An architectural gem in the Lake County town of Howey-in-the-Hills attests to Ernest Hemingway’s oft-quoted remark, “The rich are different.” To wander through this 24 room home built by the community’s founder, William J. Howey, is like stepping back into the 1920s. Strolling over the surrounding acres brings a nostalgic feeling of “Once upon a time....”.
Mr. Howey amassed 60,000 acres in Lake County and beyond by 1920. Following his previous formula for success practiced in Polk County, he planted citrus on the majority of his newly acquired acreage.
Unlike many purchasers of Florida property in the ensuing boom years, Mr. Howey was not a speculator, but a land promoter, who used the fledgling citrus industry of Central Florida as his economic base.
In 1925, he and his wife, Mary Grace Hastings Howey, completed the plans and started building their permanent home in Howey and by early 1927, their show place was finished, furnished and occupied. The architect was Katherine Cotheal Budd, who during the first World War had designed temporary lodgings for women, visiting their husbands at military training camps. The “hostess home” idea was a new concept for that time, and Budd is credited for giving 72 lodgings a homelike atmosphere. The Howey House is one of the only existing example of her work.
Designed in Mediterranean Revival style, the house is set back on a wide lawn, approached through wrought iron gates and a lengthy horseshoe shaped drive. The time mellowed rose stucco walls are almost completely covered with creeping figine. The roof is a barrel tile roof utilizing Ludiwigi tile. The entrance features an elaborate bas relief frontispiece, which extends two full stories and incorporates two openings, an arched double doorway topped by a square casement window. The arched doorway has ornamental grille work double doors surmounted by a fanlight. A second doorway, opening directly into the foyer, has a magnificent semicircular fanlight inset with a peacock plumage design of multi-colored stained glass with panels of diamond-patterned stained glass outlining the sides of the door. Much of the woodwork on the first floor is pecky cypress, including the massive front door.
The foyer with curved walls rising to the second story is dominated by a wide graceful curving stone like stairway with a wrought iron banister. The wall surface of the foyer and lower hall is of pre-cast plaster. The Austrian artisan, who compounded and poured the wall surface mixture right in the foyer, did so in complete secrecy, banning all other workmen from the house and blocking the door.
Three immense fireplaces, a ballroom size Drawing Room with massive beamed ceilings and the servant electric call bell system are not surprising architectural styles and convenience refinements to see in a house this grand. The unexpected is what delights the eye and creates visual images. For instance, a Sitting Room midway up the main staircase, built in the tower on the backside of the house, serviced by an enclosed stairwell and dumbwaiter from the Butler’s Pantry on the first floor.
The Library is situated directly below the Sitting Room. The wall space is divided between built-in bookshelves and arched windows, which face the Fountain Courtyard. The hidden passageway, so popular in older large homes emanates from behind a sliding bookshelf panel in the Library. The doorway that the concealed latch opens is located outside the Library, lending even more intrigue to the Prohibition Vault that served as a liquor cache during the Prohibition era. All that it contained must have been considered valuable, as it is guarded by a fireproof, tumbler locked bank vault safe door. That it was a strong house as well as a beautiful one there is no doubt. Some of the inner walls measure over a foot thick and both wood and stone floors are tight and smooth; even today, the heavy doors swing silently and close snugly.
An innovator in the citrus industry, Howey was one of the first growers to ship fruit to England from Florida. His home is located across Palm Avenue from the golf course (now Mission Resort + Club) and his candidacy for Governor on the Republican ticket in 1928 and 1932, led to various notable visitors to his Howey home. Among them were Lord Bathhurst of England, H.B. McNeal, publisher of Golfer’s Magazine, Golf Master Chick Evans, Kansas Governor Alfred Landon, Mr. & Mrs. Frank Phillip’s of petroleum fame and President Calvin Coolidge, who was guest of honor at an all-male dinner party in February 1930.
Within the 15 acre grounds, referred to as “The Park,” are many varieties of botanical plants and lush shrubbery. Located on the grounds is a simple Georgian marble family mausoleum where William J. Howey (1938), daughter, Lois Valerie (1941), and beloved wife Grace (1981) are buried.
“The Park was the scene of an open air concert performed by the New York Civic Opera Company on March 6, 1927. Those attending, estimated at 16,000, arrived in 4,000 automobiles. An area newspaper reported “In all Florida history…never has there been anyone who has attempted to bring a musical company of such prominence to give a concert at his own expense so that the people could have the opportunity of hearing some of the finest operatic stars … impossible had it not been for the generosity and thoughtfulness of W. J. Howey…” From the same article it was noted, “…The greatest applause was when W. J. Howey was introduced, the applause ringing and ringing until it echoed from miles around.”
The time for a show place mansion such as the Howey House may be past; the lifestyle it encompassed, bypassed by jet-paced modernity, and yet it should remain to remind us that “Once upon a time…”
-Taken from the Central Florida Scene, pages 25-26, August 1982. -Edited from Images of America Howey-in-the-Hills, Peggy Beucher Clark, 2011.
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