It is never clear what hurdles you'll have to clear when you're working as a journalist. Once, while investigating the case of an escaped peacock that met its untimely end in a Burger King parking lot on Staten Island, the restaurant's on-duty cashier refused to speak to me until I provided credentials. Other times, interview subjects have asked me for "dank weed" or, failing that, cash. To gain access to what some might call Central Florida's most celebrated abandoned property (non-Disney division), Howey-in-the-Hills' Howey Mansion, I figured I'd at least have to show up somewhere in a tie with my hair combed. All it took was a friendly Facebook message to the William J. Howey Mansion Community Restoration Project. The nonprofit organization is headed by Florida real estate agent and appointed mansion caretaker Jacklyn Cheatham.
The mansion, a 20-room behemoth that's been vacant and deteriorating for years, was once the home of a wealthy citrus magnate, William J. Howey, who lived in it until he died in 1938. His wife, Mary Grace Hastings, remained in the house until her death in 1981 – from there, the mansion's story is a familiar tale: Somebody buys it, runs out of money, makes some poor financial decisions, the house falls into disrepair and eventually goes into foreclosure. For many houses, that would be the end – developers would purchase the property, tear it down and build anew. But Cheatham doesn't want to let that happen to this unique property. And after years of legal battles, it's looking like her dream to save the house may come true.
"I'm a little nervous about this," says Cheatham, who dreams of restoring the stately house in an area that Howey liked to call "the Alps" of Florida. "But it's time the story of this house was told in full."A few years after Mary Grace Hastings' death, the Howey Mansion went up for sale. It was purchased in 1984 by Marvel Zona and her husband, Jack, for $400,000. In the late 1990s, after they'd owned the house for roughly a decade, Jack's health began to fail. Marvel took out a reverse mortgage on the property for $347,126, which was supposed to offer her some income on the house for the rest of her life. Jack died in 2000, and a year later, Marvel opened the property for public tours, according to a 2001 announcement in the Orlando Sentinel. By 2003, Zona, who was in over her head on the mansion's upkeep, considered transforming the home into a permanent public museum and tried to get the county to buy it. The Sentinel reported that Lake County officials thought the house was "beautiful but a money pit," and they balked at taking any responsibility for the property. It would be far too costly to maintain – estimates for repairs on the house were at $1 million to $2 million at the time – and because the home was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, it was not eligible for state historic preservation emergency funding.
Marvel sold a portion of the land that went with the house to developers. Then, in 2005, she got a knock on the door. A man told her that if she took out a $1.2 million adjustable rate mortgage on the house, using another mansion she owned in North Carolina as leverage, she could use it to pay off the reverse mortgage she had on the Howey mansion. The theory was that this would eventually make the mansion easier to sell. It didn't work. The starting monthly interest rate of 1.25 percent on the new mortgage soon rose to nearly 10 percent, and payments were three times what Marvel earned per month. By 2008, she lost her North Carolina house, and by 2009, she was living in a Leesburg nursing home. An estate sale was held at the Howey Mansion in 2010 to defray the costs of her care. County investigators said she was the victim of a fraudulent deal, but Marvel – who died on July 13 of this year – refused to press charges against the individuals who talked her into this quagmire.
Cheatham got involved in the situation through her ex-husband, who was part of Marvel's legal team. The William J. Howey Mansion Community Restoration Project was formed to help find a way to save the house, and after years of litigious spiderwebbing, Cheatham says, it is believed the case with the current lienholders will be resolved in the next three to six months. Cheatham, who has worked on restoring several old homes, is hoping that negotiations with the mortgage company will result in a lower mortgage payoff that will make it possible for the organization to purchase the house, restore it and open it to the public – a long-term goal she and Marvel agreed was best for the property.
Just as Marvel did in the 1980s, when she and her husband first viewed the stately old place, Cheatham fell for the mansion.
"When my ex-husband first started telling me I had to see the Howey Mansion, I was reluctant," she says. "Like, 'Oh, not another house. And it's out in the middle of nowhere' ... but when I came out here for the first time, I fell in love."
A native of Odin, Illinois, William John Howey drifted before entering the real estate game in 1900 at the age of 24. Howey worked in Oklahoma to secure land for the nation's growing railroads, then a few years later, he saw dollar signs in pineapples and invested in a tract of land in Mexico for a plantation. The Mexican Civil War was just beginning to rumble, so Howey's pineapple dreams turned irreversibly sour.
He then brought his act to the then undeveloped wilds of Central Florida, where he bought land parcels in Lake County for orange groves. Once his tracts were fruitful, Howey flipped the groves to purchasers for several times his buying price. It didn't take long for Howey to earn the title of citrus demi-god. By 1916 he owned 60,000 acres in Lake County, with which he founded his own town, Howey-in-the-Hills. The area was officially incorporated in 1925, the same year Howey constructed his mansion near the town's northern border (on, of course, Citrus Avenue).
Howey resided in the 8,800-square-foot Mediterranean-style mansion with his wife and two daughters. His interests soon turned from oranges to politics. Though he ran two unsuccessful Florida gubernatorial campaigns, he did manage to get elected as mayor of the town that bore his name, and he held that office for 11 years. Howey suffered a fatal heart attack in 1938, leaving Hastings to live in the home until her death, too. The pair is interred, along with one daughter, Lois Valerie (whose life was tragically cut short at 16 in a 1941 auto accident), in a mausoleum on the Howey Mansion grounds. Howey's other daughter, Mary Grace Howey Smith, passed away in 2007 and is buried in Mount Dora. The piece of land containing the Howey crypt, separated by part of the main driveway, was sold off by a cash-strapped Marvel Zona years ago. Cheatham hopes to purchase it back and reunite the Howeys with their family home.
"I'd like to put an amphitheater there," Cheatham says, motioning to an open field that rests to the north of the Howeys' tomb. She envisions turning the mansion into something not unlike Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales – incidentally, William Howey once owned the land where that tower now sits.
"It's crazy," Cheatham tells me. "I was thinking of what I could do with this place, and I just happened to look at a brochure for Bok. I saw this picture of lush gardens and exactly the kind of environment I could see the Howey Mansion being ... and then I find out that Howey lived at Bok. So there was that connection. It was weird, but good weird."
Before I visited the Howey Mansion, I assumed, based on what I had read, that it would be in ragged shape, its interior perhaps resembling that of the Titanic ballroom after the ship sank. But the rooms, though barren of furniture, are in fantastic shape, and apparently aren't much messier than when Cheatham first entered them.
When you step inside the front doors of the mansion, sunlight pours through the purple stained glass, bathing you in lavender, a soft glow you can see from several rooms away. It's warm and inviting, and Cheatham jokes that this foyer is actually a time machine. In a way, she's right. There's no mistaking that you are stepping into another era when you enter the Howey Mansion.
And that brings us to one of the finer points of contention regarding the restoration of this space: The house has not been modernized, and it's going to cost a lot of money to retrofit the home with central air. Experts say that project alone could cost more than a million dollars.
Upstairs, in the master bedroom, there's a small safe embedded in a wall to the right of a low-lying bed. At first it isn't clear why the drywall surrounding the safe is damaged – the entire left side has been gutted, exposing the pallid grey belly of the home's exterior. Cheatham says she has visited the house occasionally and found an array of tools lying on the bed – area thieves are aware of the safe and have occasionally broken in to try their luck. So far, no one's been successful at cracking it, not even Cheatham. She isn't sure what it holds.
More evidence of intruders appears behind many of the vintage framed photos that hang on the mansion's walls. Turn the frames around and you'll see slits running along the back of the images. People used to hide money and deeds in their picture frames, just like in the movies, Cheatham points out.
In the backyard, which separates the mansion from its coach house, there's a serene, circular lily pad-laden pond with a statue of a youthful maiden in its center.
"When I first came here, this entire pond was covered in overgrowth," Cheatham says. "We had no idea that statue was even there."
Tucked under the main staircase is William Howey's library, a cozy room of curved bookshelves punctuated by a center desk that faces the doorway. On said desk, there's a pile of untouched books, including Florida Scott-Maxwell's gender exploration Women and Sometimes Men and a collection of essays on racial identity curated by Gerald Early titled Lure and Loathing. For the briefest moment I consider the spirits that allegedly haunt this space. Cheatham believes if there is, in fact, a paranormal force at hand, it is generally positive.
I think she's right. No ghost would stack books like this.
Though the Howey Mansion has been inaccessible to the general public for more than a decade, interest in the property is far from fading. In fact, Cheatham describes the curiosity about the house as "overwhelming." Photographers are constantly in touch, regarding the various kinds of shoots they'd like to do on the property. A local filmmaker has opened discussion with her about making a steampunk movie at the house. Every day someone seems to be staring in from the massive front iron gates, lamenting the numerous No Tresspassing signs. They've come from as far away as Switzerland, she says, just to gawk at Howey's mansion.
And even after the legal mess entangling the house is sorted out, hopefully soon, and Cheatham is able to purchase the property, she says it will be years before it can become the next Bok Tower Gardens – after the first round of legal wrangling is done, she's going to have a whole new legal battle with zoning commissions and the county. And then there's the long-overdue restoration work that needs to be completed.
"It's not so much about restoration, though, as it is preservation," Cheatham says. "The house is in great shape. We can't let it fall behind. It's such an important part of this area's history."