The notion that one of Lake County's displays of splendor was going to ruin needled those who have sampled its delights.
And no wonder. The mansion built by citrus grower and developer William J. Howey is a gem like no other in these parts. Designed by a woman architect from Chicago, the 8,800-square-foot house built in 1925 is a small version of the much larger Vanderbilt mansion called Biltmore in Asheville, N.C.
Friday's column detailed how the Howey house, with its lavish grandeur, is tied up in lawsuits and disputes. Its colorful 92-year-old owner, Marvel Zona, has moved to a Leesburg nursing home. Now the mansion is vacant and deteriorating.
The mansion was a home to many people over the years, including some who still live in the area.
Musician Jim Carlton of Mount Dora is one of them. Here's a sample of his memories:
"I lived at the Howey mansion for more than five years in the coach house before I married 15 years ago.
"I spent many wonderful evenings enjoying Marvel's dinner parties, which were always populated with what we used to call 'the e-lite and the po-lite.' I had the mansion to myself every summer when Marvel was at her summer house in Boone, N.C.
"Think of the countless hurricanes it has withstood with its 16-inch-thick walls. For me, the mansion conjured up the image of Miss Havisham's house from Charles Dickens' 'Great Expectations.' But then, it wouldn't have been a stretch to imagine Gershwin or Dorothy Parker striding across its lawn, either.
"And Marvel was this engaging, turbaned character who was steeped in metaphysics. She was always gracious, cordial and obviously the property's latter sine qua non. It's sad that it's in such disrepair. Perhaps it's symbolic of the now moribund patriotism this country once had."
And from our front-porch philosopher, Nevin Thompson of Groveland, comes this tidbit:
"Around 1987, the Lake County Rails-to-Trails organization had one of its big meetings at the mansion. I had never seen or met the owner but was awestruck with the place, as it looked like a movie set for a spy movie in old Europe.
"We were in the living room when Ms. Zona made her appearance. She swept down that grand staircase from the second floor, dressed in a marvelous floor-length gown and cape, with a turban on her well-coiffed head. Man, talk about a show-stopper!
"There was no fanfare of any kind, but there should have been — with herald trumpets and violins.
"She visited with all of us for a while, then retired to where ever it is classy ladies such as she do so. I remember nothing else about that meeting.
"Hopefully, this great older building can be saved. It would never be destroyed in Europe, but too many times in the USA such edifices are bulldozed into rubble and all we get is yet another convenience store with gas pumps, so we can all sit around and watch the holdups on the TV news."
Speculation about the use of the secret underground room that can be accessed only by a hidden stairway opened by hand-crank ended with a call from Dr. Mary Anderson.
The room, which also contains a massive safe with a dial, was used to store liquor during Prohibition, Anderson said.
Yes! Of course! What mansion with glittering parties in the '20s didn't have champagne and maybe a little hooch? One had to hide it somewhere.
Not much in the vacant mansion glitters at the moment. The town of Howey-in-the-Hills has begun a code-enforcement action, which is likely to result at least in the lawn being mowed. That's a start. Anything would improve the look of Lake County history crumbling before the eyes of the community.
Lritchie@tribune.com Her blog is online at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/laurenonlakeCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times