My town is Winter Garden, Florida. I chose Winter Garden as the place where I wanted to raise my family and to live out the rest of my days. My wife was born and raised here and went to school at Calvary Christian on South Dillard Street. Needless to say, we love this town and are tremendous advocates for its preservation. I believe that for our city to retain what makes it so great, we must be aware of its history, protective of its heritage, and active in its community.
A couple of days ago I was reminded about an integral piece of our history and heritage here in Winter Garden– the Historic Edgewater Hotel, a bed and breakfast style inn that first opened its doors to the public in the 1920s.
When I arrived at 99 W. Plant Street, Mike Lanza, the co-owner, greeted me in the lobby, which like the rest of the hotel, is preserved in its 1920’s style. Behind the huge wood-framed front desk was an old switchboard, a large combination safe, an antique register, and other trinkets and furniture items that are far older than I. Mike promptly invited me upstairs, which is where the guest rooms and dining area can be found. I noticed the narrow original stairwell, but he gave me the guest experience by taking me upstairs via the original 1926 Otis manually operated elevator. A few years shy of being a century old, it swooshed up faster than the elevator at my current office building and was a smoother ride too.
Mike informed me that the fire sprinkler piping is the original from when the hotel was built. He told me that the hotel was promoted as a “fireproof hotel” as it was one of the first in the area to have this state-of-the-art fire prevention system. During this time, folks needed to be concerned about the potential of fire and Winter Garden was no exception. In 1909 and 1912 there were two fires that took many of the wooden buildings in the downtown area. This is why today we see the brick structures, which were built as safer options than the original wood buildings along Plant Street.
The elevator took us into a gorgeous dining room and upstairs lobby area filled with antique furniture and wooden cabinets. The natural sunlight rushes through the immaculate dining room which faces Plant Street from the second floor.
Throughout a stay at the hotel, guests are welcome to come and grab some snacks, coffee, or other refreshments at any time. Breakfast is cooked-to-order in the morning and all of this is included with the fixed room fee. Your bedroom is furnished with period pieces and your door is not a computer chip card but an old fashioned turnkey, just like it was in the early days of the hotel.
In 1924, just as construction was getting underway, the historic land bust in Florida caused the project to halt. This was when Jerry Chicone Sr. stepped in and found new investors for the hotel and the project was saved. The hotel opened in January 1927. The hotel thrived during its early decades, but eventually closed its doors. In the 1970’s Pat Hart bought the building and utilized it for storage and to run his TV Repair business.
In the 1980’s Hart was seeking to sell the building and although the record is unclear, it seems there were some purchasers, but the building ended up coming back to Hart. “There was a lot of promises made [about restoring the building], it made the city and the people of downtown weary of people coming in to buy the building,” said Mike explaining the climate of the time.
This went on until the 1990’s when Mike and his business partner Max Blanchard were looking for space to create a new studio for their media production company. They found out about this old building in the dismal, yet quiet, downtown Winter Garden area. At that time the train was still rolling through where the West Orange Trail currently lays and Mike recounts, “there was several years there, leading up to 2003, where downtown was kind of closed off while they were doing all this work,” what Mike was referring to is the revitalization efforts done in preparation for the city’s centennial celebration, where “Centennial Plaza” was created which holds the famous clock tower and fountain.
In 1995 Mike and his partner Max bought the Edgewater Hotel building and were getting ready to create their media studio. Just before this time, the newly formed Winter Garden Heritage Foundation successfully stopped what was to be the demolition of the building. As part of the purchase agreement with Hart, they had to sign an agreement with the Heritage Foundation. “We signed a contract with the Heritage Foundation so that we would maintain the historic exterior of the building,” Mike explained.
However the interior was not going to be preserved. It was to be gutted for a studio and office space. That was until the community started to meet with Mike and Max. “In the 1990s we met a lot of the original families who were here. We met with Bert Roper, the Reeves, Jerry Chicone Sr., Ann and Bob Ellis … we got so many stories of what it was like to be here and it just kind of triggered us, to think that you could take this building which is an authentic historical structure ,with such a great background and stories, and return it to what it had been in the 1920s and 1930s and give people of our time that experience,” recounted Mike.
“It was at that point we started a new business and the production business faded out,” said Mike.
Mike and Max began a journey to reestablish the historic hotel and go through the painstaking process of revitalization efforts that would go on for 8 years before they were able to welcome their first hotel guests in 2003. Just in time for the cities 100-year anniversary.
For three years Mike and Max ran the hotel, but as it developed into a huge success it became clear help was wanting. That is when a unique opportunity presented itself.
As I visited, I saw a group of hard-working individuals bustling around the hotel ensuring it was impeccably clean. Some of them had shirts on with the phrase “Jesus is Enough”. This is Adam’s Road, a group that entered the story by 2006.
They live upstairs in the rooms on the third floor, altogether the group is comprised of 14 people, among which are 9 adults and 5 children. They work together to manage the day-to-day operations of the hotel and are partners in the business with Mike and Max. Four of the members are part of their traveling worship ministry that tours the country spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ in intervals of 6-8 weeks at a time throughout the months of June to October.
Joseph Warren, one of the band members who does vocals and guitar for the group stated to me, “the function of the hotel is like a tent making ministry for Adam’s Road. When we travel around the country, we do it for free, we go and play at these churches and travel for free, because our living is supported by this business.” This was a clear reference to the Apostle Paul’s occupation while spreading the Gospel.
Prominent members of the group such as Stefan Dennis help to run the behind-the-scenes aspects of the band and manage the hotel itself in the band’s absence while on the road.
The hotel today is booming, maybe just as much as it was in the 1920’s. In addition to the hotel itself it is home to Earl Brigham’s Barber Shop, Chef’s Table and the Tasting Room, Thai Blossom Restaurant, and Scoops Old Fashioned Ice Cream Store, all of which have been downstairs since 2008 and have outstanding records of their own in our community.
As Mike concluded regarding the historic preservation of the hotel, “We are able to honor the families who built this city instead of wiping that history out, we bring it back and honor it.”
I learned a lot with my visit to the hotel. I learned that there are people like Mike and Max in our community who are passionate about honoring our history and heritage. I saw that here in our town, there are groups like Adam’s Road who work on the most important things in the world. I was reminded that we have an incredible community of people who care. Walking down the halls of that hotel I thought of the men and women who also stepped on those floors so many decades ago. These are the people who helped to pioneer our wonderful community, not just Winter Garden but all of West Orange. It is for us to honor them and care about what made this city and area great, to know and preserve our history and heritage. In the end, it’s about the people.
Austin Arthur is a local business owner and community advocate for West Orange County, Florida. Along with his brother, Zander Arthur, he is the Co-CEO of Stars and Stripes Management Systems in Winter Garden, which is a multi-brand digital marketing and management company which includes the very popular “Gymnastics USA”. A promoter of traditional family and community values, he has been writing about, and advocating for, West Orange County for some time and is active on many boards and other community groups. Austin and his wife, Kellie, are residents of Winter Garden, where they are raising their three children. www.austinarthur.us