She is stunning as she sits perched on one of the most captivating pieces of property in Central Florida. Originally believed to be built in 1885, her rich history shows like fine lines on the face of a classic beauty.
Sydonie, as she was named, is no lithe stunner. Inspired by the famous Alhambra Castle in Spain, she is a jaw-dropping Mediterranean Revival estate featuring thirteen bedrooms and ten bathrooms in the main house alone. The architecture, craftmanship and lakefront setting are an unexpected marvel nestled just south of Mount Dora.
Originally built on 600 acres as a hunting camp by wealthy Pittsburgh steal magnate, James Laughlin, Sydonie was remodeled in 1904 by renowned architect Grosvenor Atterbury. This was the same architect that designed John D. Rockefeller's estate in Maine, remodeled New York's City Hall, as well as worked for the firm that remodeled the East and West Wings of the White House.
The mansion's thirteen fireplaces are spread the over 22,000 square-foot main house and its guest's quarters. Completely self-contained, the sprawling estate required 49 gardeners, plus maids, butlers, carpenters and other workers to maintain the mansion, boat house, windmill and barns, as well as the citrus groves, dairy and poultry farms. In 1904, it reportedly cost $80,000 in annual maintenance.
Members of the Laughlin family owned the home until its sale in 1942. New owner, Eugene Speers, flipped it only after owning it a year and making his money back by selling off the estate's rare and valuable foliage acquired from the Laughlin's world travels . Speers also profited by logging the property's entire fifty-acre pine forest.
Speers sold Sydonie in 1943 to Dr. Du Bose who started Hampden DuBose Academy, a conservative Christian boarding school. Classes were held in the large barn out-building and it was then that the mansion was renamed Ewell Hall and re-purposed as the girls' dormitory. After the school transitioned from a boarding school to a day school in 1980, the mansion remained under utilized for several years.
Over the time, the 600 acre-compound was parceled off. In 1997, Sydonie and its surrounding 12 acres became the private residence of Dick and Carla Durante. The couple, a carpenter and an interior designer, set out to restore the mansion and save it from its certain demise.
Fast forward to 2014, when history and architecture aficionado, Amy Frogley and her husband Clark purchased the grand estate to complete its restoration and share it with the public. Sydonie is in the process of being placed on the National Register of Historic Places and will likely receive the designation as the oldest mansion in Florida later this year.
The mansion's present day restoration effort, current photos, interior and upcoming tour information is the focus of the second Installment of Mount Dora Buzz' two-part series on Sydonie. Read it here.
Mount Dora's cup of charm no doubt runneth over. However, there's a sad piece of history that made it all possible, yet is seldom talked about. This tainted sliver of the past isn't immortalized with a plaque or bronze statue at a park and the tragic episode rarely gets a passing paragraph written about it in local history books.
Many current residents of Mount Dora aren't aware that in the early 1920's, a decade after the city's incorporation, some white residents believed the city could draw wealthy tourists from the northeastern part of the U.S. and implemented the Mount Dora Redevelopment Project. That was the sugary term for mandating the removal of African-Americans from the downtown properties they owned and relocating them to East Town, an area that is within what is now referred to as the Northeast Community.
African-Americans had resided in the East Town area of Mount Dora since the 1850's. It was here among the dense trees and lack of plantations that 'free blacks' believed they could live better lives and quietly subsist off the land.
Reportedly, the black and white communities co-existed peacefully with very little problems. Later in the 1800's and early 1900's, African-Americans owned properties in other areas of the city, including downtown. The Mount Dora Redevelopment Project wasn't embraced by downtown's African-American residents, however at that time they had no recourse and the program exposed the black community's vulnerability.
Still today, some Mount Dora residents haven't heard as much as a whisper about this part of their quaint city's not-so-forgotten history.