ABOVE: Mount Dora's "Castle on the Hill". (Photo courtesy of Mount Dora Archives)
By Susan Myers Mount Dora Buzz Historical Columnist
Once upon a time, Mount Dora boasted a fairy-tale style castle on the hill.
The story began in 1929, when Arthur Frothingham, a retired builder and engineer from Sleepy Hollow, New York, set out to build his dream home in the small city of Mount Dora.
His vision resulted in a sprawling 13-room, Mediterranean Revival-style mansion with the front overlooking beautiful Lake Dora and old Highway 441. The rear entrance faced Helen Street.
The impressive 13-acre estate was dotted with towering pine trees, which were common to the area at the time. To construct heavy joists and hand-hewn timbers to support the interior structure, many of the property’s pines were cut and processed using a small sawmill on the property established for that purpose. For the castle’s exterior, the entire inventory of bricks was purchased from a struggling brickyard in Whitney, four miles west of Leesburg. On October 23, 1929, before the mansion was completed, Frothingham died suddenly from a heart attack in his home at 1039 McDonald Avenue. His secretary continued the castle’s construction until completion for the cost of $94,000. The property eventually reverted to the J.P. Donnelly Estate, which held the mortgage note until it eventually sold.
The castle stood empty for several years, and rumors spread that it was haunted. Realtor George Malone once said he felt a hand touch him, and a voice say, “Well done, my man – well done,’” as he closed the door after showing it to a prospective buyer. Malone eventually sold the castle to Napoleon Hill, an internationally known author and philosopher who wrote the classic book “Think and Grow Rich.”
Hill and his wife brought new life to the castle as described in an article published in the Mount Dora Topic dated October 2, 1947. “The Castle, at long last, has become a beautiful residence. It stands proudly up there on the hillside. The weeds are all gone, and instead, there are neat orange trees planted in promising rows to the west.” The article continued, “Beautiful private drives enter it, marked ‘Private Road,’ flowers are everywhere; the windows sparkle clean in the setting sun.”
While living in the castle, the Hill family continued to write and publish their self-help genre books. They were active in town, and Mrs. Hill published articles entitled “Castle-on-the-Hill" in the Mount Dora Topic with advice for raising children.
The castle eventually passed into the hands of several more families in the ensuing years. Eventually, the west portion of the property was sold and the Hill House Condominiums were built in the early 1970s. Shortly thereafter, the Hill House Bath & Tennis Club was built in front of the castle, and the castle was converted into a clubhouse. Eventually, it was demolished and replaced with the Summit Place Condominiums.
At the time, Mount Dora was well-known for its antique stores and its unique Castle-on-the-Hill, but in the 1980’s the historic Castle-on-the-Hill was demolished, taking with it part of the city’s important history. If it still sat high on top of the hill overlooking the sparkling waters of Lake Dora, the impressive castle would likely be a draw for tourists today. Historic preservation keeps communities beautiful and vibrant while connecting current-day people with their cities' history.
Sources: The Mount Dora Topic, 24 October 1929, p.1 The Mount Dora Topic, 8 December 1938, p.1 The Mount Dora Topic, 2 October 1947, p.1 The Orlando Sentinel, 4 May 1972 The Mount Dora Topic, 26 June 1972 (photo of the castle) The Mount Dora Topic, 14 June 197b Edgerton, David Memories of Mount Dora and Lake County: 1845 to 1981. Mount Dora Historical Society, 1960. Photos courtesy of Mount Dora Archives
ABOVE: Jim Homich and his wife, Kerry Mullen, in front of the L. L. Farnsworth House, built in 1887.
Under the cover of darkness, the pair was gone. Protected from certain destruction, the precious and cumbersome cargo was carted away on huge trailers. And that was just the beginning of their journey.
The process began in 2001 when a Mount Dora resident learned of two historic homes set to be demolished to add parking. James Homich, a lawyer and former Mount Dora City Council member, was no stranger to the city’s history. In 1996, Homich, who caught the historic preservation bug after being schooled in New England, moved into Mount Dora’sAlvaretta Zepplin House, built in 1923. After he married, it became his family’s home with his wife Kerry and their two daughters, Molly and Ainsley.
ABOVE: The now “Purple” house is the L. L. Farnsworth House was built in 1887, pictured here in 1902.
Although the deteriorated homes slated for destruction were mere shells of their past glory, Homich made a last ditch effort to rescue a part of the quaint town’s history.
The First Presbyterian Church agreed to sell both the blue Hubbell House, built in 1915, and the yellow Birkbeck Rental House, built in 1918, for one dollar each, provided Homich agree to pay the $25,000 each to relocate them to the rear of his property.
Moving the houses was no easy feat. The porch of Birkbeck House had to be removed and the Hubbell House was divided into two sections. Finally, in the fall of 2001 the homes were put onto large trailers to make the evening trek across town to their new site on Fifth Avenue. The second phase was constructing their foundations which was done in 2002. The next major stage was developing a site plan and putting in the necessary infrastructure on the newly subdivided lots.
ABOVE: The relocated blue Hubbell House, built in 1915, and the yellow Birkbeck Rental House, built in 1918.
The family had just completed that process when the 2008 recession hit and money was temporarily unavailable to renovate the homes. In 2010, the preservation efforts continued, but it wasn’t without challenges. According to Homich, the greatest challenges were the efforts by the City’s planner and code enforcement department to derail the project. Rather than encourage the family in their sizable historic preservation project, city officials made every step a complete and needlessly costly nightmare, according to Homich.
After much persistence, legal wrangling and financial sacrifice, the family completely restored the “Blue” and “Yellow” homes and sold them as private residences.
ABOVE: The renovated blue Hubbell House and yellow Birkbeck Rental House,
Restoration was recently completed on their “Purple” house, the L. L. Farnsworth House that sits next to their family’s personal residence. The Farnsworth House was built in 1887, the same year the railroad opened in Mount Dora and changed the city’s future.
Today visitors entering Mount Dora by Fifth Avenue get a glimpse of the colorful historic homes as they approach downtown. And as if in silent tribute, there is only an empty, grassy lot where the houses previously stood.
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“Where are the yachts?” It's a common question asked about Mount Dora Yacht Club, the oldest inland yacht club in Florida. What the club lacks in yachts, it more than makes up for in its rich history.
Founded by a group of local boating enthusiasts, the original clubhouse was built in 1913 with a whopping five thousand dollar price tag. The yacht club's annual dues were five dollars after paying a five dollar initiation fee. Two of the club's founders, Henry C. Fuller and J. P. Donnelly, served as the club's first Commodore and Vice Commodore respectively.
Later that year the yacht club hosted its first powerboat regatta. The event was so anticipated by residents that local businesses closed so everyone could attend. In 1953, the annual regatta transitioned to sailboats to alleviate the noise caused by the loud engines.
Social activities were a big part of Mount Dora Yacht Club, but alcohol was prohibited. Early on there were two bowling alleys and a game room downstairs in the clubhouse. That space was reserved for men and their sons 16 years and older. At many of the social events, women had dance cards for men that sought to dance or converse with them. Times have certainly changed.
Originally, all members were required to be boat owners. That requirement changed during World War II when gasoline rationing made boat ownership impractical and the population of the city was a mere 4000 residents. During the war, the club was used as a USO facility and reportedly hosted over 17,000 servicemen and women while residents watched for enemy planes from a downtown hotel.
During the 1950s and early 1960s the yacht club used to give sailing instruction to the area's youth. Now the sailing classes are offered at Lake Eustis Sailing Club.
In 1966, the club's original building was destroyed by fire. A new modern clubhouse was built in its place and stands today at 4th Avenue and Lake Dora's edge. In the 1990's a private dock was built to accommodate members and club activities.
Disaster struck again in March 1993 when tornadoes tore through Mount Dora and inflicted $160,000 damage to the yacht club. The repaired and remodeled clubhouse reopened in September of the same year.
Today, Mount Dora Yacht Club has an active and diverse membership of 110. The clubhouse still boasts a gorgeous Lake Dora view in its expansive dining room, a cozy bar, and ample dock space.
The enduring history of Mount Dora Yacht Club ensures generational members like Edee Waite Robinson and Charlie Kennedy, both of whom had relatives that were commodores and went on to become commodores themselves.
Former Commodore Charlie Kennedy in the yacht club's bar.
Robinson's father was commodore in 1962-63, and she has fond childhood memories of seeing her parents dressed up for the club's social events and watching the sailing regatta with all the colorful boats on the water. Fifty years later, Robinson would become Mount Dora Yacht Club's first female commodore.
Kennedy has the distinction of adding another generation to the club’s future vitality: his daughter and son-in-law, Megan and Teddy Bland, are members.
"Currently, plans are underway to add a wonderful deck on the rear of the club, which of course takes it back to some of the high points of the original building which had two outdoor porches," said Robinson.
Every spring members still organize the annual Mount Dora Sailing Regatta which typically draws sixty to eighty boats during the two days of racing. 2017 will mark the 64th year of the regatta, the city's longest running annual event.
It began with an attraction. In 1881, the operator of a local boarding house made a lasting impression on one of her tenants.
Annie McDonald Stone, a divorced single-mother, married her boarder John Phillip Donnelly that year. Annie also happened to be the daughter of Donnelly's boss.
In 1893, Donnelly had achieved success in the citrus and real estate industries and built the most recognized home in Mount Dora. The yellow and white Victorian home with stained glass windows, dubbed "The Gingerbread House", sits on a homesite that was reportedly selected for its scenic view of Lake Dora and its location in the growing town. The large homestead was originally almost a square block in size and included a barn and tenant house. In 1975, the home was added to the National Registry of Historic Places.
Annie passed away in 1908. Donnelly, a Pittsburgh native, became Mount Dora's first mayor two years later. In 1924, he sold the the corner site of his property for a park to be named in his wife's honor. The price tag for what is now the site of Donnelly Park was $45,000.
Donnelly died in 1930 and the landmark home was later purchased by another prominent resident, D.F. Gorham. After Gorham's death during the Depression, the impressive home was purchased by the Masons and still serves as Masonic Lodge No. 238.
Over the years, many modifications were made to the home, including moving the staircase, adding a large kitchen and converting the upstairs bedrooms into one large meeting room and a small storage space. Today, the Masons rent the downstairs of the home for small events, wedding showers, meetings and luncheons.
In an effort to meet the rising cost of maintaining the landmark, Friends of The Donnelly House, a non-profit group, was formed. Their goal is to raise money for the deferred and continual maintenance of the historic home. Donations can be made by contacting email@example.com .
Who could miss it?--the aged and weathered neon Simpson Hotel sign hanging above what is now Le Petit Sweet on Fifth Avenue.
What is the story behind this iconic piece of Mount Dora history?
When asked, Robert (Bob) Simpson grins, "Did you know that sign was exempted from the city's ban on neon signs in downtown?"
Simpson, a Mount Dora native and resident knows the hotel's history well. "My grandfather, James Warren Simpson, built it back in the 1920s. It was the first fireproof hotel constructed in Central Florida. Up until that time, all the Mount Dora hotels were wooden structures like the Lakeside Inn and the Villa Dora Hotel.
"I can't recall her name, but a woman from up North approached my grandfather about building a fireproof hotel. She wanted a safe place for her friends and family to stay with no concern of a fire breaking out. She gave him $10,000 for the project and said that he could pay her back when the hotel was operating."
To find an architect who was qualified to take on this project, Mr. Simpson had to travel all the way to Jacksonville, Florida, which in the 1920s was a long trip. He employed the services of Murry S. King, architect. Mr. King also was the architect for the First National Bank and Trust building which originally was located on the corner of Donnelly and Fifth. Today it houses a real estate office.
As part of the fireproofing, concrete, steel, and red brick were used In the building's construction. All the electrical wiring was encased in water pipes, sans water, with a protective covering of rubber and silk. Originally, the hotel was suppose to be a five-story structure, but Mr. Simpson changed his mind and went with a three story building. In 1925, the 22-room Simpson Hotel was completed and opened for seasonal business--October through April.
"Many of the guests came from the North, but the registries from the past showed that a number also came from Cuba, said Simpson. "At that time, it was pretty easy to get to Mount Dora from Cuba. There was a train that traveled round trip from Key West to Sanford, and then there was a ferry that went from Key West to Cuba and back."
In its history, the Simpson Hotel has played a variety of roles. Simpson explained, "During World War II, there was a civil defense platform and radio transmitter erected on the roof of the hotel for plane spotting and surveillance over the local lakes, and when the Cuban Missile Crisis was going on, the basement of the hotel was officially designated as a bomb shelter."
The hotel closed in 1983 because of changes in building codes. It was now required that three story residential buildings were to have fire sprinklers installed. In order to make this happen, water pipes needed to run all the way from the hotel to Third Avenue. It was also required that an elevator was to be added, as well as air conditioning, which was to replace the attic fan, transom and double hung windows cooling system. The Simpsons decided to shutter the hotel because of the prohibitive costs of the upgrades.
Today, Le Petit Sweet occupies the former lobby of the Simpson Hotel. Around the corner from the old hotel at 441 North Donnelly Street, Simpson is still in the room letting business. He operates Simpson Bed & Breakfast. Prior to becoming a B & B, the building served as an annex to the Simpson Hotel, first as a rooming house and later as efficiency apartments
It is interesting to note that during the interview with Simpson, he commented that during World War II, the Leesburg Airport was used as a military airport, and there was a German prisoner of war camp located near the airport. The locals referred to the camp as "Tomato Hill." The German POWs were used to build U.S. Highway 441, but that is another storyfor another day.
When the original school for Mount Dora’s African-American children burned in 1922, Mamie Lee Gilbert and Lula Butler spearheaded the drive for a new school.
Seed money was obtained from the Rosenwald Foundation and matching funds came from Reverend Duncan Milner, a winter resident of Mount Dora concerned with racial injustice. The school was completed in 1926 and provided an education for African-American children until 1955 when a new building was built. The building currently houses a Head Start program.
Rosenwald schools are the focus of Ozell Ward’s talk for the Mount Dora Historical Society on Thursday, April 21. Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute and Julius Rosenwald, philanthropist and president of Sears Roebuck, built state-of-the art schools for African- American children across the South. The effort has been called the most important initiative to advance black education in the early 20th century.
Ozell Ward will speak about his experiences at the Milner-Rosenwald school in Mount Dora at 6:30 pm at the W.T. Bland library. Photos from Rosenwald schools will also be on display. The W.T. Bland library is located at 1995 Donnelly Avenue in Mount Dora. For more information, call 352-383-0006.
Scroll through more articles on Mount Dora's history here...
It began as many great things do, with a small group of devotees. A woman who apparently wouldn’t take no for an answer, founding president Celia Clafin, detailed the history making Mount Dora's IceHouse Theatre a reality.
In 1948, land located where Mount Dora Boating Center sits today, became destined for the city's community theater. The IceHouse Players Theatre was obligated for $100 monthly rent for an old ice plant building which sat vacant since the advent of refrigeration. The re-purposed ice house was so close to the railroad tracks that performers had to pause until the train passed. Read more
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.
See more pics of the Sydonie Mansion here. For more historical articles on Mount Dora, click here. For a timeline of Mount Dora history, click here
Above: Vintage aerial of mansion. Below: Boat house during Hampden DuBose years.
Above & below:Vintage photos of the boathouse and cover of Hampden DuBose yearbook
Above: Lakeview from front porch
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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.
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Mount Dora, known for its southern charm and New England look, boasts history that is just as engaging. On January 11, the book of two local authors, "A Brief History of Mount Dora", will hit book store shelves.
Gary McKechnie's and Nancy Howell's relationships with local historians and longtime residents led to great stories. They collected and used the most entertaining and intriguing historical facts in their new book. This is the first local history to be published since 2001, yet it reportedly is more comprehensive than previous works. It's also written in a casual style that makes it light and entertaining reading.
The authors moved from Orlando to Mount Dora in 1992, and jumped into the small town with both feet with a desire to enhance things culturally. Today, the couple is very involved in the Mount Dora Music Festival and owns a piece of local history, The Coconut Cottage, a bed & breakfast in the historic district of Mount Dora.
Mount Dora, also known as the "New England of the South", began with the arrival of pioneer families such as the Drawdys, Williams, Simpsons and Tremains and Pages. In the 1880s, it became a popular destination for Chautauqua events, when visitors gathered beside Lake Gertrude and Lake Dora for educational and cultural enrichment.
In the twentieth century, Mount Dora was home to a boating industry, weathered economic setbacks and racial conflict. At one point, the historic downtown was painted pale pink for the campy 1981 box office flop, "Honky Tony Freeway".