Chicago Roots in Central Florida Winter Park Owes Its Ambience to Wealthy Midwesterners Who Moved South

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Byline: Kathy Rodeghier Daily Herald Travel Editor

The tour boat glides past lavish lakefront homes as the guide recites the names of notable past and present occupants: Walgreen as in drugstores, Sinclair as in oil, Horace Grant as in the Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic.

We might have been cruising past the genteel mansions of Lake Geneva, Wis., if it weren't for the Spanish moss hanging from the cypress trees and the alligators lurking in the reeds. The simple pontoon boat ride seemed typical of a Midwestern lake resort.

If you think of Central Florida as all theme parks and tourist attractions with little history and culture, Winter Park will surprise you. Though only 30-40 minutes up I-4 from Walt Disney World, this city of 28,000 seems a world apart, a world with several Chicago connections.

In the early 1900s wealthy Northerners came to Winter Park by train to escape the harsh winters back home, just as they escaped to Lake Geneva to flee the summer heat of Chicago.

In Florida, they built cottages, then posh estates that became year-round homes with the advent of air conditioning. Arts and Crafts bungalows lined the streets of Florida's first planned community and French provincial, Mediterranean and Tudor homes sprouted along the city's seven lakes.

One of these winter residents, Charles Hosmer Morse, was the controlling partner at Fairbanks, Morse & Co. in Chicago. As the Industrial Revolution took off, this manufacturer of presses, trucks, motors and other machinery made a fortune. When Morse retired in 1915 his winter home became his primary residence and he made Winter Park the beneficiary of his philanthropy.

He donated the land for Central Park, still a downtown haven with fountain and rose garden, and helped organize the Winter Park Country Club, a public nine-hole course with a 1914 clubhouse on the National Register of Historic Places.

Perhaps his greatest legacy came two generations later when granddaughter Jeannette McKean, who grew up in Chicago's Kenwood neighborhood, founded the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, the world's most comprehensive collection of the works of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

For fans of Tiffany glass, Winter Park is a mecca. More than half of the museum's visitors come from out of state, detouring around Disney to wander through 19 galleries of stained glass, favrile glass and Tiffany's works in pottery, jewelry and furniture.

Chief among them, the Tiffany Chapel, once drew crowds in Chicago during the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Designed as a promotional tool showcasing Tiffany's talents, the Byzantine-style chapel was never a consecrated sanctuary. Nevertheless, visitors reacted with reverence, the men instinctively removing their hats as they entered. A 1,000-pound electrified chandelier in the shape of a cross hung over a marble and white-glass altar, a dome-shaped baptismal font and 16 mosaic columns. The chapel had several windows, one containing 10,000 separate pieces of glass.

After the fair, the chapel was dismantled and moved to St. John the Divine church in New York City, where it fell into disrepair. Tiffany reacquired it and moved it to his Long Island estate, where he restored it.

McKean and her husband, Hugh, an artist who studied at Tiffany's estate, had become friends of the Tiffany family. In 1957, when one of Tiffany's granddaughters phoned to say a fire destroyed much of the estate, they rushed to Long Island and salvaged what they could, bringing the pieces back to Winter Park. The chapel was kept in storage until recently when it was restored for a second time and installed in a new wing of the museum.

The McKeans' estate, where they once kept a flock of peacocks, sits on Lake Virginia and is passed on the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour. The pontoon boat also motors by Eastbank, built in 1883 for William C. …