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Arts & Culture

Winter Park’s Capen House and downtown’s “Round Building” depend on grass-roots support to survive

Meet the people working to save local landmarks from the wrecking ball



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Locals still mourn the loss of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney, and love to ogle homeboy David Siegel’s imitation Versailles, a monstrosity of a house that isn’t even finished (though it has inspired a hit documentary, The Queen of Versailles). These icons of artifice pass for landmarks in the City Beautiful, while real landmarks, like Winter Park’s 128-year-old Capen House, fight for existence.

It’s a sadly common story: An old building, considered part of the family and taken for granted, is suddenly gone. No less a landmark than New York City’s Grand Central Station was close to the wrecking ball in the mid-1970s, until Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis stepped in and galvanized popular opinion to save it. When Jackie said: “If we don’t care about our past, we cannot hope for our future,” it became OK – en vogue, even – to love and fight for old buildings.

The Capen House, though listed on Winter Park’s historic registry in August 2011, is no Grand Central; it has old-building problems like all the rest of them. For the moment, it sits at 520 N. Interlachen Ave., tucked behind Park Avenue. The house was home to one of the city’s original settlers, James S. Capen, an early developer of the vanished Dinky train line connecting Winter Park to downtown. The two-story Tudor Revival has a steep Victorian roofline, thick walls, pine floors and a satisfying chunkiness, like a Sara Lee cream cake. By the time our most recent housing boom rolled around, it had been remodeled twice, only to suffer the same fate so many other Orlando homes did: foreclosure. But the Capen House – sturdy, with modest windows to protect occupants from harsh summer storms and Florida’s searing sunlight – doesn’t suit the current taste for showy, air-conditioned, big-windowed homes. The bank saw it as a teardown, and the new owners agree – but relented long enough to find someone who wants the old thing.

Enter Betsy Owens, executive director of the Friends of Casa Feliz, who may be Orlando’s answer to Jackie Onassis. Tall, elegant and well-spoken, Owens has the clout to help carve a path through the red-tape jungle and, with donations, will see the Capen House moved around the corner to the Polasek Museum before the end of the year, clearing the lot for the new owner’s dream home.

“Really,” says Owens, whose musical voice belies a serious player, “there are so few historic homes left, it’s easy to keep an eye on them. The Polasek needs more meeting and event facilities, and the house suits them just fine.” Once the house move is funded, expect it to be safely ensconced on the Polasek grounds late this fall. (Full disclosure: The writer was an early donor to this cause.)

Owens has become an expert on playing chess with historic homes, having spearheaded the move of the James Gamble Rogers-designed Casa Feliz to its present location, and she knows a thing or two about how to put wheels on houses … although this time she’s hoping for enough donations to float the house across Lake Osceola instead.

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