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Mix money, Florida sunshine, add dashes of Europe Northerners planned this winter park

Email|Print| Text size + By Ellen Albanese
Globe Staff / December 12, 2004

WINTER PARK, Fla. -- The matching ceramic bowls, one containing dog biscuits and the other water, outside Favrile on Park Avenue were the clincher. All that was missing were perfectly coiffed Parisian women walking little dogs with rhinestone collars.

We had come to Florida in late October because it is a wonderful time to visit the Sunshine State: great weather and no crowds. We had come to Winter Park to find out how the city came to be called Florida's "Little Europe."

What we found were chic boutiques featuring European designers, outdoor cafes, and courtyards that capture that wonderful inside/outside feeling of so many buildings in Europe. The consignment clothing store carries Chanel suits and items from Gucci, Prada, and Louis Vuitton. And Rollins College, Florida's oldest institution of higher education, is a masterpiece of Mediterranean architecture.

We also found a reverence for art and culture that seems to transcend the area's relatively short history.

Winter Park, about 7 miles north of Orlando, was settled in the early 1880s by New Englanders Loring Chase and Oliver Chapman, who envisioned it as a winter retreat for wealthy Northerners. It was an elite population who traveled by steamboat up the St. John's River to Sanford and then to Winter Park by train, according to Chip Weston, the city's director of economic and cultural development and a 30-year resident. They were wealthy and worldly, and their tastes shaped Florida's first planned city.

Winter Park's founders also recruited a skilled group of craftsmen and service people to cater to the winter folks, Weston said. While African-Americans were residentially segregated in an area west of the railroad tracks, they participated in commerce and government. On the first city council, two of the five council members were black, and the first newspaper in town was published by a black family.

In 1882, Rollins College was founded by a group of Congregationalist ministers, and the Congregationalist commitment to diversity fostered the multicultural population that inhabits Winter Park today, Weston said.

The heart of the city is red-bricked Park Avenue. Along one side, upscale shops have cloth awnings, baskets of flowers hanging from decorative lampposts add splashes of color, and cafe seating spills onto the wide sidewalk. On the other side, a lovely park beckons the weary walker.

Shops featuring home decor, high-end clothing, and jewelry predominate. Toscana carries Vietri ceramics and Busatti linens. At bb's, we saw formal wear for children, including fur coats with matching handbags (and cocktail dresses that could make a 3-year-old look like a streetwalker).

At the Park Plaza Hotel, garden balconies overlook the busy avenue below. The lobby has an Old World feel, with high ceilings, dark wood paneling, and burgundy-colored velvet sofas and chairs. Tiny triangular spaces on each side of the lobby house a gift shop and a candy boutique.

Winter Park is still a wealthy community, Weston said. The median selling price for a house in the city last year was $463,000, which means locals as well as tourists are able to support Park Avenue's high-end retail. Unlike many Florida cities, Winter Park has few apartments and condominiums and virtually no high-rise buildings downtown.

French cuisine seems to be the gold standard. We dined at Jardins du Castillon in the Hidden Garden Courtyard, known for its souffls, and Chez Vincent in Hannibal Square, where we enjoyed excellent chicken and mushroom crepes, posters of France on the walls, and Charles Aznavour on the sound system.

Hannibal Square, a work in progress, is said to be "the next Park Avenue." Long the city's African-American neighborhood, it is an area of modest bungalows wrestling with the balance between progress and preservation, according to Marianne Popkins, executive director of the Winter Park Historical Association. The association operates a small museum downtown, worth a stop if you visit the Farmers Market on Saturday morning.

Along with a taste for European food and architecture, Winter Park's first families brought an appreciation of art, history, and culture. For its size (population 25,000), Winter Park is rich in cultural institutions. It hosts the fourth-oldest Bach festival in the United States, boasts eight sites on the National Historic Register, and has several top-notch museums.

The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum claims to have the world's most comprehensive collection of the works of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), including lamps, windows, painting, pottery, and the Byzantine-Romanesque chapel interior he created for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The museum's holdings also include American art, pottery, and late-19th-century and early-20th-century American painting and graphics.

Objects are beautifully displayed with accompanying text. For example, at the "butterfly window," a sign explains that if you stare hard at the window, you will eventually see the outlines of butterflies emerge. If you're lucky, a docent will turn off the light behind the window, letting you see the butterflies outlined in lead more clearly. At the "magnolia window," you learn that the realistic magnolia blossoms are made from "drapery glass," which is folded when still soft to suggest a third dimension.

All shimmer and sparkle, the marble, glass, and mosaic chapel is so ornate it's almost gaudy. Behind the altar, two peacocks in iridescent blue and green mosaic cover the wall. A domed, oval baptismal font looks like a giant, jewel-encrusted Faberge egg. From the ceiling hangs a 1,000-pound chandelier in the shape of a four-sided cross with green turtleback glass and bare incandescent bulbs. The stained-glass windows, particularly the field of lilies behind the baptistery, are stunning.

An exhibit of Tiffany lamps continues through Jan. 9. Also on display is the leaded-glass window that graced the entrance to the art gallery at Tiffany's Long Island estate, Laurelton Hall. It is being shown for the first time since it was installed at Laurelton Hall in 1916.

A lesser-known but worthwhile museum is the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens. The home, gallery, and gardens of this Czech immigrant (1879-1965) are just 100 yards from busy Osceola Avenue, but the feeling is one of quiet and serenity.

Most of Polasek's sculpture has a traditional feel, but "Mother Crying Over the World," a small bronze completed in 1942, seems contemporary. The striking sculpture depicts a woman bent over a globe in despair, for her sons and all the sons in a world at war. It is simple yet powerful and timeless.

Polasek is said to have been a deeply religious and joyful man. He continued to sculpt even after a stroke confined him to a wheelchair. The best insight into the sculptor's view of life may be "Man Carving His Own Destiny." An unfinished human figure rises from a block of stone, chisel in hand, frozen in the process of creation.

Through Jan. 23, the Polasek Museum is showing "Holiday Icons of Russia," on loan from the Hollingsworth Fine Art Galleries of Orlando.

The Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College houses a collection of more than 6,000 European and American paintings, sculptures, and works of decorative art. The museum is closed for renovation and scheduled to reopen next fall.

One of the oldest attractions in Winter Park is the scenic boat tour, which has been operating for more than 60 years. The narrated one-hour cruise over Lakes Osceola, Maitland, and Virginia offers a look at the waterfront mansions of some of Winter Park's first families as well as those of more contemporary, familiar names such as Walgreen. Most houses are Mediterranean in style, pastel stucco with red tile roofs, but an occasional Colonial or contemporary with floor-to-ceiling windows breaks the monotony. The elaborateness of the boathouse is often a key to the wealth of the owner, said our guide, pointing out one boathouse with a fireplace in it.

The lakes are connected by canals lined with bamboo and Egyptian papyrus and so narrow in spots we could touch the banks on either side of our 8-foot-wide boat. In canalside "garages," boats are suspended above the water.

Had our skipper been standing and wielding a pole, we might have thought we were in Venice.

Ellen Albanese can be reached at ealbanese@globe.com.

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