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Howey Mansion | Photo © 2012 Bullet, www.abandonedfl.com

Howey Mansion

Location Class:
Built: 1927 | Abandoned: ~2008
Historic Designation: National Register of Historic Places (1983)
Status: Restored (2018)
Photojournalist: David Bulit

Howey Mansion
The Howey Mansion, c. 1927

William John Howey was born on January 19, 1876, in Odin, Illinois. He began selling insurance at 16-years-old and by 1900 began developing land and towns for the railroad in Oklahoma. He opened the Howey Motor Car Company in Kansas City in 1903, and after making seven Howey Cars, closed his business. At age 31, he bought a large tract of land in Mexico and tried his hand at selling pineapple plantations, but the Mexican Revolution forced him out.

It was in 1908 when Howey found himself in Winter Haven, Florida where he perfected his citrus farming and sales program techniques. He believed that if he took raw land and controlled its development into mature citrus groves, he could guarantee investors a successful enterprise while making a profit on each step of citrus cultivation. In 1914, he began buying land for $8 to $10 per acre and later sold them at $800 to $2000 per acre, cleared and planted with 48 citrus trees per acre. Howey also offered a no-risk guarantee: if the buyer signed up for Howey’s company to maintain the land as well but the land didn’t turn a profit with a set amount of time, he would buy back the land for the original cost plus interest.

Screenshot 2022 03 04 140312
The Howey Mansion, 1980. Rolla L. Queen, Florida Division of Archives, History, and Records Management

Buyers flocked to the town, many considering him Florida’s greatest citrus developer. In 1917, he built the “Bougainvillea”, a two-story frame boarding house across from the future site of the Howey Mansion, to house the visiting investors. By 1920, he had amassed nearly 60,000 raw acres for his “City Inevitable,” but the Bougainvillea burned to the ground that year. He set up temporary housing in “Tent City” on the same location and opened the Floridan Hotel at the south end of town in 1924, and it soon became the social hub of the community. The Floridan Hotel would later become a victim to “the bomb”, an economic boom that occurred in parts of Florida where movie production companies would pay cities to blow up buildings for their movies; it was blown up in 1994 for Hulk Hogan’s “Thunder in Paradise”. The Florida Land Boom tripled Howey’s enterprises and the “Town of Howey” was incorporated on May 8, 1925. 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 which he dubbed “The Florida Alps”.

In 1927, the construction of his mansion was completed. Designed by Katharine Cotheal Budd, a pioneering woman architect from New York, the 20-room, 7,200 square foot mansion was built at the cost of $250,000, around $3.2 million after inflation. To celebrate, he hosted the entire New York Civic Opera Company of 100 artists, drawing a crowd of 15,000 arriving in 4,000 automobiles to the free outdoor performance. Howey died of a heart attack on June 7, 1938, at the age of 62. His wife, Mary Grace Hastings, lived in the Howey mansion until her death on December 18, 1981, and was laid to rest in the family mausoleum on the mansion grounds along with William and their daughter Lois. Soon after, the house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Home of W. J. Howey, c. 1920. Florida Memory

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. That same year, Nationstar Mortgage of Dallas became the new owner of the property.

Despite her 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 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 tours@thehoweymansion.com. 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.

Gallery Below of the Howey Mansion Restored


David Bulit is a photographer, author, and historian from Miami, Florida. He has published a number of books on abandoned and forgotten locales throughout the United States and continues to advocate for preserving these historic landmarks. His work has been featured throughout the world in news outlets such as the Miami New Times, the Florida Times-Union, the Orlando Sentinel, NPR, Yahoo News, MSN, the Daily Mail, UK Sun, and many others. You can find more of his work at davidbulit.com as well as amazon.com/author/davidbulit.

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