat compromised, house is allowed to occur.
Is the Capen House one of the most architecturally or historically significant homes in the history of Winter Park? Thirty years ago, the answer may have been “no.” But recent decades have witnessed the almost systematic demolition of scores of the city’s prized historic homes. For instance, in 2005, one of James Gamble Rogers’ most notable homes – the Tudor style house on the Isle of Sicily, owned for 50 years by philanthropists John and Sylvia Tiedtke—was demolished to make way for a larger, more modern home. Also that year, the large Mediterranean home known as “the Annie Russell House” on Via Tuscany was razed. A 12,000 square foot 21-room “Moroccan-themed” compound was erected in its place. Set against this backdrop, those who value the city’s heritage are apt to cling to each of the city’s scarce remaining historic homes, even those not in pristine condition. Your great-grandmother’s tarnished silver brooch becomes particularly dear if the diamond and emerald ones have been stolen. It’s not perfect, and it might not fetch much at an antique show, but it’s all you have to remember her by.
If Winter Park is to remain the gem of Central Florida, all of the city’s stakeholders – the mayor, commissioners, city staff, people in building construction and design, real estate brokers, and citizens—must take stock of our shared historic assets and safeguard them. In many cases, this will mean putting community interests before self-interest. It will mean making difficult—indeed, sometimes heroic—efforts to save and refurbish rather than raze and rebuild. We can look to other communities—Wilmington, North Carolina, Macon, Georgia, or St. Augustine, just to name a few—that have come together to save their civic and architectural histories, and have culturally and yes, even financially benefited from their hard work.
Winter Park is worth the effort.
A POSTSCRIPT, 32 HOURS LATER:
We have been surprised by the level of interest in this blog post. In the last 32 hours, more than 1800 people have visited this site. It shows that overwhelmingly, people still care about Winter Park’s retaining its unique historic value.
It is important in any discussion of an emotional issue to be intellectually honest. Therefore, a few clarifying comments are called for:
It is often said in historic preservation that losing a historic home is only half the problem. The other half comes when you see what’s built in its place.
In many – perhaps most – cases, a historic home being demolished results in an out-of-scale, builder-designed structure being put up in its place. Often this replacement house is of poor quality and poorer design.
Of course, there are no guarantees what will be built in place of the Capen House if it is demolished. However, Mr. Pokorny says that he intends to build a house of quality construction designed by a well-regarded architect. He is not interested in enlarging the house’s footprint. We take him at his word. His previous restoration of a historic home was impeccably sensitive in detail and authenticity. We believe that he values Winter Park and appreciates the city’s heritage. Knowing Mr. Pokorny, and the architect he is working with, the replacement structure will doubtless be tasteful and beautiful. We regret the invasion of privacy that goes along with bringing this story to light.
What is often lost in cases such as this, however, is that the destruction of every single historic home (excepting those that have fallen into abject disrepair) results in the erosion of the cultural and architectural underpinnings of the entire community. Especially when the home is prominently located, as this one is, the city’s historic charm and authenticity are significantly diluted. Because Winter Park has allowed countless of these demolitions over the past two decades, saving each remaining home takes on heightened importance.
One final note: in the internet age, no blogger can control how widely a post is disseminated, and how it might be twisted or taken out of context in its replication. This is the regrettable counterpart of the efficiency and scope of internet communication. We do reserve the right to only publish comments that are fair, polite, and based on truth.
Thank you for believing as we do, that Winter Park’s architecture and history matter.
Betsy Owens, Executive Director, Friends of Casa Feliz