Seems pretty obvious to me Fred Rogers didn’t end up with a Winter Park connection by accident. Characters of his sort, ones purely positive and inspiring good, naturally develop the life associations they are supposed to, need to become their best selves. Some might call it fate. I believe Mr. Rogers has Winter Park roots for a reason.
We all have our own introductions to Winter Park, reasons or opportunities which brought us here. I’ve written numerous times about my own. After living in Fort Lauderdale for five years and considering a return to Atlanta, our previous home, new neighbors offered up the possibility of this place called Winter Park. Well-kept secret it can be, I had never heard of it. They had met and married in Winter Park, had also lived in Atlanta. They understood so much about why I did and didn’t want to return to Atlanta, wanted to escape much of what I didn’t like about Fort Lauderdale. Winter Park, they suggested, was the perfect answer. They were quite the matchmakers.
My Own Intro
Our house there under contract, I had begun telling other neighbors in Fort Lauderdale we would be returning to Atlanta. I was met with laughs and mocking: “You’re going to miss the sunshine and beaches,” I was told. Each insisted I was crazy to leave and would regret it.
A trip to Winter Park changed it all. I don’t think you can truly fall in LUV with a community in just one weekend, don’t pretend that happened. But we were taken enough by the feel and beauty, what we saw, we were ready to take a chance. With a Winter Park house under contract and moving boxes ready to be filled, I began telling those same Fort Lauderdale neighbors we were headed to Winter Park instead of Atlanta. To a person, the same attitude and dismissiveness was entirely disarmed, as each of them simply responded: “Oh, I LUV Winter Park.” I was struck by the dramatic change in their response then, look back on it now with no surprise.
Knowing we were still largely unfamiliar with the community which was to be our new home, the husband of the couple from whom we were purchasing our new Winter Park home offered insights via email. A lawyer by trade, I suggested he may wish to take up writing, as his anecdotes about our new home verbally painted a picture which amplified our anticipation and excitement. I’ve often quoted one of those descriptions over the years: “Winter Park is Mayberry with money.” While I think the money side of Winter Park often gets much too much attention, the latter part deserves much more. Raised in North Carolina and a LUVer of both TV Land type shows and small towns, of Americana, it’s more than a bit perfect.
What Makes Us . . . Us.
I shared this experience a few years ago during a meeting with then Winter Park Chief of Police Michael Deal. Chief Deal had worked in numerous other police forces, some in communities of similar size. As we talked about Winter Park, he shared why he personally believes it is different than so many other communities. I remember him specifically talking about our parades. The Christmas & St. Patrick’s Day Parades get most of the attention on our calendar. But it’s the second-tier parades which may more demonstrate the sort of community this is, all that makes us tick. Winter Park, in lots of LUVly, wonderful ways, is still delightfully old school. The simple pleasures of living in a small community, knowing so many of your neighbors, interacting with them, they still exist and are often celebrated.
Each October, Winter Park High School students parade down Park Avenue on one Wednesday evening celebrating the coming homecoming game and dance to follow. There’s a big BBQ dinner in Central Park after the parade, after a rousing pep rally led from the grand stand. Homecoming queen nominees and their dates, the Wildcat Teacher of the Year, ROTC, The Roar Dance Team, the marching band, and clubs like French & Spanish, Debate, PFLAG & more. The same parent group behind this event coordinates the annual Restore the Roar event each February, a themed dinner at Showalter Field to raise money for all sorts of student programs. These are not the sorts of events we tout to tourists and other visitors, but they tell an awful lot about us and who we are, what we value.
Winter Park is the sort of community where one young resident takes on an Eagle Scout project to raise $60,000 to purchase a peacock fountain in memory of a classmate. That fountain is now the focal point of the Central Park rose garden. The Eagle Scout initially requested from the city the right to install the fountain in a tiny park along Interlachen Drive. But the City of Winter Park was so taken by the idea, they suggested a more prominent location at the center the Central Park rose garden instead.
Likewise, Winter Park is the sort of community which rallies around a family when their high school age son suffers a “locked-in” stroke. Back in 2015, this happened to a 17-year-old during his senior year. After an initial state of shock, friends began efforts to raise money to help with the mounting medical expenses, with everything from t-shirts to bumper stickers to bracelets to shoes being sold online and at area businesses to raise funds for medical care. Whether you knew them directly or not, you wanted to help. Purple ribbons were soon wrapped around trees across Winter Park in support and in the summer of that year, throngs of Locals lined North Park Avenue to welcome him home from Shepherd Clinic in Atlanta.
Winter Park is the sort of community where neighbors are quick to act during difficult times. After the Pulse nightclub shootings in 2016, stunned by the horrific events from the night before, I remember a single Facebook post the following morning which lifted my spirits a bit, began a restoration of faith. I’m not sure if it was on the Tuni page – a Park Avenue boutique – itself or the profile of one of the owners, but they shared pictures as they, along with so many other Locals, were standing in line to give blood. The lines to give blood were so long that day, some were turned away, asked to take action in other ways. A morning marked by such horrible devastation and loss, met by our neighbors with a demonstration of caring.
Central Park’s Emily Fountain with a light display of spheres in the colors of the rainbow.
As so many small communities across the country, in the spring of 2020, much came to an immediate halt as shutdowns were ordered in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. Small businesses were hit hard, impacted immediately. In Winter Park, the situation was especially dire because this was the heart of our “season”, when so many tourists are visiting. As well, it was right before our annual Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival, the biggest weekend of the year for so many Park Avenue area small businesses. The event was called off, even though many businesses had stocked accordingly. Locals were super supportive during the lock down period, turning to restaurants and other businesses offering pickup and delivery, sharing to social media and encouraging friends and neighbors to do likewise. One business owner, Richard Pannullo, co-owner of Pannullo’s, a restaurant on Park Avenue for now 30 years, chatted with me about the experience as it was all going on, things were starting to re-open to dine-in service. He talked about having new customers from the community who have never dined there before, who were then coming back regularly. As the city made plans to shut down Park Avenue for three days over Mother’s Day weekend to allow restaurants to bring tables into the street for greater social distancing, Richard sang the praises of the city and its residents, asking me: “What other community does this to support its small businesses?”
Yes, this is that kind of community. Happily, I believe we are a bit of a throwback, where we more often know our neighbors, say “hi” on the street, not only look out for one another, but truly care.
Our Roots Are Polite & Sincere
Perhaps it’s our midwestern roots. Winter Park came into being after Loring Chase, a Chicago businessman purchased 600 acres of what would become Winter Park for $13,000. Like so many others since, he came to Florida for the weather. Rollins College started in 1885, and the community was promoted to northeasterners and early on developed popularity as an arts destination. Rollins College is now Florida’s oldest recognized college, and its 80-acre campus, featuring classic Spanish-Mediterranean architecture, has numerous times been named one of the nation’s “Most Beautiful College Campuses” by The Princeton Review.
Winter Park’s Genius Preserve home, strutting his stuff there in this pic from 2017.
So much we LUV about Winter Park today we owe to those from yesterday. For instance, at the heart of our city you will find Central Park. It was deeded to the city by one of its earliest benefactors, Chicago Industrialist Charles Hosmer Morse, who first began visiting Winter Park in the 1880s and in years after became its largest land owner. Central Park will remain a city park so long as it is used as a public park, would otherwise revert to his heirs. Central Park includes our train station, which serves AmTrak and the Local SunRail commuter line. At the south end, you’ll find the rose garden referenced above. Central Park is roughly 11 acres. Charles Hosmer Morse is also responsible for the property for Winter Park’s City Hall, the Winter Park Woman’s Club and our 9-hole golf course, often called one of the five best 9-hole public courses in the country.
Long-time residents have lots of stories of which I’m completely jealous, and many include the Genius Nature Preserve. The Genius Preserve is a largely pristine 50 acre piece of land situated between three Winter Park lakes: Lake Virginia, Lake Mizell & Lake Berry. I have been told it is the largest tract of undeveloped land in any city in Florida which can never be developed. It is home base for a peacock colony dating back to at least the 1950s. Owned by the Morse / Genius Foundations and closed to the public after an incident in 1987 in which a peacock was killed with a bow & arrow, those who grew up here tell cherished stories of wandering through the Genius Nature Preserve on a Sunday drive or having a picnic on a sunny day. What a LUVly, perfect & shady spot to do so. The Winter Park Public Library regularly sponsors tours to allow interested Locals to get a view inside. I’ve been three times and it is a LUVly treat!
It is the same family – Jeanette Genius McKean, along with husband Hugh McKean – who started the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in memory of her grandfather. This world’s largest collection of Tiffany Glass now resides on Park Avenue and largely began with a love of Art instilled in Jeanette by her mother, Charles Hosmer Morse’s only daughter, Elizabeth Morse Genius. Her interests then paired with husband, Hugh, who also served as President of Rollins College.
Hugh McKean was an undergraduate at Rollins College when he met he met his future wife, Jeanette Genius. He was also an Artist and his early paintings helped secure an invitation to study at Laurelton Hall, the Long Island, New York, home of Louis Comfort Tiffany. That association was later the catalyst to the creation of The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art on the Rollins College campus in 1942, which Hugh led as its director. Hugh has been credited with the association of the image of peacocks being Winter Park’s official symbol, as he took a liking to the birds on a trip to Asia, importing several thereafter. He became the President of Rollins College in 1952.
Our history is an interesting one and Winter Park, you may find, a community more tied to it than those in similar communities. Okay, make that definitely. Why? Once you’re here a while, you see it and hear it. There’s a connection to the past like no place I have other lived.
Keep Winter Park Freakishly Connected To Our Past
I will admit to having on occasion or two referred to some long-time Winter Park residents as LUVly freaks. But hear me out on this, before – for any of them who see this – getting too excited. It’s about the way you (they) talk about Winter Park small businesses from the past. So many have an extraordinarily strong connection with a small business from the past. Example: The Beef & Bottle. Once located where Boca Winter Park is now . . . . I’d often heard it referred to, spoken about longingly. The way it was talked about, it seemed recent, as if it closed not so long ago. I thought it couldn’t have closed any longer ago than maybe the early / mid 90s. Nope. Beef & Bottle was a Park Avenue restaurant in the early 1970s. And some speak of it in such LUVing terms, you have difficulty believing so much time could have passed. Yep, freaks. LUVly, incredible ones.
My sweet neighbor, Mr. David Elliott, was lost in 2019. Becoming his neighbor in 2007, I got a LUVly crash course in Winter Park, much of what makes it the special place it is. Mr. Elliott owned Cottrell’s 5 & 10 on Park Avenue until 1985, when he and his wife sold the building where they operated the shop, now Chico’s.
The store began in 1932, started by his wife’s father. Mr. Elliott used to tell me stories about getting calls from people across the country, one-time Winter Park residents who left and could no longer find a hairnet in that specific color. They sold hairnets — LOTS and LOTS in a vast array of colors — and $2 Tabebuia trees in paint cans, and unique memories for so many Locals.
While that one has always struck me as the poster child for that Winter Park connectivity to the past, there are so many others: East India Ice Cream, Jacobson’s, The Toggery, Two Flights Up (and one fall down), Harper’s, The Golden Cricket, Hattie’s, Leedy’s, The Langford Hotel, The Yum Yum Shoppe, Colony Theater and others. So many beLUVed small businesses from the past, each still existing in the fond memories of the Locals who dined or shopped there.
Today, our Winter Park landscape is dotted with so many small businesses which have been here for a long time. Miller’s Hardware over 75 years, my own dentist office (Park Smiles Dentistry) led by our own version of Mr. Rogers, Dr. Drew Byrnes, began in 1939. Tuni Winter Park & Siegel’s Clothing have both been around since the 1980s, the Winter Park Diner dates back to the 1950s, the previously mentioned Pannullo’s 27 years and George’s Café, now on North Park Avenue, has roots to 1989. And many of these businesses now include two, if not three generations, in their operations. It’s Americana as it used to exist across the country, can still be found in Winter Park.
I tell others now it is an incredible testimony to Winter Park that so many who were born and raised here choose to stay to raise their own families. But the even greater testament are the ones who leave and ultimately return. They’ve ventured out in the world, seen what it has to offer, only to acknowledge all they had before and want again.
I saw that in spades our first year here, as my life partner and I decided we didn’t wish to embark on the renovations we figured into the equation when we purchased our first home here. To ease us back into the idea of having a home on the market, I was simply going to put it on Craigslist, see if we might get a bite or two. I put it out there on a Tuesday night in January, 2007. The next morning, I had an email from a woman, basically sounding like they were going to buy our house. They wanted to come that afternoon. They did. There for an hour or so, they left and within 20 minutes wanted to bring their parents by. The wife had grown up in Maitland, the husband in Winter Park. They were returning after living in Boston & Seattle That evening, within 24 hours of putting the home on Craigslist, I was shaking hands agreeing to the home’s sale. People still can’t believe that story! But it is so very, very Winter Park.
Now a Winter Park resident for almost 17 years, these days I frequently find myself on the welcome wagon side of things, often as I engage visitors along Park Avenue. Conversations will often begin when I see a clear sign they are looking for something. A map, face glued to a phone followed by glancing about, a conversation I overhear . . . . stopped in the middle of the sidewalk wondering which way next. My visitor alarm goes off and I soon find myself offering assistance.
Welcome to Winter Park. I’m quite sure you’re gonna LUV it.
“May I help you?”, I ask. I am sometimes amused by the surprised facial expression. Yes, it’s part of the small town service we offer here in the Mayberry of the Sunshine State. The conversation will go this way or that, mostly depending on how long they will be in town, if they have any clue what they would like to do and what direction they should head to find it. Often, we get visitors who are here for a day or even an afternoon. They may be staying down at the parks, in town for a convention of some sort, end up in Winter Park after the recommendation of a concierge or other hotel employee, wise suggestion of a friend.
It still amazes me the number of times I encounter people who arrive on our doorstep who have never heard of the amazing Morse Museum, who hadn’t considered a ride on Florida’s oldest continually running attraction, the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour.
Personally, I LUV surprises. And I LUV living in one that just keeps on giving.
Welcome to Winter Park.