I am standing at wrought iron gates near Howey In The Hills Florida facing a long drive that leads up to a 20 room mansion that sits empty. Once home to Willam J. Howey a citrus grower, developer and twice candidate for governor in 1925, he designed this Mediterranean Revival style home and covered the surrounding 60,000 acres with citrus trees. It is a piece of Florida history and it was his Opus.
Three immense fireplaces, a ballroom-size drawing room and massive beamed ceilings are said to be inside. “If I could I would have gone to Venice Italy to live, but I couldn’t and this was the closest I could come to Europe…” says 90 year old Zona. Her and her late husband Jack bought the 15 acre Mansion in 1984. It housed their own personal antiques and collectables plus many of Howey’s original pieces from the 1920s when they took possession of it in 1984.
In 2010 there was a knock at Zona’s door. She was 90 and she was about to enter a real estate scam that would reverse her mortgage, leave her in debt and change her life. Her lawyer and local Sheriff’s Office tell a story of a woman who was deceived.
During the ongoing foreclosure proceedings the public got a rare glimpse inside the 8,800-square-foot mansion for an estate sale that lasted two days. The estate was filled with antiques, vintage chandeliers, collectibles, jewelry, furniture, dinnerware, and rugs dating back to the early 1900s. Rick Kilby of the blog Visual Ephemera got a rare look inside and was able to take some photos.
It was a hot and humid afternoon on the final day of the sale when Mrs. Ephemera and I lined up with hundreds of other folks to shuffle past the lamps, knick-knacks, and the few pieces of furniture that survived the first two days…
In 1938 at age 62 William J. Howey died of a heart attack he is buried in the family crypt on the 15 acre grounds surrounding his home. The crypt is said to be on the north grounds deep in the trees. He is there with his adopted daughter Lois (who had an untimely death at age 16) and wife Grace who was 92 when she died in 1981. There is one surviving daughter Mary who was also adopted and now lives in Eustis Florida.
“There’s is no money in citrus, there’s money in golf” says Ron an avid golfer and resident of the Plantation in nearby Leesburg “there is rumor going around that Jack Nicholas (the famous golfer) considered buying the Howey property and opening up a golf course.”
As I let go of the gate and turn to walk back to the car I notice a window open on the second floor overlooking the driveway, a curtain blows and I get the funny feeling someone is watching over the mansion. I shake it off and return to the car imagining what it would be like to be Florida’s Greatest Citrus developer driving through my 60,000 acres of citrus trees, but the image of the window stays in my head.