Join us on walking tours of three history-rich downtown districts in our community, starting with Historic Longwood
Quick! Before it gets hot outside! Let’s take a stroll through time as we visit the major historic districts in Longwood, Lake Mary, and Sanford. Each walking tour tells an entirely different tale of early life in our community, and each leisurely trek reveals the unique character of the city as seen through the lens of the last 100 years or more.
It’s been a number of years since Longwood produced a formal walking map of its downtown district, but that’s OK – the history here is so dense, any walk through the corridor tucked into the northwest corner of State Road 434 and Ronald Reagan Boulevard will produce history at every turn.
We might as well start at the center of it all, though, the Longwood Village Inn between Warren and Church Avenues. You’ve likely driven by this iconic landmark hundreds of times as you’ve traveled on Ronald Reagan. The original 38-room hotel was built in the late 1800s by Longwood founder E.W. Henck right after he established the adjacent railway line connecting Orlando and Sanford. Over the years, it’s been a flophouse, a casino, a movie set, and it was even home to a baseball umpires’ academy. Since its multi-million-dollar renovation in 1986, it has served faithfully as an office building.
While facing the Inn, turn to your left to see the 1880s-era Bradlee-McIntyre House. Now, close your eyes and picture what it must have looked like there 100 years ago. What do you see? If you answered, “an empty plot of land,” you’re right! The Bradlee-McIntyre House was built in 1883, but not where it sits today. It wasn’t even built in Longwood. It was a winter vacation home for the Bradlee family in Altamonte Springs. By the early 1970s, the house was abandoned, dilapidated, and about to be demolished to make way for commercial development, but the Central Florida Society for Historic Preservation raised the funds required to move the house from its original plot in Altamonte to the Longwood address where it stands today. It’s now a museum open for tours.
Next, turn around and head north to Church Avenue, and you’ll find another transplant – the Inside-Outside House, named for the fact that its structural framing is visible from the outside of the home. It was prefabricated by a sailing captain in New England in the early 1870s. The pieces were shipped to Altamonte where the house was originally assembled. Like the Bradlee-McIntyre House, it was rescued and moved to Longwood in 1973. It’s now a gift shop.
Walk west on Church Avenue, and you’ll find its namesake and a genuine piece of Seminole County history: Christ Church. The classic, white church house was built in 1881 and is the oldest church in continuous operation in the county, but like so many of Longwood’s historic structures, it began life somewhere else. The original building was constructed about 150 feet to the east and was relocated in 1988 to make room for the other buildings on the church’s current campus.
Continue your walk down Church Avenue, past the Longwood Police Department headquarters, until you reach the brand spanking new Reiter Park. Take a left and then another onto Warren Avenue, and there you’ll find several other historic homes including the Niemeyer House (built in 1889), the Beesley-Milwee House (1887), and the Tunis Lewis House (1914). Walk far enough, and you’ll end up right back where you started, in front of the Longwood Village Inn.
That’s nearly 150 years’ worth of history in a single block’s walk... not too shabby!
To learn more about the Longwood Historic District, and to plan your own walking tour, visit HistoricLongwood.com.
Downtown Lake Mary
Modern Lake Mary is a burgeoning mecca of high-tech businesses and innovative healthcare options, so it’s only fitting the official tour through the city’s historic downtown corridor would have its own twist of technology. Rather than wrangling a paper map as it flaps in the breeze, takers of this tour can navigate the entire journey through the free Florida Stories smartphone app.
Once downloaded on any iPhone or Android device, the app is a gateway to walking tours of several dozen historic locales, including Lake Mary. A single tap is all it takes to begin the 12-stop tour. From your current location, the app will direct you to the first point of interest, the Frank Evans Center, which is now home to the Lake Mary Historical Museum. Once you arrive, click the play button in the app to hear a wonderfully produced audio narrative about the history of the center and of Lake Mary, itself (you can read the text transcript, too, if you want). You’ll learn about the center’s many roles over the years as Lake Mary’s senior center, city hall, and chamber of commerce before becoming the modern-day museum.
When you’re ready, tap the button for directions to stop #2, the Evans Store. There, again, you’ll get a fascinating audio walkthrough of the building’s history.
The digitally-guided tour will wind you through downtown Lake Mary until you eventually reach the Lake Mary Cemetery and Lake Mary Heritage Park. The volunteer Lake Mary Cemetery Association was established in 1894 to identify the initial two acres of land from which the modern cemetery would grow. Plots were initially sold for $10 each, but the price would drop to $5 during the Great Depression and remained at that figure for decades. The first official burial in the cemetery was Carl Lundquist in 1895. The cemetery is now home to Heritage Park and the city’s evolving veteran’s memorial. It’s a fitting tribute to the 55 veterans from every branch of service and every war since the Spanish-American War who are interred in the cemetery, itself.
While you’re at the cemetery, the app will direct you to the grave of Lake Mary’s founder, Swedish immigrant Axel Sjöblom. Two heart-shaped headstones mark the final resting places of Axel and his wife, Tilda. Axel left his family in Stockholm, Sweden, at age 17 to answer a newspaper ad from General Henry Sanford, himself, seeking strong men to work his orange groves in Central Florida. Forty-five other Swedes made the trip with Axel, but more than half of them quickly grew tired of General Sanford’s brutal work conditions. After a quick stint in the local jail for speaking his mind to the General, Axel sought paid labor elsewhere and eventually settled with Tilda (his wife, but also his cousin) on the shores of Crystal Lake. The couple had 10 children, and many of the streets off North Country Club Road in downtown Lake Mary bear their names.
The tour continues by several historic houses and the First Presbyterian Church before concluding at modern-day City Hall, which also features the burial site of Tonka, the famous horse who, legend has it, would walk right into the Lake Mary Pub in the mid-1900s where the bartender would set a bucketful of beer down for him to enjoy. City Hall sits on land once held by Tonka’s owner, Harriet Mixon. She donated the land to the city on one condition: when Tonka died, the city would bury his remains on the land and erect an appropriate marker, and that’s just what Lake Mary leaders did.
To take the tour, yourself, search for Florida Stories in your phone’s app store.
Between Sanford, Longwood, and Lake Mary, the downtown district of the northernmost city is the area’s oldest, but it’s also the newest... huh? The explanation for that oxymoron lies in the one thing you’ll see tons of (literally) in Sanford but can barely find in any of the other historic districts: brick.
Sanford was hopping in the 1880s with banks, churches, a library, two schools, four different newspaper publishers, and dozens of thriving businesses. But those buildings, like so many of the Florida structures of the day, were made of wood. So, when the 1st Street Bakery caught fire in 1887, the blaze spread quickly and consumed most of the downtown district. When the flames were finally fought and the last embers extinguished, city leaders made a promise. They were going to rebuild their fine city, but they weren’t going to use wood this time.
The official walking tour of Sanford is produced by the city and dubbed Pathways to History. It takes about an hour to complete and includes 22 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. As you take the tour, you’ll see more brick and masonry than you can shake a piece of kindling at, and it begins at the DeForest Block at 121 East 1st Street, right in the heart of downtown. The building is one of Sanford’s oldest, as it was built just before the fire in 1887. The structure was one of precious few to survive the blaze because, guess what, it was already made of brick!
Two stops to the west is Sanford’s first skyscraper, the six-story building at 101 East 1st Street. Originally built in 1922, it has served as home to one bank or another for 90 of its 99 years.
Turning east, the Bishop Block at the corner of 1st Street and Park Avenue is notable because it was one of the first buildings erected after the great fire. The fire consumed downtown Sanford in September of 1887, and this (brick) building was up and running by the end of that year.
No historic tour of downtown Sanford would be complete without a stop at what is now the Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center. Built in 1922, the building was originally home to the Milane Amusement Company and was Sanford’s scene for vaudeville shows and movies. The theater went by the name of The Ritz during most of the mid-century years before becoming the community theater we know today.
The rest of the tour takes you by a number of other very-late-1880s-era buildings that represent Sanford’s rebirth, and the next-to-last stop is the Sanford Museum, itself, where you can dive even deeper into the rich history of Seminole County’s own Second City.
For plenty of detail about all the stops and a map of the tour, go to SanfordFL.gov and search for Walking Tour
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