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.