By Dan Harkins
ORANGE CITY - Inside the 1876 Heritage Inn, in the artifact-festooned office that once housed the city's first mayor, former U.S. Army Ranger Dallas Wittgenfeld serves as docent to a history that few visitors care to explore anymore.
If it weren't for him, this hotel that shadows a bustling U.S. 17-92 might have met the wrecking ball decades ago. City officials had to be taught, he said, about the building's distinction as the most enduring pioneer hotel in Florida.
All city inspectors saw in the early '80s were code violations and decades of disrepair, he said. All Mr. Wittgenfeld saw were possibilities, despite The White Elephant sign out front advertising the slapdash flea market of a hoarder/owner who lived and worked inside.
"The grass was waste deep and there were junk cars all around it," he recalled. "I told her this could really be something. But when I found out the history, I got so much more excited. I couldn't have it die."
And it didn't. After months of politicking, liens were waived, demolition-minded leaders were placated and investors were found to turn the hotel back into what it is today: a visible anchor for a city lacking much in the way of a downtown.
But the preservation efforts of one individual can't save the city's entire historic district, a collection of more than 200 homes roughly bordered by Banana, Carpenter, French and Orange avenues and centered by a once-bustling downtown along Graves Avenue.
The district has fallen into such peril, with many historic structures dilapidated or abandoned, that the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation has placed the entire area on its 11 Most Endangered Sites list for the second straight year.
The list includes eight individual properties and three districts. The Palatka and Milton downtown districts are the only other historic areas on the list.
The trust, which has been focused on historic preservation since its founding in 1978, receives dozens of nominations every year for the endangered list.
"There are always more than 11 (historic) sites that are critically endangered in Florida," said the trust's executive director, Anne Peery. "So we try to select 11 that are under the most eminent threat of being lost to development pressures or lost to the elements. We call that demolition by neglect."
Benefits of membership
Orange City would qualify for both of those characterizations, she said. Though the trust offers no grant programs for preservation, Ms. Peery said making the list can help.
"Having gone through this analysis from a statewide group," she said, "and having been selected as one of the most endangered sites or areas may, in fact, increase their chances of receiving funding from other sources."
That's the hope. When Orange City Mayor Tom Laputka first heard the district had received the nefarious distinction for the second year, he started to worry.
"At first, like all of us, I was a little put off by that," he said, "but what it does mean is that we're going to get opportunities to qualify for grant money, so it's not really a bad thing."
Mr. Wittgenfeld said he's researched one grant program through the National Endowment for the Humanities that could provide up to $1 million each for planning and implementation of special historic projects.
If it were up to him, he'd use the money to create a living history museum in the long-vacant home across the street from Heritage Inn - a house that once was the home of other storied town founders, the Dickinsons.
"That's one of the most historic houses in the city," he said, "and it's just sitting there rotting."
The city is currently reforming its historic preservation board with the task of identifying each historic structure, officially defining the district's boundaries and quantifying its needs.
Meanwhile, Mayor Laputka said, the city is pursuing the creation of a community redevelopment agency that could funnel excess property taxes into redeveloping the area surrounding Graves Avenue in a manner consistent with its history and style.
"When you say 'new development,' nowhere does it say it has to look new," Mayor Laputka said. "Look at Winter Garden. They did a lot of (in-fill) building there and the whole area looks like it's 130 years old. I think that's what would be appropriate to do in this historic district."
If only more people like Dallas Wittgenfeld were available, he said.
One recent weekday, Mr. Wittgenfeld boisterously recalled the town's founding from the lobby of the Heritage Inn, which has been an inn again for nearly two decades now.
He talked about how the Thursby family made their way to Blue Spring in 1856, finally building a three-story home by 1872 that still stands as a centerpiece for Blue Spring State Park.
Four years after that home was built, in 1876, the city's first mayor, Hugh H. DeYarman, built a grand hotel on a tree-lined rural path that would later become the five-lane U.S. 17-92. The Central Florida region's first mail came through the Western Union in this lobby, where one of just three U.S. Postal Service museums in the country is currently in operation.
Mr. DeYarman's hotel became the center of a citrus-growing mecca. Still outside today, leading northwest and northeast from the hotel, are two stone paths that are the county's oldest sidewalks.
"How about that?" Mr. Wittgenfeld said. "Didn't know that was out there, did you?"
The entire district can trace it roots back to here, he said.
"It was the start of everything else that came," he said.
The same year the hotel was built, Dr. Seth French built his family home less than a mile away, on the modern-day French Avenue that leads straight west to Blue Spring. He planted citrus groves from there all the way to Orange Camp Road - about 5 square miles of orange blossoms.
In recent years, Mr. Wittgenfeld noticed that three orange trees in an early photograph of the French house were still alive. He planted seeds from those trees in pots last year.
He took the resulting saplings one recent afternoon to plant on the French property with Navy veteran Frances Weier, the great-granddaughter of Seth French. She's spent about $50,000 in the past year to restore the home to its former glory. Over the past decade, the family has spend more than twice that to bring the house back to use.
Weier's mother deeded the property to the city when she died in 2009, but only if it would make the house a museum. The city couldn't afford that, Mayor Laputka said, so the property was given to Ms. Weier.
She said she hopes her neighbors will be inspired to clean up their own historic properties. She's doing her part, she said, for a number of reasons.
"I'm doing this for my mom," she said, "but also for this community. Personally, though, it's just an amazing thing to have this sort of connection to your own past."
Mr. Wittgenfeld hopes many more will come to understand where this city is coming from.
"Once this is gone," he said, "you'll never see it again. And what will we have for history then? Books? This is the Williamsburg of Florida. But who even knows that?"