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Guest Columnist Bruce Stephenson / August 17, 2015 / Add your Comments



I recently filled out the Winter Park Visioning Survey and was shocked to find “historic” was not among the options listed to describe a quintessential urban village.  

Winter Park’s special blend of urbanism, civic institutions, and nature is the product of the American Renaissance, a generational effort to mold an unprecedented prosperity into a new urban civilization.  The movement, which took root in the 1880s and died out with the Great Depression, represents the last full flourish of the Renaissance that began in 15th-Century Italy.

To Envision the Future,  We Must Understand the Past

Visioning the future demands building on the past.  In 1994 a three-day conference, Winter Park in Perspective, identified the definitive aspects of the community’s pleasing scale and sense of place.  This process set the foundation for the reconfiguration of Park Avenue, a project where history trumped controversy.  

It is easy to assume Park Avenue’s shade trees, outdoor cafes, and well-articulated pedestrian environment are relics of the 1920s, but they actually date from that 1994 effort, which set an important precedent. 

Transit Oriented Development Circa 1882

The historic dimensions of Winter Park’s 1882 plan came to define the Winter Park of the future.  The town is a model of what is now called “transit-oriented development,” centered on a rail station in a park and laid out in accordance with a series of concentric five-minute walks.   

Victor Dover, the nationally-renowned consultant for the Park Avenue project, features Winter Park in his recent book, Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Town.  He notes how the success of Park Avenue galvanized local leaders “to contemplate a grand plan for the long-term revival of Central Park, under the direction of landscape architect Forest Michael.” History also informed the 50-year vision set forth in the Central Park Master Plan (CPMP).

West Meadow Inspired by Frederick Law Olmsted

Replacing the parking lot north of Morse Boulevard with the West Meadow drew inspiration from Frederick Law Olmsted.  His iconic Long Meadow in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park illustrated how an idyllic green bounded by native trees could enhance Central park.

The 2003 CPMP also adopted Olmsted’s concept of a boulevard, where rows of trees shield pedestrian walks from vehicles.  Morse Boulevard was built on these dimensions until traffic “improvements” eviscerated it. 

At the same time, Rollins College built the McKean Gateway to link the college and the community.  The arched entrance was inspired by the college’s historic plan.

In 1931, Hamilton Holt commissioned the drafting of an “ideal campus plan.” Rollins would be an academic village centered on a library that would celebrate a place and architecture derived from the Italian Renaissance.  

Principles of Art, Not Traffic Counts, Inform Vision
The Rollins campus’s definitive elements illustrate the organic integration of scale, aesthetics, and space. It’s small wonder that the Princeton Review named Rollins the most beautiful campus in the nation. Its plan was drawn at the zenith of the American Renaissance, a period when Da Vinci’s principles of art, not traffic counts, informed practitioners. 

History Is Not Found in Surveys
Rollins has evolved into Holt’s vision of an ideal campus. A vision plan works best when it represents “an ideal to be striven toward rather than a result to be expected,” Randall Arendt, a leading authority on visioning writes. Visioning demands more than surveys, it requires research and an eye for delineating principles that are both uplifting and timeless.

History Will Light Winter Park’s Path to the Future
It is time to mine Winter Park’s historic treasure.  The American Renaissance vision of ordered beauty sought to ennoble the soul and inspire virtue. It was a high calling that required, Olmsted wrote, “the best applications of the arts of civilization.” 

Today, Olmsted’s famous model, Riverside, IL, is a National Historic Landmark.  Winter Park deserves equal status.

Editors Note:
Dr. Bruce Stephenson is Professor of Environmental Studies at Rollins College. His latest book, John Nolen: Landscape Architect & City Planner, documents the life of a leading figure of the American Renaissance. A disciple of Frederick Law Olmsted, Nolen designed a series of model communities including Mariemont, Ohio, an urban village that is a National Historic Landmark.

History Will Light Winter Park’s Path to the Future
Stephenson will address this subject in his lecture/book signing:
John Nolen: the Art of City Planning and Its Restoration
September 29, 7:00 p.m., Galloway Room, Rollins College.

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