Mountain Lake Celebrates Its Centenary

The exclusive Florida winter colony remains one of the best-kept secrets in the state.

Marion Laffey Fox

The remarkable pleasures of Mountain Lake seem almost coquettishly elusive to visitors navigating Central Florida’s flat Interstate 60, where there is little diversion to relieve the monotony of the 80-mile drive from either coast. Then, almost abruptly, after a few quick deviations an hour south of Orlando and just north of the city of Lake Wales, a discreet entry beyond a pair of stucco pillars reveals a totally unexpected picture.

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An early Mountain Lake logo employed on plates and items sold in the gift shop, as well as golf tournament trophies. Credit: Mountain Lake Archives

Like a vintage movie set, ancient, twisted live oaks adorned with bright green resurrection ferns and hung with gauzy Spanish moss, create a sun-dappled canopy, that becomes the perfect preamble to the sylvan, English-style landscaped park stretching into the distance. Noisy grey Sandhill Cranes sporting bright red plumage cackle noisily at the edges of mirror-like Mountain Lake, while plucky blue heron stroll the property with blasé insouciance. Within the panorama, grand houses of different vernaculars preside over artful gardens while gentle hills rise across the rolling spine of the state to the base of Iron Mountain, 324 feet above sea level.

If it appears surreal, it is actually the culmination of ambitious dreams of early-20th-century visionaries. Among them, Baltimore businessman Frederick S. Ruth led the pack when he acquired 3,500 acres for the purpose of creating an exclusive winter colony that could be reached by train lines such as Seaboard’s “Orange Blossom Special.” Ruth in turn hired

Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., to lay out the property and design Colony House, which would become the community’s central core, and soon after, in 1915, he tapped young Seth Raynor to design and build a golf course. Raynor, who subsequently designed Yeaman’s Hall in South Carolina and Fishers Island course, among more than 90 others, apprenticed under Charles Blair Macdonald, widely regarded as “Father of American Golf Architecture.” This awesome talent pool would serve as a catalyst for titans of industry to become shareholders, join the club; and in turn attract preeminent architects to work here. Ruth was later joined by Canadian industrialist James Mitchell, and Frank S. Washburn, who cofounded the Alabama Power Company.

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The Colony House, 1916. Credit: Mountain Lake Archives

Recently the discreet, publicity-averse club, which has purposely flown under the radar since its founding, celebrated its 100th anniversary, with a six-month-long repertoire of parties, sporting events, such as a men’s golf tournament during which they used hickory shafts. old-fashioned balls, and wore plus fours, ties and hats. The gala dinner dance with fireworks featured the Bob Hardwick Sound. Not surprisingly, the festivities created a renewed interest in the riveting history of the Mountain Lake Corporation, and its enchanting enclave. “It was a wonderful way to celebrate this unique place and way of life,” says Joy Barrows, who with husband Mercer has been a member since 1994.

Arthur M. Rogers, Jr., who served as Chairman of the Mountain Lake 1916-2016 Centennial Committee, agrees, adding that one of the most lauded events of the celebration was the art show staged in the Colony House that celebrated art work done by members during the past 100 years. “People were fascinated by it,” he says. “It filled the Colony House for a month, celebrating all who came before us, as well as current members. We all worked together on every aspect of the Centennial and illustrated the bottom line here, that there are absolutely no strata. Everybody was involved.”

Today, Colony House is the active center of Mountain Lake’s recreational and social life and serves as a clubhouse as well as inn for guests, while the utterly natural 18-hole championship golf course embraces the perimeters of the outdoor terraces, and stretches across the undulating terrain as far as the eye can see. Today Raynor’s course boasts a lofty reputation among golfers ranging from professionals to casual enthusiasts who enjoy a leisurely, non-competitive game. In addition, there are five tennis courts, two croquet courts, a skeet range and an outdoor pool within the complex. Miles of paved roads welcome walkers, cyclers and carefree children who race about with gay abandon.

One of the Colony’s “crown jewels” and most beloved assets is the exquisite sanctuary created by Edward W. Bok, for “humans and birds,” on Iron Mountain. It is said that Bok was so awed by the tranquility of the area, he longed to create a habitat that “would touch the soul with its beauty and quiet.” Within the fantasia of palms,

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Mr. and Mrs. W. Stevens Sheppard (Patricia Gillis), who attended the colony’s 100-year anniversary festivities. Credit: Michael Potthast

stately pines and swaths of flowering plants he commissioned Bok Tower, or “Singing Tower,” a graceful 205-foot structure that houses one of the world’s largest carillons, boasting 60 bells. Remarkable, when one considers that Bok, the Dutch-born, Pulitzer-prize-winning author who came to the US at age six, was said to be so poor he collected chunks of coal that had fallen off delivery trucks from Brooklyn’s rutted streets.

Later, as progressive editor of The Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies’ Home Journal, Bok married Mary Louise Curtis, of the Curtis publishing family. During the course of their marriage, he became so enamored with the Colony that he followed his grandmother’s edict “to make the world a bit better and more beautiful because you have lived in it.” To that end, Bok Tower was formally dedicated on February 1, 1929, by President Calvin Coolidge, and thereafter, for many years, Belgian carillonneur Anton Brees of Duke University presented four recitals each week throughout the season.

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Island Tee (vintage photograph). Credit: Mountain Lake Archives

Like Bok’s, the story of Mountain Lake’s other early members evolves as a compelling tale of unshakable belief in the Colony’s merits. “The collective efforts and unwavering support of a veritable legion of titans of industry who subscribed to Ruth’s dream cannot be overemphasized,” says historian extraordinaire Fred Ryan, who has been deeply involved in the running of Mountain Lake for over 50 years. “It is especially amazing when one considers the perils they faced, such as the enormous fallout of World War I, the effect of horrific hurricanes and crop devastation wrought by nematodes, the microscopic organisms that attacked and destroyed the root fibers of the citrus trees, and many other issues.”

Investor brochures from 1915 entitled “Mountain Lake Florida Citrus Groves Winter Homes,” are especially poignant bits of ephemera that many residents find fascinating. Colorful leaflets featured a shimmering lake illuminated by moon or sunshine, mirroring surrounding pines and groves. Prospective investors, targeted by personal referrals, were attracted by the business component of the groves, with the leisure aspect considered icing on the cake. In addition, the remote location appealed to those who preferred not to be part of the high-flying Palm Beach crowd.

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(left to right): Miss Caroline Wood, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. George Wood; Mrs. George Wood (Allison Bell); Mrs. Pierre S. du Pont V (Jean A. Young), niece of George and Richard Wood; Mr. and Mrs. Richard D. Wood Jr. (Jeanette Andrews); Mr. George Wood and Mr. Jacob W. Bell, nephew of Allison Wood. The vintage automobile (ca. 1920) was brought in for the centennial celebration to help evoke the era of the colony's founding. Credit: Michael Potthast

Prose notwithstanding, sales efforts subtly underscored the underlying philosophy of exclusivity. Therefore, carefully documented dossiers were recorded about every prospect, including family facts, travel data and recreational interests.

 

Once a gentleman was deemed an acceptable potential resident-investor, the offer to join was made, so that the families might reside “with the absolute assurance of an atmosphere of social security.”

 

Further marketing strategies included glossy advertisements in newspapers and popular magazines and the shipment of boxes of oranges to particularly desirable investors. As inquiries rolled in Fred Ruth cleverly used alliances between captains of industry as a kind of root stock that would lead one to the other and eventually populate Mountain Lake Colony with like-minded people who would enjoy each other’s company. In essence, the rarified group represented new and booming American industries such as mining, cement, tobacco, railroads and electricity.

 

For almost 20 years, from 1916, an incredibly talented “dream team” of architects added their awesome flair to the community. As a result, their glorious projects bestowed exciting architectural diversity that celebrated Spanish, Mediterranean, traditional, classical and French traditions.

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Mr. and Mrs. Mercer B. Barrows (Joy T. Price). Credit: Michael Potthast

The procession of stellar names reads like the Who’s Who in American Architecture of the time, including Marion Syms Wyeth, Charles Wait of Parsons, Wait and Goodell, and Franklin W. Abbott, who eventually designed 12 houses in the Colony. The list even includes Californian Wallace Neff, who designed one house in Florida. In addition, S. Scott Joy, I. W. Coburn, R.G. Hanford, James Hamilton and Gene Leedy were represented, as well as the firms of Howell & Thomas, and F.B. Meade. The recent construction of Stephanie and Jerry Gould’s stunning contemporary house, designed by Yale University professor Peter de Bretteville, adds another major high note to the architectural stable.

 

Harden de Valson Pratt III, who designed six homes here, added his signature French farmhouse archetype to the interesting mix. Pratt argued that there was a “similarity of the country which offered the chance of fitting the Florida houses snugly to the contours, in much the same way as the Provençal farm groups cling to the hillside.”

Today, 104 resident-member families include Francois de St. Phalle from New York and Lakeville, Connecticut, who, like so many others, was oblivious to the charms of Mountain Lake before he and his wife, Susan, arrived in 2007. “I had never heard of the place until friends invited us to join them here. We loved it so much, we bought a house in 2008, and moved in the following year,” he says.

Explaining that “the house on four acres was designed by Franklin W. Abbot for George Laughlin, Chairman of Jones & Laughlin Steel Company in Pittsburgh,” de St. Phalle says, “We love it here, because it is such a beautiful place, in a remote location, with interesting, terrific people from all over the country. The Bok Tower and its wonderful carillon and gardens is such a delight, and we have no more blizzards!”

William Friedrich, who spent many years in London, is another resident who, with his wife, Sue, is enamored with his remarkable 1921 Abbott-designed house, designed for Herbert Lowell Dillon of Eastman Dillon Union Securities, and life in “the park.” Echoing the prevailing sentiment here, he says, “Most people come here because of friends. I turned down invitations to visit several times because I didn’t want anything to do with Florida, but actually bought this house on the third day of our visit. It is a gorgeous area with great people that make it a community. I have been to other wonderful places but this is unique. It’s old Florida at its best.”

If the responsibility for so many historically significant abodes here seems weighty, it is not, say enthusiastic residents Allison and George Wood of Baltimore, who have cheerfully taken on the huge refurbishment project of “El Caserio,” one of the most important estates in the park.

“In Spanish, El Caserio means small hamlet,” explains George Wood. “It was done for Alfred H. Chapin of Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1928 and 1929, when so many talented craftsmen from Bok Tower were finished with that job and came down to find work. So, when Charles Wait was commissioned to design the estate, there were plenty of craftsmen to carry out the intricate carving, stone and tile work, as well as decorative painting that cost over $500,000.”

 

Chapin, who enjoyed life here with his wife and eight children and many grandchildren for over 20 years, sold

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Mr. and Mrs. John R. Kell (Audrey L. Radke). Credit: Michael Potthast

the house and contents during the doldrums of 1950s, to Roger Babson of Babson College, for a paltry $50,000. Later, the grand house fell into disrepair and was eventually divided into four units. The Woods bought the first three in 2013, and the last in 2014. The 6.8-acre estate includes intricate gardens landscaped by Olmsted, and a magical higgledy-piggledy Mother Goose Playhouse whimsically designed by Wait.

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Mr. and Mrs. John B. Kenerson 2d (Jennifer C Bogue) and Mr. and Mrs. (Dr.) Robert W. Bogue Jr., (Lauren Lauck). Credit: Michael Potthast

Since then the Woods have immersed themselves in the herculean task of restoring the sprawling 10,000-square-foot house and “actually putting it back together again,” says Allison. “Our goal when we decided to buy such a unique and iconic Mountain Lake home was not just the opportunity to reconnect and restore, but to re-establish El Caserio as a family home. Since then the Woods have immersed themselves in the herculean task of restoring the sprawling 10,000-square-foot house and “actually putting it back together again,” says Allison. “Our goal when we decided to buy such a unique and iconic Mountain Lake home was not just the opportunity to reconnect and restore, but to re-establish El Caserio as a family home. We wanted it to be open to family, friends and guests to marvel and enjoy, just as the Chapins did in their tenure here. Respecting the talent and vision of the Wait/Olmsted, Jr., partnership as we 

worked on renovating the home and gardens was essential, but we didn’t want it to totally dictate our choices.”

To that end the Woods moved swiftly through infrastructure issues to create two inviting guest suites in the old servants’ quarters, and created a bright and inviting kitchen for “modern living.” As work continues on the Playhouse, the couple is dedicated to restoring this important part of “every child’s memory of Mountain Lake.”

But at the end of the day, Allison says, “El Caserio was meant to be lived in and we do that with lots of family and friends. We also recognize how blessed we are to be stewards of such a beautiful, unique and historical home in such a very special place.”

Alison McCall echoes Wood’s sentiments. The New York interior designer, with her siblings, owns the legendary Wallace Neff house, which has been in her family since her mother’s parents, Dr. and Mrs. Eli Sherman Jones, purchased it in 1960. "The story is that Irving Bush (of Bush Terminal in Brooklyn) was visiting his daughter in California, and repeatedly admired houses done by Neff. When Bush asked Neff to design a house for him in Mountain Lake, Neff supposedly replied, “Not interested.” Bush eventually prevailed with Neff, creating a very special house in 1923 that would shelter McCall descendants for five generations to the present day.

“When you go through the gates you feel quiet and serene,” say McCall. “The lovely feeling reminds me of Tuscany. There’s something comforting about it. You don’t feel as if you are in Florida, rather you feel very far away. So, it was the perfect choice for our daughter’s wedding in 2015, when we had the ceremony at the Bok Tower and reception at home in a tent. It was perfect.”

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Mr. Arthur M. Rogers Jr. Credit: Michael Potthast

As members reflect on their good fortune to be here, for some mysterious reason, Mountain Lake Colony remains one of the best-kept secrets in the state. And, after a little more than a hundred years, when carillon tunes peal from the Sanctuary, and bald eagles swoop over the lake, it all engenders a gentle kind of sensory overload that, everyone agrees, still feels just right. 

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Mr. Fred Ryan and Mrs. George D. O’Neill Sr. (Abby R. Milton). Credit: Michael Potthast