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128-year-old Capen House to be bulldozed

After the City Commission removed a historic designation from the Capen House, it's now scheduled to be demolished as early as June 13.

After the City Commission removed a historic designation from the Capen House, it's now scheduled to be demolished as early as June 13.

Sarah Wilson

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The ominous sign taped to the garage door of the Capen House seems informal compared to the glimmering brass plaque alighting the bright lemon chiffon entryway just a few feet away. The plaque, listing the recently renovated home on Winter Park’s historic registry, also has a birthdate: 1885. The paper “Notice of Intent to Demolish” sign reads “6-13-13.”

The plaque was installed in August 2011 after the Winter Park City Commission unanimously approved the owner’s application for the home to be listed as a local historical landmark, and was never removed after that title was also unanimously revoked just more than a year later. SunTrust bank, which was in foreclosure proceedings on the house when it was designated historic, had challenged that the previous owner didn’t have the right to apply for the register when she did, making the application void. The Commission agreed.

The paper was taped up two weeks ago when new owners John and Betsy Pokorny submitted their own application to the city on the home’s behalf, this time to tear it down. Without the protection of the historic designation, that demolition is far easier to accomplish.

Homes with the designation can't be demolished unless they're deemed "beyond repair." Sales literature for the home never mentioned that it was condemnation-worthy. But it did mention that the home could be demolished in favor of a newer one, an option that tends to raise a property's resale value. On the property formerly occupied by the 81-year-old Casa Feliz — which was moved in 2001 to prevent it from being bulldozed — a new home is being built that's nearly six times the size of the old one. But to have a historic home's designation revoked, opening the gate for destruction, is unheard of in the city.

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A sign noticing demolition of one of the city’s oldest homes has residents questioning how a historic home in good condition could have protections removed to let it be destroyed.

“Something like this has never happened before,” said Winter Park’s senior planner and historic designation officer, Lindsey Hayes. “…But with the designation rescinded, it’s as if it had never been granted.”

Shocked and worried that the Capen House, which was originally constructed for early city settler J.S. Capen and later was lived in by prominent Winter Parker Howard Showalter, would go the way of the Annie Russell House on Via Tuscany and the Tiedke family’s James Gable Rodgers-designed home on Isle of Sicily — flattened — Friends of Casa Feliz executive director Betsy Owens penned a blog with hopes of garnering support to save it.

With 1,800 page views and more than a dozen comments in the first 32 hours after posting it on May 21, Owens succeeded in getting the historical community abuzz.

“[Friends of Casa Feliz’s] mission is one of promoting historic preservation,” Owens said. “…This house is significant in Winter Park history, and one of a dying breed of homes.”

Thirteen years ago, residents succeeded in raising awareness and funds to save Casa Feliz from demolition, getting it moved across the road to its current home on the Winter Park Golf Course. Owens and Winter Park Historical Association board president Linda Kulmann are cautiously optimistic that the Capen House could have a similar fate.

Owens said current Capen House owner John Pokorny offered the house up for anyone willing to pay to move it and find a place to put it, but by press time Pokorny had not replied to a request for comment.

“We do hope that this portion of our history doesn’t go away,” Kulmann said. “It’s certainly what makes Winter Park different from so many other cities that we have this rich culture, and the history is such an important link to it.”

Hayes said if the demolition application passes all appropriate approvals, just as there was no protocol for removing the home from the historical register, there aren’t legal grounds to stop its demolition.

To read Betsy Owens’ Friends of Casa Feliz blog about the Capen House, visit friendsofcasafeli.... For more information about the Winter Park Register of Historic Places, visit tinyurl.com/WPhistoricalregister

Commissioner Carolyn Cooper, who voted both to add and remove the Capen House from the historic register, said she’s been heartbroken to hear of the home’s fate – one she said she never would have imagined when she placed her vote removing its protection in 2012. When listed on the register, the Historical Preservation Board must approve all exterior renovations to a home – demolition included.

“It would be a tragedy to see it taken down,” Cooper said. “I hate to see us lose historic resources.” But, she said, in 2012 SunTrust had presented a viable legal question to its registered status, and convinced Cooper and her four fellow Commissioners to vote in favor of removing its historical status.

But until bulldozers make their way to the Capen House at 520 N. Interlachen Ave., Owens said she’s committed to pushing for its – and all Winter Park’s historical places’ – preservation.

“Winter Park is a city of culture and heritage,” she said. “… But how can we expect to keep that up if we’re systematically demolishing it’s historically significant homes?”