LIVING IN WINTER PARK 87 Swiftly flowing Howell Creek was deepened between Lake Sue and Lake Virginia, a distance of more than a mile, and three waterfalls were created along the route. Three miles of clay trails were carved through the tangled vegetation, and a half-mile trail was built along Howell Creek from Lake Virginia to Pennsylvania Avenue. Plants from Mead’s collection were placed along “Brookside Trail.” Two greenhouses sheltered the remainder of Mead’s plants, while a broad, sloping area was cleared in preparation for an amphitheater, which wouldn’t be built until 1959. Azaleas, daylilies, amaryllis, gladiolas, caladiums and gardenias were planted everywhere, along with hundreds of palm trees. Mead Botanical Garden was informally open to visitors during construction. One of those visitors — who, fortunately, bought ink by the barrel — would make the project a pubic crusade. Martin Anderson was on an afternoon stroll with his two young daughters when he encountered Grover and Connery, busy inspecting progress, along one of the completed paths. “This is the finest thing ever to happen to Central Florida,” Anderson told the duo. “Who is responsible for this?” Anderson was not only publisher of the Morning Sentinel. As luck would have it, he was also an avid gardener and a collector of orchids. Grover and Connery won an enthusiastic and influential patron in Anderson, who wrote an editorial the following day extolling the garden and donated substantial advertising space to its promotion. Mead Botanical Garden officially opened on January 15, 1940, in a formal ceremony that included local dignitaries and elected officials. Grover, who presided over the proceedings, laid out a grand vision of a garden encompassing natural areas and greenhouses for exotic plants. He even proposed aquariums, although none were ever built. For years, though, Mead Botanical Garden was arguably the most beautiful spot in Central Florida, and a fitting tribute to the genius of Mead and the persistence of Grover and Connery. “The project represents the value of $43,000 and thus far has cost neither Winter Park nor Orlando anything,” Grover pointedly noted, presaging a dispute that would contribute to the garden’s decline more than a decade later. THE WINDING PATH By the early 2000s, Mead Botanical Garden was showing signs of neglect. Perhaps its relatively obscure location in the midst of a residential neighborhood meant that it received less attention than parks in high-traffic areas. Perhaps it lacked a new generation of tireless champions like Grover and Connery, for whom the garden was quite literally rooted in friendship with Mead himself, now dead for 16 years. Or perhaps it’s because, in 1953, the original nonprofit headed by Grover was acrimoniously dissolved and operation of the garden was turned over to the city. The rift opened when the city refused to allocate $7,500 for upkeep unless the garden began turning over admission fees, which then amounted to about $10,000 a year, and unless the garden’s private creditors agreed to write off funds they had advanced. An impasse was reached, and suddenly the garden was entirely the city’s responsibility. With taxpayers footing the bill, there were seemingly always more pressing priorities for city funds. The contentious admission fee, ironically, was eliminated. But the garden began a long, sad decline that no one seemed to have the power to reverse. Enough maintenance was done to keep the property looking respectable, and the amphitheater remained a popular spot for weddings and other special events. Some boardwalks were repaired, a few trails were built and the entry was rebricked. Generally, however, Mead Botanical Garden seemed to have become an anachronism in a city known for its vibrant shopping district and its luxurious lakeside mansions. Everyone agreed that something had to be done; no one agreed on exactly what. In 2003, the Winter Park Garden Club, whose headquarters is within the garden, formed the Friends of Mead Garden Inc. The new organization made progress in cleaning up the now-overgrown site. Although the volunteer “Weed Warriors” and “Butterfly Brigade” were tireless workers, their reclamation efforts became all the more difficult in 2004, after Hurricane Charley tore through Central Florida. In 2007, the city approved a master plan for the garden presented by Post, Buckley, Schuh & Jernigan, a large architecture and engineering firm. Two years later, however, the national economy collapsed and funds for major improvements had dried up. Still, lovers of the garden soldiered on, mostly on weekends, and did what they could with limited resources. In late 2012, Friends of Mead Garden, now called Mead Botanical Garden Inc., signed a multiyear operating agreement with the city that essentially turned over control of the garden to the nonprofit. Although there are gray areas regarding the division of responsibilities, essentially the city still performs basic maintenance. The privately funded organization, however, operates the facilities and manages the activities. Architect Jeffrey Blydenburgh, a longtime volunteer, became the group’s first paid executive director. But he quickly realized that a full-time staffer — one without another business to run — was required. Enter Cynthia Hasenau, previously director of management and executive education at Rollins. Hasenau has plenty of help from a cadre of hands-on volunteers, including the garden’s own trustees and advisors as well as members of such organizations as the Winter Park Garden Club, the Florida Native Plant Society, the Winter Park Rotary Club, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops and an array of other civic groups. THE LEGACY RENEWED If you haven’t been to Mead Botanical Garden lately, you’ll notice right away that it’s changing. In fact, if you glance to the left just beyond the entry gate, at the Legacy Garden and Greenhouse, you’ll get a glimpse of the garden’s future. The greenhouse, which had fallen into a state of disrepair, has been restored and now anchors a colorful botanical oasis, all thanks to volunteers. The garden’s charming Butterfly Garden has also been revitalized. And there’s The Grove, an amphitheater that features a 40-by-60-foot stage, an overhead sail, wooden support poles with Florida limestone at the base and trellises on each side. Spectators bring blankets and lawn chairs and sit on a grassy area facing the stage. The Grove, which has hosted performances by the Florida Symphony Youth Orchestra, cost about $700,000 to build, with an anonymous donor contributing $250,000, the city allocating $200,000 and the rest raised from individuals, organizations and foundations. The Discovery Barn, formerly a city maintenance warehouse, hosts an array of activities for youngsters, including an annual Young Naturalist Summer Camp. At the Community Garden, started with a grant from the Winter Park Health Foundation, weekend farmers can rent plots and grow their own organic vegetables. Some of the produce is given to local food banks. A small pond has been restored and named “Alice’s Pond” in honor of volunteer Alice Mikkleson. The pond is traversed by “Rene’s Trail,” which was named in honor of volunteer Rene Kelly, who died in 2009. And the pace of the improvements is quickening. The Lake Lillian wetlands restoration and boardwalk improvement project, funded by grants from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, will remove muck and invasive plants in a half-acre area adjacent to The Grove. When the project is complete, nearly 4,300 new plants and trees will be installed in the area. A 300-foot section of the boardwalk located near The Grove and Butterfly Garden has already been rebuilt. Hasenau says that Mead Botanical Garden Inc. is actively seeking “Mead Moments and Memories” from visitors, both longtimers and newcomers. Maybe they’ll be compiled into a book, which is something the can-do professor who was instrumental in creating this magical place would surely enjoy. For more information, visit meadgarden.org.
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