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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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The Capen’s happy ending is increasingly rare, however, and increasingly lost in the noise of the economy, when headline-grabbing real estate deals capture more attention. In the shadows, Orlando’s historic preservationists labor quietly to convince people that old buildings add value, not take it away, but this is a hard sell when new-and-shiny is so popular. For every win, there are more losses. And they aren’t exclusive to tony Winter Park.

Downtown Orlando’s notorious Dr. P. Phillips Performing Arts Center has an especially difficult karma, and at its center it harbors another grass-roots preservation project, the “Round Building” at 455 S. Orange Ave. To an older generation, it was the American Federal Savings and Loan Building, but in recent years housed multiple tenants before being cleared for teardown by the DPAC deal. Designed by Robert B. Murphy in the early 1960s, it sits today across from City Hall in the path of a lucrative real estate deal brokered by the city and powered by the DPAC board. These public/private landowner partners have illusions of grandeur, hoping to add another high-rise to Orlando’s skyline in its place. This round peg just doesn’t fit into DPAC’s square hole.

Murphy, who studied under the famed Bauhausler Walter Gropius at Harvard, designed many of the more interesting structures in our area with his firm HuntonBrady Architects, and the building is an important part of our local modernist heritage. The original two-story building was surrounded by a honeycomb-patterned concrete sunscreen – known architecturally as a brise-soleil – and it’s those concrete panels that are the subject of local preservation efforts. (The glittering blue glass cylinder rising up out of the delightful concrete ruffle was a later, unbalanced addition.)

Taking up the cause of preserving Murphy’s brise-soleil is the Nils M. Schweizer Fellows. This local nonprofit devoted to the cause of observing and preserving our local 20th-century modern heritage is named for another prominent Orlando architect from the ’60s, Nils Schweizer. Nils’ son, New Smyrna Beach architect Kevin Schweizer, is the current spokesman for NMS Fellows, and is actively raising money to harvest the modernism off the Round Building and integrate it into future development.

“We’re about halfway there,” said Schweizer in a recent telephone interview when asked about the donations needed to take off and store the concrete components. Schweizer remarks hopefully that the developers might even keep the building’s delicate entry canopy; though there’s currently no sign of it in the DPAC model that the board made public, it would fit into existing plans nicely and would be a graceful nod to Orlando’s past within its future.

Like Owens, Schweizer has been forced into a grass-roots donation effort, but he does have some municipal backing. City commissioners Patty Sheehan and Robert Stuart have come out in public support of the repurposing of the brise-soleil, and Sheehan has garnered a city commitment to match up to $70,000 of private donations to save this bit of Orlando’s identity, according to Schweizer.

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