Restoration Takes Month on Historic Spanish Farmhouse in Winter Park, Fla.

From: The Orlando Sentinel

Date: March 30, 2002

Byline: Lydia Polgreen

Mar. 30–WINTER PARK, Fla.–It has been six months since the 750-ton house known as Casa Feliz made its much-watched journey of 300 feet from the shore of Lake Osceola to the city’s golf course.

After the technical wizardry of the move, the real work began for Jim Doane — cleaning the handmade bricks that would repair the historic Spanish farmhouse.

For six weeks Doane sat alone atop a mountain of 16,600 bricks, carefully chipping away unwanted mortar so the bricks could be reused. One by one, using a hammer and a chisel, he cleaned each brick by hand.

“I had to do them all myself because it has to be highly skilled labor,” the 35-year-old Doane explained. “If you use unskilled labor and you don’t know what you are doing, you will break the brick.”

Such is the painstaking, meticulous work of historic preservation. Finishing the house will likely take another six months and will ultimately cost upwards of $1 million, according to George Saunders, whose company is leading the restoration effort.

The bricks, which were salvaged from the foundation left behind when the house was moved last September, are being recycled for a third time. When famed Winter Park architect James Gamble Rogers II built the house in 1932, he used bricks salvaged from the downtown Orlando Armory, which was built in 1886 and demolished in 1930.

Each of the handmade clay bricks is precious. Doane stacks them like ingots at Fort Knox, carefully protected from the rain by thick sheets of plastic.

“I need every brick I can get my hands on,” said Doane, a mason who specializes in historic restoration. He is reconstructing a “broken arch” that was demolished in one of the many times the house was remodeled. Using a blown-up copy of an old black and white photo of the house, Doane re-created the arch, which was originally left unfinished to give the home the weathered, crumbling look of an old Spanish farmhouse.

It’s not just the bricks. Fixing up such an old home using authentic parts can be difficult because many of the fixtures simply are not manufactured anymore.

The black cast iron grates covering vents to the home’s basement had to be custom made. The tiles on the roof, many of which were damaged when the home’s owners began demolishing the house in 2000, will be tough to replace, too. They were made in Cuba of clay slapped by hand across mens’ thighs.

Travel agency mogul Wayne Heller bought Casa Feliz in August 2000 for $3.4 million, and a month later had wrecking crews on the three-acre property to tear down the house. Front-loaders took chunks out of the home’s four corners and demolished its kitchen before the city rescinded Heller’s demolition permit amid outcry from preservation advocates. Heller eventually donated the house to the city, and a year later Casa Feliz was moved across Interlachen Avenue to its present home.

So far a group of preservation advocates, Friends of Casa Feliz, has raised more than $500,000, and has paid for almost all of the cost to move and restore the house.

The city is expecting a $250,000 state preservation grant, which will pay for repairs to the building. Friends of Casa Feliz will have to raise money to pay for landscaping, furniture and interior decorating.
City officials hope to rent out the restored house for small parties and business meetings. Friends of Casa Feliz hopes to run a small museum on the second floor of the house.

City Commissioner Barbara DeVane said the group’s fund-raising success shows the depth of residents’ appetite for historic preservation.

“We saw the community rally around this project and raise more money for something like this than anywhere else in the state of Florida,” DeVane said. “When it’s done it is going to be first class.”

Restoration work on the house should be complete by late fall, Saunders said.