|City/Town: • Howey-In-The-Hills
|Location Class: • Residential
|Built: • 1927 | Abandoned: • ~2008
|Historic Designation: • National Register of Historic Places (1983)
|Status: • Restored (2018)
|Photojournalist: • David Bulit
Table of Contents
William J. Howey, Founder of Howey-in-the-Hills
The Howey Mansion is a historic 7,188 square foot, 20-room Mediterranean Revival Style home located in Howey-in-the-Hills, Florida. It was built by William J. Howey, the founder of Howey-in-the-Hills.
William John Howey was born on January 19, 1876, in Odin, Illinois. He began selling insurance at 16 years old. Sometime in 1900, he developed real estate for a railroad company in Oklahoma. In 1907, he established the Howey Motor Car Company in Kansas City, Missouri, and opened a manufacturing factory at 1707 and 1709 North Seventh Street in the former Wyandotte Carriage and Wagons Works building.
The Howey Motor Car Company offered high-wheelers, carriage-like motor vehicles that featured large-diameter wheels which provided ample ground clearance on the primitive roads of the late 19th century and frequently had solid rubber tires. Sold under the brand name Howey, it had a two-cylinder gas engine with an output of ten horsepower which drove the rear axle via two chains. A steering lever was used to steer. These vehicles cost $600 new from the factory. Despite the claims that the company had over thirty orders before the factory even opened and was expecting to produce one new automobile a day, the factory closed after just seven Howey automobiles were produced.
Real Estate Development and Citrus Growing
After exiting the automotive industry, he tried his hand at selling pineapple plantations, purchasing a large tract of land near Perez, Mexico. This was a time of oppression and exploitation of the working-class Mexicans under the defacto dictatorship of President Porfirio Díaz. The situation was reaching a boiling point with the upcoming election, so Howey made the decision to abandon his business endeavors in Mexico indefinitely.
Having relocated to Florida, close to Winter Haven, he engaged in selling citrus groves in the areas that would later become Dundee, Lake Hamilton, and Star Lake. Eventually, at the request of Lake County Sheriff Balton A. Cassidy and Harry Duncan, he shifted his operations to Lake County, Florida. By 1920, he had acquired an impressive 60,000 acres of land. He would buy these lands at approximately $10.00 per acre, skillfully developing them into thriving citrus groves, and then selling them for a substantial profit, ranging from $800 to $2000 per acre. To provide further assurance to buyers, Howey offered maintenance contracts and guaranteed their investments, along with interest, within specific timeframes.
In 1917, he inaugurated the Bougainvillea Hotel, serving as accommodation for potential investors. Howey hired Chicago-based golf course architect George O’Niel to design a world-class golf course originally to be called the Bougainvillea Links as a complement to the Bougainvillea. O’Neil was quoted, “This will be America’s most famous course in a short while.” Dubbed “El Campeón,” the course featured towering forests and sparkling spring-fed lakes. Shortly after, the Floridan Country Club opened which continues to operate to this day as the Mission Inn Resort & Club.
In 1920, the Bougainvillea burned to the ground. Howey set up temporary housing known as “Tent City” located at the south end of town at the corner of South Palm and East Lake Avenues. He eventually replaced it with the splendid Hotel Floridian, which stood proudly on the shores of Little Lake Harris. The Floridan Hotel later became Howey Academy in 1976. By 1994, the building had fallen into disrepair. The decision to demolish it came when a two-part episode of the television series “Thunder in Paradise,” starring Hulk Hogan, needed a building that could be blown up for the episode finale. The video below features scenes from that episode including the controlled demolition of the Hotel Floridan.
In 1925, the Town of Howey was officially incorporated, and William Howey assumed the position of its mayor. During the same year, he constructed the magnificent Howey House, a stunning Mediterranean Revival mansion within the town. In 1927, the name was officially changed to Howey-in-the-Hills, to reflect the location of the town in an area of rolling hills that Howey called the “Florida Alps.”
Howey’s ventures continued to flourish, as he successfully sold citrus from his extensive holdings and attracted investors to purchase citrus groves. In 1926, he established the state’s pioneering citrus juice bottling plant, showcasing his innovative approach by being one of the first to pasteurize fruit juice and experiment with large-scale vacuum fruit storage. He sold canned juice under the “Lifeguard” name.
However, challenges arose in the following years. The Florida land boom came to a sudden halt in 1926, leading to a decline in sales, yet his businesses managed to remain profitable. The situation worsened in 1929 with the devastating stock market collapse, and additional setbacks such as the discovery of the Mediterranean fruit fly and destructive hurricanes in the late 1920s further impacted his enterprises. Eventually, during the Depression, both his land sales and citrus holdings suffered significant losses.
Following his passing, the Supreme Court ruled that Howey’s real estate sales and maintenance contracts were illegal as they were considered an “unregistered security.”
In 1928, William Howey, together with his political allies, aimed to enhance the appeal of the Florida Republican Party to white voters. The “lily white” Republicans nominated Howey as their candidate for the governorship during that year’s election. His platform focused on reducing taxes and cutting government expenses, while also criticizing the Democrats for institutional corruption, mismanagement, and maintaining a one-party political system in Florida. Howey hoped to capitalize on Herbert Hoover’s popularity and gain support from dissatisfied Florida Democrats known as “Hoovercrats,” who were unhappy with the Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith. The Republicans adopted the catchy slogan, “Hoover, Howey, and Happiness.” Despite these efforts, Howey faced a resounding defeat in the election, losing by a significant margin to Doyle Carlton.
Nevertheless, after the 1928 elections, Howey emerged as the most well-known Republican politician in Florida. He continued to serve as the mayor of Howey-in-the-Hills until 1936. In 1930, he was among the few Republican officials in Florida, attempting unsuccessfully to unify his fragmented party. In 1932, he was nominated to run for governor against David Sholtz. His platform closely resembled that of 1928, with the added inclusion of seeking the elimination of the poll tax, a significant barrier to African-American voting rights. Despite his efforts, he faced challenges due to the lack of a united Republican party, the inability to appeal to white voters, and a strong Democratic opposition, compounded by the deepening effects of the Great Depression.
Outside of politics, Howey was involved in various organizations, including the Elks and the Knights of Pythias. He held directorial positions in the Florida Citrus Exchange and was a member of the State Chamber of Commerce. In 1914, he married Mary Grace Hastings, and they had two children. William Howey passed away on June 7, 1938.
The Howey Mansion
By 1924, William Howey and his wife, Mary Grace Hastings Howey, had finalized the blueprints for their enduring residence located in Howey-in-the-Hills. The construction of the house was successfully finished, and by the end of 1925, they had settled into their new home. This splendid abode became the perfect venue for the Howeys to entertain numerous esteemed guests, including notable figures such as Lord Bathhurst, Kansas Governor Alfred Landon, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Phillips of Phillips Petroleum, and former President Calvin Coolidge.
Construction of the Howey Mansion was completed in 1927 at a cost of $250,000 ($3.2 million after inflation). Designed by Katharine Cotheal Budd, a pioneering woman architect from New York, the completion of the 20-room, 7,200-square-foot mansion was celebrated with the entire New York Civic Opera Company which drew a crowd of 15,000, most of which arrived in 4,000 automobiles to the free outdoor performance.
Katherine Cotheal Budd, Pioneer Woman Architect
Born September 9, 1860, in New York City, Katharine Cotheal Budd pursued her passion for art and design at the renowned William Merritt Chase’s Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art in Long Island from 1891 to 1894. Following her studies, she took on the role of secretary and administrator for the cottages, allowing her the opportunity to renovate several of these structures. Despite not having formal training in architecture, she acquired knowledge from the esteemed architect and Columbia University professor, William R. Ware. Additionally, Katharine collaborated with architects Grosvenor Atterbury, Grenville T. Snelling, and William Appleton Potter.
Around 1910, she formed a partnership with Henry G. Emery, and they collaborated successfully for several years. Throughout her career, Katharine maintained an office in Manhattan, starting from 1899, and during the period from 1925 to 1928, she employed Esther Marjorie Hill. Her architectural work primarily spanned Arts and Crafts, Colonial Revival, and Mediterranean styles. By 1908, Katharine Budd had already designed over 100 houses, along with contributions to hospitals and churches.
During World War I, the National War Council of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) asked Budd to design temporary hostels for women who visited male relatives at military training camps. Katharine Budd, along with architects Julia Morgan and Fay Kellogg, took on the task of designing Hostess Houses. Strategically situated near existing army bases, Budd’s Hostess Houses were located in the South and Midwest regions.
Upon completion of the Howey Mansion, Budd resided in Tavares, Florida, where she designed the Harry C. Duncan House, one of the best examples of the Colonial Revival style in the state. It is theorized that during this time Budd, perhaps sponsored by William J. Howey who was a Director of the Tavares and Gulf Railroad, engaged in architectural/community development activities.
William J. Howey died of a heart attack on June 7, 1938, at the age of 62. His widow lived in the mansion until her death on December 18, 1981, and was laid to rest in the family mausoleum on the mansion grounds along with her husband and their daughter Lois Valerie. Soon after, the house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
Marvel Zona purchased the home in 1984 for around $400,000 along with her husband Jack. In 1996, the property was in trust to Marvel’s name. With her husband in failing health, she took a $347,000 reverse mortgage which would pay her a fixed income for life. Her husband passed away in 2000. Over the years, Zona opened the mansion to public tours with the profits going to charity. In 2003, she approached Lake County officials with the idea of turning the home into a museum, but it was not eligible for state historic preservation grant funds due to the fact that it was privately owned.
In 2005, Zona was approached by would-be buyers who convinced her that the reverse mortgage was a bad deal. If she took a $1.2 million loan, leveraged by a mansion she owned in North Carolina, she could pay off the mortgage and would make the mansion easier to sell. In 2006, she agreed to a $1.2 million adjustable-rate mortgage with a starting interest rate of 1.25%. The rate would later rise monthly to a rate of 9.95%.
Though her income was a mere $1000 per month, her monthly payments were $3,200 for the next 30 years. Within two years, she lost the mansion in North Carolina, and the Howey mansion was put into foreclosure. With the home tied up in the court system, it slowly fell into disrepair. While there were plenty of interested buyers, none could afford the asking price of $2 million, let alone the estimated $1.5 million needed to make repairs to the home. On July 13, 2015, Marvel Zona passed away at the age of 97 in a Leesburg nursing home. That same year, Nationstar Mortgage of Dallas took ownership of the property.
Photo Gallery, 2012
Restoration of the Howey Mansion
Despite Marvel’s death and a new owner, the mansion was still entangled in legal issues until it was put up on the market in the spring of 2017. There was a lot of interest with over ten offers according to the realtor. Just nine days after being on the market, it was sold to Brad Cowherd, who operates Florida Oranges Land Co. along with his brother and also owns Infusion Tea cafe, the Doghouse restaurant, and the Soda Fountain ice-cream shop in Orlando. Cowherd paid $630,000, despite the home being listed for $480,000.
Cowherd invested more than half a million dollars into the restoration of the property and in less than a year, the mansion officially opened to the public in May 2018 as a venue for special events, weddings, and private parties. Historic tours of the property can also be purchased through their website, www.thehoweymansion.com, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below, you can view the photos I took there during a private tour of the property in the middle of restoration work. Despite it being restored and open to the public, in the early morning of June 6, 2018, four people broke into the mansion but quickly left after the security alarm went off. According to police, they caused minor damages and left behind a steak knife.