Old-school glamour preserved on Broadway downtown

My first encounter with 527 Broadway Ave was a real estate showing with my investor friend Butch. I remember stopping a long moment to admire the L-shaped porch supported by rustic block pillars and the unusual round attic windows and pressed tin roof on the handsome facade. While vacant and in pre-foreclosure, behind the neglect there was a timeless elegance. The palatial ceilings and floor-to-ceiling transom windows were a necessity in the pre-air-conditioned Florida. We went from room to room with excitement and rose-colored vision, feeling the layers of memories and history, the craftsmanship, the pine floors, fireplace, smooth carved wood banister, and the “playboy mansion” pool with the rock waterfall. It was apparent that decades of different owners and different tastes had culminated in the current incarnation. As we stood in the kitchen, Butch shared a rumor that a president stayed in the home during the turn of the century, which was easy to believe. Butch was hooked like Tom Hanks in the movie “The Money Pit.” It was a good thing: the home was in short sale and it took eleven months from contract to close to negotiate the sale with the bank. Butch had a vision and knew he could return it to a more deserving state.

527 Broadway house – 107 years old. (Photo by Valerie Kennedy)

The Broadway house stands tall, complemented by twisty oaks and a brick street just a short distance from Lake Eola in the Eola Heights Historic District. As I started my research for this article I reviewed the type-written records from The Historic Preservation Archives. The home is dubbed a “Colonial Revival, a 1 1/2 story bungalow and the main portion of the home was built in 1911.” As I read on I could see that the detached garage apartment was added in 1926 and the home was expanded in 1930. Of course, these are only the bricks and mortar and do not tell the whole story.

One of the more notable owners of Broadway was W. Ioor, an innovative business man who owned nickelodeons and steam cleaners. Nickelodeons were the first indoor simple theaters dedicated to showing projected motion pictures and the admission was five cents, thus the name. Ioor was always on the leading edge of new business. The steam cleaners he used were called “High Pressure Jennys,” a recent invention accidentally discovered as a byproduct of liquor distilling. Frank Ofeldt of Pennsylvania saw the cleaning powers of hot steam as his still melted away the grease from his garage floor and a new industry was born.

Ioor turned his ambition to developing the strip of land south of his home, a narrow alley way where he envisioned building eight homes.

This was during the 1920s, and the Florida Land Boom was unprecedented, a time when Americans poured into the state to vacation and to invest. A time of prosperity, more leisure time, and for the first time the family car made the mecca to Florida possible for folks of all economic backgrounds. It was a time when many fortunes were made and Florida land was one of those commodities that played into the “get rich” theme with easy credit and a go-go market where many investors purchased land sight unseen.

Mr. Ioor financed the construction of the homes through a joint venture selling stocks in a project he called Miniville. This was well before the Federal Trade Commission regulated such entities. This group of eight vacation homes was built as a getaway for the wealthy northerners, fully furnished and luxuriously appointed. Ioor went for an architectural style that was very popular in Florida, the Mediterranean Revival, inspired by the notable vacation getaways of Southern California and the European Riviera. Today these eight homes in Alleman subdivision are known as Broadway Court.

During the construction of the court, a smartly-dressed young salesman knocked on Mr. Ioor’s etched glass door at 527 Broadway and pitched his “Chase Brothers” piano catalogue as they stood on the front porch. Mr. Ioor loved the idea so much he ordered eight. The salesman was so happy he almost tripped as he bound down the steps at the end of their meeting.

The famous Broadway Court piano. (Photo by Valerie Kennedy)

The idea was brilliant, the new paper advertisements read: A Luxury Florida Get Away with a Baby Grand Piano in every Parlor. In the 1920s there were no televisions and since the Victorian era and beyond, music has always been a prized source of entertainment. These musical accoutrements gave the court a swanky buzz and everyone who could afford it wanted to come vacation in its opulence. Imagine Broadway Court with windows open, curtains softly blowing in the breeze with piano music rising from various residences; the laughter of children on vacation playing with their new-found friends in the massive grapefruit grove that surrounded the property. Not a care in the world, the children played until dark, reluctantly coming in as momma called from the front stoop.

The citrus blossoms perfumed the air, setting the stage for the evening’s festivities. Soon the driveway would look like The Great Gatsby as model A Fords, Chryslers Model B and Renaults lined the narrow street. You could hear soft jazz and the scat sounds of Louis Armstrong emitting from the radio like a homing beacon to friends and neighbors as they gathered. Late evenings, good conversation and elaborate dinner parties complemented by rum cocktails and gin & juice. It was a time to celebrate after the unspeakable years of sacrifice during WWI and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. The 1920s was defined by spending, dancing, flappers, speakeasies and indulgence. After all, Broadway Court was built in 1926, in the height of the prohibition era. The 18th amendment was passed for a multitude of “moral” reasons, including public opinion to abstain from alcohol use while our soldiers were suffering abroad during World War I. The prohibition was enforced by the Volstead Act of 1919 and was repealed in 1933. Interestingly enough, it was not illegal to possess or to use alcohol, but it was illegal to produce, transport or sell. The vast Florida coast played a part in making it impossible to guard against smuggling. Grand Bahama had massive warehouses filled with Caribbean rum and English gin that was brought over on boats in small quantities, the original “rum runners.” The Bahamas is only 60 miles from the coast of West Palm, and with the help of organized crime bosses like Al Capone, Florida was impossible to police.

Ioor’s vacation paradise was short lived. The Florida land bust of 1929 crushed the hopes of investors large and small. The bank foreclosed on Broadway Court and Ioor was forced to sell off all of the furnishing and housewares, including the grand pianos. Well, all but one. The piano at Broadway Court #8 somehow missed the auctioneer’s gavel and remained with the property. It was later moved to Broadway #2 and later taken in by Gary Hollingsworth, a resident of Broadway #4. Mr. Hollingsworth, a fellow history lover, was kind enough to invite me into his home to share his 40-year experience on Broadway court. He showed me the prized Chase Brothers piano. He received it in a tired unplayable state and had it fully restored. He feels the piano should always reside at Broadway Court. The Chase Brothers Muskegon & Chicago company was started in 1863 in Michigan, then moved to Muskegon in 1890 and later went bankrupted in 1930, another casualty of the great depression.

It was a treat to visit Gary Hollingsworth on Broadway Court. One of my favorite moments was when we looked out over his garden and pointed to a spot where the last remaining grapefruit tree from the grove of 1890 had resided. He smiled and said everyone commented that the fruit was exceptional. Gary’s home is adorned with museum-quality antiques, which enhanced the experience as I took my notes for the article. Gary purchased his home in 1978 before there was a historic district. He paid $24,000 for his home and at the time, the appraiser redlined the appraisal and recommended he not purchase. Downtown was rough, and the appraiser felt the area would never get any better. Wow! Have times changed. Gary went on to explain the camaraderie between the neighbors and how they work together without a structured homeowners’ association. Rarely does a home come up on the court for sale. I recently showed #5 at the end of the street. It sold for $535,000 and was only on the market for a short time. The area has been through its ups and downs, but one thing is for sure: Floridians are tough, and they can withstand the ups and downs that good and bad economic times bring to live in the Sunshine State.

Special Thanks to Gary Hollingsworth, owner of Hollingsworth Fine Arts, specializing in Restoration and Appraisals