Restoring the Historic Edgewater Hotel
The history of the preservation and restoration of the Historic Edgewater Hotel, and its role in helping to create both the Historic District and Heritage Foundation.
Restoring the Structure of the Edgewater Hotel
Our part in the story of the Edgewater Hotel began in 1995. At that point, we were looking for additional office space for our existing business. We were outsiders to Winter Garden and were unaware of its history. We were introduced to the building through our friend, Lee Grimes, a make-up artist in the film industry. His father, Larry Grimes, a long-time Winter Garden resident and local realtor, was assisting the City with finding a new owner for the Edgewater. Winter Garden’s newly hired City Manager, Hollis Holden, was asked to return to his hometown of Winter Garden after a long and decorated career in the US military. Hollis told us that the City was in the process of taking over the Edgewater, and he would be greatly interested in helping us take on that task. He expressed that the City was not in the business of building development or restoration, and he would rather see a qualified private business handle that.
The building we found was boarded up and filled with debris. However, the previous owner, Pat Hart had kept the building operational during Winter Garden’s lean years. His business, Hart’s TV, was the sole occupant of the building. Despite the hotel’s level of neglect, we felt it could meet our needs for creating more office space. When we began to show an interest in the hotel, we were told that we needed to meet with the local Heritage Foundation to discuss our intentions with the building. Here we were introduced to Ann Ellis and Kay Cappleman, two long-time residents of Winter Garden, whose goal with the Heritage Foundation was to both save the Edgewater Hotel and restore downtown Winter Garden to its past glory.
In 1995, Winter Garden was very skeptical of outsiders coming into the hotel. We found out that there had been several attempts by disingenuous investors over the decades to purchase the hotel from Pat Hart. They raised local hopes and expectations of the hotel’s return to prominence, but, in the end, they only gutted the hotel of a lot of its valuable remaining resources. This had a demoralizing effect on a town that was in a period of decline.
Ann and Kay began to give us the story of the Edgewater’s special history in Winter Garden. The Edgewater opened in 1927 and it was a source of local pride. It attracted celebrities and wealthy businessmen from all over the country, and it put Winter Garden on the map. It was the anchor of the downtown. Their childhood memories, along with that of City Manager Holden, were filled with images of downtown Winter Garden as a vibrant, active hub of the community. They impressed upon us that the restoration of the hotel was key to the revitalization of the downtown to its past glory. The Heritage Foundation was overseeing the downtown restoration. We found out that the Heritage Foundation was instrumental in saving the hotel one year earlier from being demolished by the City who wanted to use the space it occupied as a parking lot. Heritage had spear-headed a study that was done to ensure that the hotel was structurally sound and capable of being restored. The community, the Heritage Foundation, and now City Manager Holden wanted to see the building survive along with its storied past.
The Heritage Foundation said they would approve our sale if we did not alter the exterior of the building, and, learning the great pains they had gone to save the structure, we felt that was a fair deal. We now understood that we were just a new chapter in the history of this building. To honor the past, we chose to use the historic name of the hotel in our new business, The Edgewater Hotel, Inc. The restoration, at least for the exterior of the building, was underway. But this was only the first part of our journey to save the Edgewater Hotel.
Restoring the Edgewater as a Hotel
As work began in 1995, we were visited by many of the prominent families in downtown Winter Garden. They wanted to share their stories of the hotel with us. Ann and Bob Ellis had already shared with us their personal history with the hotel. When Ann’s parents first came to town, they lived on the third floor of the Edgewater Hotel while they began to put down roots in Winter Garden. Later Ann and Bob Ellis owned Ellis Appliance across the street from the hotel. They became instrumental in taking the first steps of saving the Edgewater.
Soon we were visited by Jerry Chicone, Jr. and his father. In the 1920s, Jerry Chicone, Sr. had a real estate office across from the hotel. When a downturn in the Florida real estate market forced construction of the hotel to halt with only one floor constructed, Chicone, Sr. found new investors to finish the construction of the hotel. It’s successful completion in 1927 was a source of pride for the Chicone family and the beginning of a golden age in downtown Winter Garden. They were kind enough to give us photos of the old hotel and an original brochure they had saved from 1927. Inside were pictures from the days of the hotel’s opening.
We were visited by Bert Roper, whose family had been in town for decades as pioneers of the thriving citrus industry. Bert shared with us the story of how Frank and Ruby Roper met at the Edgewater Hotel. He showed us the locations of the rooms where they had stayed on the second floor. Shortly after we arrived, Ruby had a family member drive her to the outside of the hotel, just so she could see it one last time.
We met the relative of a Man who started the barbershop in the hotel and were given the photo of that barbershop on opening day. We learned from Rod and Mae Reeves that the legacy of that barbershop still existed in Winter Garden, as it was carried on by Mae’s late husband Dock Reeves. We met a woman whose mother worked at the hotel and sold war bonds to support in the second world war in the hotel’s lobby. We met Andrew Bailey, who owned the West Orange Times, and he shared with us the many stories he and his family had relating to the Edgewater Hotel. The memory was so important to him that he later shot a film recreating those events at the hotel.
Unfortunately, in 1995, Winter Garden was a dismal place. The demise of Lake Apopka and the new construction on highway 50 lead business away from the from the once vibrant downtown. In order to protect the building from vagrants, we had to leave one person on-site as a night watchman. With nothing to do but walk the dirty and dark hallways at night, the many stories that we heard during the day resonated. You could picture the history in your mind’s eye. You could feel it all around you as an echo of this great past. Soon, it became evident that we could not use this space for offices. We had walked into something much greater than a dirty shell with boarded up windows. What we walked into was a story of people’s lives, one that was worth preserving and carrying forward.
Our goal became to do a faithful historic restoration of the property. We wanted people to experience as much as possible what the travelers in the many stories we had heard experienced. Many people’s lives were shaped by this building. We wanted to honor their memory by recreating the experience of the building to approximate the hotel’s heyday as much as possible. This was a much greater task than fixing up office spaces, but fully understanding the special place the Edgewater Hotel held in the history of downtown Winter Garden, we felt that we had the unique responsibility to reopen its doors to the public once again as a Hotel.
Reopening the Hotel in Downtown Winter Garden
Every step was a difficult process. A key element was restoring the 1926 Otis Elevator, which was still operational in the mid-nineties. Residents told us that the elevator was an attraction in itself when the hotel opened in the 1920s. We wanted to return lathe and plaster to the walls in the original method of its application and not use drywall. This was a lost art. We needed to have custom blades made to approximate the wood trim that was left on the property to replace those that were gutted. We needed to strip the wood of decades of paint and re-stain it to appear as it did at the hotel’s opening. We rebuilt the 1920s windows with their counterweight mechanisms to provide that exterior and interior look that made the Edgewater Hotel the distinctive icon it was in Winter Garden. Since the hotel did not have air conditioning, we needed to find ways of providing this modern convenience but making it unobtrusive to the future guests. Each room became a custom project.
We held ourselves to the strictest specifications of the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for historic restoration. The success of any restoration’s feeling of authenticity is in the details. This would be critical for us to recreate that feeling of old Florida with new guests looking to experience the history of Winter Garden.
We also wanted to restore the legacy businesses to the location. This involved finding the original 1927 layout of the building and restoring those original locations. This was a painstaking journey of rediscovery. Working with City Manager Holden, we completed the first floor in June of 2000, with the opening of Choctaw Willy’s in the location of the Hotel’s original Evergreen Restaurant. The restaurant was a wild success and, for the first time in many years, people came flooding back into downtown Winter Garden. Then we reopened the barbershop in the hotel, migrating the business and remaining artifacts from the Reeves barbershop back to the hotel after the location that housed the barbershop in the interim decided to go in another direction.
To support the downtown revitalization, the City brought in the West Orange Trail and constructed a new streetscape for the downtown to handle the new traffic. During the reconstruction, we housed the offices of State Representative Randy Johnson downtown. Johnson’s office became instrumental in supporting the reinvestment in the downtown. In 2000, the State of Florida voted to grant $250,000 to Winter Garden to help kickstart the downtown renovation. This was the only municipal grant not vetoed in 2000 because the history of Winter Garden set it apart from other grant requests.
Reconciling the historic structure with the modern codes required the intervention of contracted experts and, at points, public hearings to allow us to move forward. We found that some of the elements of the City who were antagonistic to the hotel in its past were still present. Fortunately for us, we had City Manager Holden and Mayor Jack Quesinberry, who both shared our vision for a restored hotel returning to downtown Winter Garden. And on November 8, 2003, they cut the ribbon of the Hotel’s grand opening on the day the coincided with the City’s centennial and downtown redevelopment completion.
In the early years, we would walk people through the abandoned hotel as we were working, sharing with them our vision for the hotel’s future. The most familiar refrain that we would hear was ‘boy, you’ve got a lot of work to do.’ It was unquestionably that. Amid this process, we gained the trust and support of families who entrusted us with their history, and we will be forever grateful for that. These are the types of projects that cannot be done alone, but take a team of dedicated people. But opening the hotel in 2003 was far from the end of the story.
Preserving the Historic District for the Future
Along the way, we knew that it was not the hotel alone that was going to complete the revitalization of Winter Garden. A historic district needed to be created that would safeguard the downtown in the future from meeting the fate that everyone was working so hard to rescue it from. The Hotel agreed to house of the offices of Winter Garden Main Street project. Main Street was assisting the City in getting its downtown designated as a historic district. With the help of State Representative Everett Kelly’s office, we assisted Main Street Director Kim Dryfoos with that process.
Main Street Winter Garden was brought to town to assist in revitalizing and restoring the historic district. They were a powerful alley for the downtown businesses in this process. Main Street helped coordinate the efforts and needs of the individual business owners and tenants in the historic district with the goals and desires of the City. Kim Dryfoos served as an advocate for the downtown historic buildings and important liaison with the City. When the redevelopment was completed, our interests and efforts were in conjunction with the City’s goals, and Main Street was a huge part of that successful result.
Another important project in the downtown revitalization was restoring the Garden Theatre. The Edgewater Hotel has always had a special relationship with the Garden Theatre. Early in the grant approval process, we assisted board members Ann and Bob Ellis during a trip to Tallahassee to lobby for the Theatre at the state level. During the construction of the theatre, the Edgewater housed the offices of it’s new management to allow them to get their operation started downtown. We have enjoyed a special relationship to this day in which we provide hotel rooms for their talent or guests in exchange for advertising. Our shared historic identity has made us kindred spirits on this journey of downtown revitalization.
For us, we have found that restoration never ends. With the opening of the hotel, we expanded our partnership to add a personal touch to the guest experience. We found new businesses to uphold the traditions of the restaurants of the past on the ground floor, offering award-winning and nationally recognized cuisines. The ice cream shop and barbershops were restored to give customers a greater feel for the atmosphere of the hotel at its opening. The hotel has become nationally recognized and highly praised from visitors all over the world who have come to experience downtown Winter Garden. The Heritage Foundation has instructed thousands of children of Winter Garden’s history on its restored streets and in our lobby each year.
Today success had bred new dangers to overcome for the downtown. The restoration of the hotel and the revitalization of downtown has brought a renaissance of traffic and visitors to the historic district. Many of these visitors have decided to make Winter Garden their home, as the population has quadrupled since the 1990s. With Main Street gone and a change in City leadership, a wave of new construction has come to the historic district. The new buildings have been made with historic-looking facades have blurred the distinction between the promoted historic district and a new City Center created in the downtown. The newer residents, unaware of downtown Winter Garden’s historic past, promote even greater growth in favor of economic development. However, the charm of the historic district is in danger of getting lost amid the urbanization of the downtown.
The historic district is one small section of Plant Street, and we need to be careful to not repeat the mistakes of the past and let it get overshadowed and fall into decline. Only the informed and active citizens of the downtown can protect it from becoming overdeveloped. Organizations like the Heritage Foundation and Main Street need to work with informed and active residents to keep Winter Garden’s history alive and maintain the family-friendly atmosphere of the historic district. After 15 years of talking to guests from all over the world, we have learned that people choose to visit a historic downtown because it is unique. When they stay, come away with an understanding of the authentic history of the place in which they stayed. Just like the visitors of the past who inspired us to restore the hotel, the experience of visiting the historic district leaves a unique impression on their lives. There are many places for new development in Winter Garden beyond its historic block to begin a new history without replacing the old. Right now, the authenticity and relaxed atmosphere are what separate us from upscale reproductions of historical lodging like one would find in Disney or Universal or downtown Orlando. If that distinction were to go away, the uniqueness of our town would go with it. At that point, when fads and trends ebb and flow, the traffic and success of downtown may just go with it.