There’s always something happening in South Eola. From new buildings to new businesses, South Eola is truly one of Orlando’s most modern neighborhoods and offers the most urban living environment in the entire city. However, hidden behind the glitzy exterior of our luxury high-rise and townhome buildings and the booming social atmosphere or our amazing businesses, there is a depth of history that is not only one of the richest in all of Orlando, but also incredibly influential in the development of all of Central Florida.
Jacob Summerlin and Family
Jacob Summerlin, whose family name lives on all around the city (and most recognizably as South Eola’s Eastern boundary, Summerlin Avenue) was one of the key players in the early years of Orlando’s history. As legend goes, he was actually the first American child to be born in Florida after the territory was taken from Spain in 1819. Summerlin first settled in the Orlando area in 1873, just two years prior to the city’s incorporation. Dubbed “the largest cattle owner in the world,” his family exerted significant influence in society.
In 1874 he purchased 200 acres of land consisting of what we now know as Lake Eola and Lake Eola Park for a rumored 25 cents per acre. There was a sinkhole forming on this land, but Summerlin was able to tap into an aquifer running beneath it to fill it with water and turn it into what is now Lake Eola. At the time it was referred to as Sandy Beach. Later in 1883, Summerlin donated part of the land around the lake for public use. The name Eola was a choice of his son Robert, in memoriam of a female friend of his. In 1888 it was recognized as a public park in Orlando.
Years prior, in 1854, William A. Lovell built a steam-powered sawmill on the Lake Eola area. It’s unclear whether Summerlin built his own, or took over Lovell’s as part of his property purchase. Under Summerlin’s guidance, however, Millwork would eventually become Orlando’s first industry.
Summerlin continued to play a prominent role in the local government, and we all have him to thank for Orlando maintaining the seat of Orange County. After the courthouse burned down in a fire, Henry Sanford made a plea to move the courthouse to a town then named Lake Monroe, in the area now known as Sanford. Summerlin was able to convince the parties involved to keep it where the voters had chosen it to be - in Orlando.
From Humble Starts to a World-Class City
As the area prospered financially, the city moved toward incorporation. On June 3, 1875 a group of individuals met to begin a plan that was later voted for on July 21 by a mere 22 voters. The city consisted of an area of 1 mile in each direction from the location of the courthouse at the time, forming a square. The area we all know and love as South Eola is one of the original areas of Orlando.
In and Around Lake Eola Park
When Summerlin donated the land around Lake Eola to the city in 1883 he set the stipulation that it be kept beautiful and used as a park, with the addition of trees and a path around the lake. The agreement also included a clause that would allow him or his heirs to reclaim the property if the city did not hold up to the agreement. It is still cared for in accordance with this agreement.
In its history, Lake Eola Park has been home to a number of things including a horse race track, a beach, tennis courts, a pier with a dance area, a bathhouse, and the broadcast site of a radio station. The park itself has grown and changed over the years, with additional donations of land. In 1897, John P. Musselwhite moved to Orlando and bought the land between Lake Eola and Summerlin Avenue. He then donated the land on the north, east, and south of the lake to the city to complete the park. In 1993 the city closed a portion of Washington street which ran through the park, and incorporated all of the land within the boundaries. This expansion ultimately led to the development of the “International Food Court” where you can now find the Orlando Famer’s Market held every Sunday. It was again expanded as recently as 2013, with the addition of the South-East corner.
As the unofficial icon of the city, the Lake Eola fountain, officially named the Linton E. Allen Memorial Fountain is undeniably the most recognizable landmark in all of Orlando. It was originally built in 1957 and received significant revitalization in 2011 after it was damaged by a 2009 lightning storm. It was originally named the Centennial Fountain, but later renamed in 1966.
The ideas of Lake Eola and swans are virtually inseparable. However, it wasn’t until 1922 that swans came to live at the park. An Englishman was raising swans at nearby Lake Lucerne, but a conflict between two breeds led him to find a home for one of the breeds at Lake Eola. Today, there are 5+ breeds of swans living at Lake Eola.
One of the most beloved features of Lake Eola Park is the Walt Disney Amphitheater. This structure serves as the fourth bandstand to stand in the park, being built in 1989 for $900,000. The rings of the amphitheater were later painted with pride colors in 2016, following the Pulse nightclub tragedy. The first bandstand, dubbed the Prairie Style band shell, was built in 1918 and was designed by Isabel Roberts (who was the right-hand of Frank Lloyed Wright) and Ida Annah Ryan (the first woman in the US to earn a Master’s degree in architecture). The second in 1924 - both were on the East side of Lake Eola. In 1959 when the third iteration was built the location was moved to the West side of the lake, where the current amphitheater now sits.
Very few of the structures that were located around Lake Eola Park have survived the years. However, one that the city went through painstaking efforts to preserve is the Eola House. This building was built in 1924 by George Marsh. It has served several functions over the years, including that of a tea house, but as of 2013 is now used as a welcome center, for park offices, a gift shop and available for private events (including our neighborhood association meetings!). The Eola House also houses the original green glass from the Linton E. Allen Memorial Fountain, removed during its 2011 renovation.
In 1912, Harry Ustler moved from Ohio to Florida. He was a flower company order clerk and quickly found that ferns could grow in Florida’s environment for a fraction of the cost that they could in Ohio. He eventually met W.P. Newell while working at the Altamonte Hotel and together they began growing ferns in a shed near Lake Eola. They would eventually move to Apopka, which would later become the fern growing capital of the country. Ustler is survived by his grandson Craig Ustler, an influential developer in South Eola and all of Orlando.
Lake Eola Park is also the house of many international gifts including:
The Sperry Fountain, just off of East Central Boulevard, was donated to the city in 1914 by Mayor E. Frank Sperry. The statue on display at Lake Eola Park is actually a replica of the fountain, while the original now lives at Greenwood Cemetary.
On the Eastern side of Lake Eola Park, you will find the Reeves monument which was dedicated by the students of Cherokee Junior High School in 1939. The monument commemorates Orlando Reeves, a soldier from who the city purportedly received its name.
A large black slab of marble from the mountains of Taiwan, presented by the City of Tainan in 1983. It was originally requested to be placed in Disney World, but since Disney was outside of Orlando’s city limits, it was decided that another location would be more appropriate. It wasn’t until the Japanese rock garden off of South Rosalind Avenue was built in 1988 that the stone was given a permanent home.
The Chinese Ting, donated to the city by Nelson Ying. It was originally constructed in Shanghai and was disassembled, transported to Orlando, and reassembled in its current location on the East side of Lake Eola Park.
A 150 pound bronze bust of Simon Bolivar was donated by the president of Venezuela to Orlando in 1996. It commemorates the liberator or Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Peru and the founder of Bolivia. This statue would later be followed by other sculptures of influential international figures.
The Civil War Memorial currently located on the East side of Lake Eola park, was originally built in 1911 in another part of the city. It was moved in 1917 to its current location. After suffering from vandalism that broke the soldier’s rifle in 1964, Albin Polasek repaired the statue for free.
The Battle of the Bulge monument was dedicated in 1999, modeled after one in Clervaux, Luxembourg in honor of the U.S. soldiers who fought in the Battle of the Bulge (the largest battle ever fought by the U.S. army). It is thought to be one of only two such monuments in the world.
The Cherry Plaza Hotel and the Day that Forever Changed Central Florida's Future
The property currently known to everyone as Post Parkside changed the history of Orlando and Central Florida altogether. This site housed the original band shell and later the Ann Lisbeth Seese Private School.
Later in 1952 the Park Plaza Hotel was built for $1,000,000 and became the most expensive building in Orlando’s history. In 1957 it was sold to Cherry and Associates for twice that price and was renamed the Cherry Plaza. On October 25, 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson became the first sitting president to spend the night in Orlando, at this very hotel.
The most important event in this time occurred on November 15, 1965 at 2 PM. Walt and Roy Disney, together with Governor Haydon Burns, held a press conference in the Egyptian Room of the Cherry Hotel and officially announced the plan for Walt Disney World. This would be Walt Disney’s only public appearance in Orlando before his death shortly thereafter. Governor Burns commented “I have made the appraisal that this is the most important day in the progress and the future development of this state. I know of no single thing in history that could have made the impact that the establishment of the Disney facility here will make.”
The name later changed to the Park Plaza. The hotel was again purchased in 1972 by the First Baptist Church of Pompano Beach, but lost during a bankruptcy just a few years later in 1975. It would eventually become The Plaza Apartments before changing to its current name.
In the 1990’s when The Plaza became Post Parkside, the addition of low-rise apartments along both sides of Central Blvd created a ‘Main Street’ feel to the area adding ground floor retail spaces, foreshadowing the multiple mixed-use buildings that make up the neighborhood today and influence designs all around the city.
South Eola is lucky enough to have not one, but two fabulous parks in its boundaries.
Since the 1980’s, the City of Orlando had leased the land housing Constitution Green from the Caruso family for $1 per year. In 2015 the family began exploring options to develop the land as the South Eola neighborhood increased in popularity and property value. This caused large-scale public outrage, with concern largely focused around the lack of green space in downtown Orlando and the century-old live Oak tree on the property. A campaign and petition to save the property took center stage in local news. In 2016, the City of Orlando was able to come to an agreement with the Caruso family to purchase the property outright and maintain it for generations to come.
Since then, a dog run, the only one in downtown Orlando, was added to the property. Continual improvements have been made to the park including additional drainage and parking features.
Other Notable People, Places, and Things
The space currently occupied by the Eõ Inn and Persimmon Brewing has served many uses over the years. Built in 1922, it was originally named the Eola Hotel. Later called the Bonnie Villa Hotel, it was sold in 1925 and developed into a modern clinic with 11 doctors. In 1932, the building became a college of music. From 1954 the YMCA occupied the space for its headquarters. Later years would also include time as a retirement home, a youth hostel, boutique hotel and restaurant.
The space currently occupied by the Paramount originally belonged to O.P. Swope, the founder of the First Federal Savings and Loan Association.
The space currently occupied by Eola Wine Company, at the intersection of East Central Boulevard and South Osceola Avenue, formerly housed another Colonial Revival-style house built in 1915. This was the home of dentist Alton B. Whitman, who would be the president and founder of the Orange County Dental Society. His wife, Helen, would become the first woman to act as an election teller in Orlando.
In 1917, James L. Dean, built a home at 614 East Washington Street. He founded the City Drug Store in 1914, staying open until 1922.
The space currently occupied by the UPS store on East Central Boulevard was the former site of the Cook House. John M. Cook, Orlando's first auto mechanic and car salesman, built his home in this location in 1917. He also had a blacksmith shop nearby on East Pine Street. His Colonial Revival-style house was torn down in 1988.
In 1938, Nobel Peace Prize winner John Raleigh Mott bought a bungalow on the land that is now part of Lake Eola Park, originally built in 1920. The house was demolished in 2013 as part of the Lake Eola Park expansion.
Eola Drive, home to the Eola Square group of businesses, was formerly named East Street as a nod to it being Summerlin’s Easternmost property boundary. It was changed to Eola Drive in 1923.
While luxury townhomes may be commonplace in downtown Orlando now, built in 1969, the Summerwinds Townhomes became one of the earliest examples of the architecture in the downtown Orlando core.
In 1985, the 530 East Central condominium was built. This would become one of, if not the first high-rise residential buildings in Orlando’s downtown core.
Other major developments in South Eola have included the Thornton Park Central building (located in the South Eola neighborhood) which then paved the way for The Sanctuary, 101 Eola, and The Paramount in the late 1990’s early 2000’s. These additions cemented South Eola as the ‘it spot’ for trendy shopping and dining in Downtown Orlando. This model continues today with the Camden Thornton Park apartments (also in the South Eola neighborhood), CitiTower, and the Camden Lake Eola apartments.
From 2008-2011 a not-for-profit organization named the South Eola District was formed in order to help promote the neighborhood, which they dubbed “the best little neighborhood in Orlando.” While the organization dissolved with the expansion of Orlando’s Main Street program, the South Eola District name is still referenced in many real estate listings and city websites.
And So Much More...
While other downtown adjacent neighborhoods have taken painstaking efforts to maintain their architectural history by way of local historic designations, South Eola’s story has been one of constant change and evolution. While lacking many visible nods to our history, the depth of our history is undeniable. From destruction comes creation, and South Eola is constantly writing new history and re-defining Orlando.
There’s always something happening in South Eola may make for a modern catch-phrase, but its sentiment holds true for the entirety of our neighborhood’s history. South Eola is truly a neighborhood like none other in all of Orlando.
If you know of other local history that you believe should be included, reach out to us at email@example.com