February 4, 2014

Local Group Floats Winter Park’s Historic Capen-Showalter House to Safety

  • By: Christine Madrid French
By Christine Madrid French, Project Director, Preservation Capen, Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens

Project Director Christine Madrid French, with "Ginger" floating on the lake. Credit: Christine Madrid French
Project Director Christine Madrid French, with "Ginger" floating on the lake.

Veteran historic preservationists often grasp for creative opportunities to save an endangered building. In Winter Park, Florida, advocates for an 1885 house combined innovative nonprofit collaborations, engineering feats, and grassroots community outreach to mount an extraordinary preservation operation.

The effort began with a crisis all too familiar to preservationists: New owners of a historic home on a premium lakeside lot announced plans to tear it down and rebuild on site. In June 2013, thanks to skillful mediation, the owners agreed to postpone demolition by six months and donate the 128-year-old-house to anyone who could move it. This short reprieve gave advocates a key window of opportunity.

In an unprecedented partnership, three separate Winter Park nonprofit cultural and arts organizations came forward as a team with an unusual proposal. Operating as Preservation Capen, the Casa Feliz Historic Home Museum, the Winter Park History Museum, and the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens moved full steam ahead to get the house out of the way.

After careful analysis, only one save presented itself: cut the 4,000-square-foot Victorian house in two and float it across a lake to an empty lot owned by the Polasek Museum, where it could be renovated and re-used for museum space, public events, and offices. (The heavily treed residential roads of Winter Park could not accommodate a more typical move by road.)

THe ouse being separated, with a semi-truck moving one piece to the shore. Credit: Christine Madrid French
The house being separated, with a semi-truck moving one piece to the shore.

The partner organizations shared mailing lists, membership events, and resources to mount an assertive public outreach and fundraising effort. Thaddeus Seymour, a widely respected president emeritus of Rollins College, and Lawson Lamar, former Sheriff of Orange County, teamed up as co-chairs of Preservation Capen, garnering public support at our rallies, parades, and events.

More than 400 people, a number of foundations, and the Board of Trustees of the Polasek Museum Foundation donated to the project. With their help, Preservation Capen raised $550,000 in six months with no advance notice and only a shoestring budget.

T&T House Moving & Heavy Rigging, a third-generation, family-owned company, brought a 50-ton crane to the Polasek Museum and imported nine gigantic barge pieces to create a floating steel island large enough to support the house. Local old-house expert and contractor Frank Roark coordinated more than 30 people representing the construction trades (including 13 subcontractors) to separate the house into two pieces and cut and label hundreds of wires, pipes, and HVAC lines below the floorboards. As project director, I worked closely with the trio of enthusiastic executive directors -- Debbie Komanski (Polasek), Betsy Rogers Owens (Casa Feliz), and Susan Skolfield (History Museum) -- to keep the massive effort moving forward to beat a looming end-of-the-year deadline.

In December 2013, the two halves of the Capen-Showalter House -- dubbed Fred and Ginger after the famous dancing film couple Astaire and Rogers -- were raised off their foundations and prepared for the move. On the appointed day, an eager public waited for hours to watch Ginger (weighing in at 100 tons) set forth on the 1000-meter trip across the waters of Lake Osceola.

The Preservation Capen team in front of Ginger. Credit: Ruben Madrid
The Preservation Capen team in front of Ginger.

In the end, the landmark trip only took about 15 minutes, but the event garnered national press coverage, with four helicopters and two camera drones recording the action. Fred followed closely behind about a week later.

As we enter the next phase of the project -- stitching the building back together -- Fred and Ginger now sit facing each other on the east lot of the Polasek Museum. The museum itself is a historic home and artist’s studio built in 1949 for Albin Polasek, a Czech-American artist and former director of the sculpture program at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Out-of-the-box thinking by the Polasek’s Board of Trustees proved to be the key element of this preservation “save.” Acquiring the building was not in the strategic plan for 2013. But the timing was right: The Polasek Museum had purchased the adjacent lot nearly a decade earlier in preparation for a new building. The enormous press coverage for the move far exceeded any publicity that could be garnered for new construction, allowing the museum (and its nonprofit partners) to attract new audiences to the site and promote the concept of historic building reuse to a wider constituency.

The successful effort to save the Capen-Showalter House offers lessons for those seeking to preserve a historic building with short notice and few resources. Creative solutions, opportune collaborations, and community leadership came together as one in Winter Park to ensure the survival of this historically significant building. The legacy of the house continues at the Polasek Museum, which plans to showcase this remarkable story of public participation in historic preservation.

Watch a video of the Capen-Showalter House preparing for its move:

By: Christine Madrid French

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