Extraordinary Places

Beauty and grandeur return to the Howey Mansion

Abandoned for 10 years, the newly renovated estate is elegant and ready for parties.

Story: Leigh Neely // Photos: Anthony Rao

At the Mediterranean-style Howey Mansion, it’s easy to imagine well-dressed guests arriving for elegant parties hosted by owners William and Grace Howey in the 1920s. Today, the beautifully restored house is set to host many more parties, meetings, dinners, and even Air B&B guests in what was formerly staff housing above the garage.

“During the first two weeks (of restoration), vines were stripped away and revealed very little damage,” says Alexis Clark, services manager and historical tour coordinator for the house at 1001 Citrus Ave. in Howey-in-the-Hills.

Tracey Spence, restoration manager, is the aunt of brothers Brad and Clay Cowherd, who bought the mansion in 2017 after it had been abandoned for 10 years.

“The second they closed on the house, we changed the locks,” Tracey says. “We stayed here for nine months without air conditioning because we wanted people to know it was occupied so the vandalism would stop.”

Once the vines and all boards inside and out were taken down, the exterior was pressure-washed.

“We had the roof chemically treated and cleaned, and the Ludowici tiles looked wonderful,” Tracey says. “People often asked why it was painted this color, but it’s the original plaster coloring. It’s so unique because it’s not painted. Our plasterer thinks when it rains and darkens when it gets wet, that’s how it looked originally, but it has faded.”

Tracey says the restoration is 95 percent complete. The first event held at the mansion was Brad’s 40th birthday party in May, and the first historical tour was on Jan. 15. 

A tour of the mansion, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, features a fascinating story of the house and glimpses of the family who built it. With visits from presidents and entertainment from celebrities of the day, it was a very special place in a small Florida town. It’s interesting to note there are few photographs of Howey Mansion from the years the family occupied it because William considered it a home, not an institution, according to a book by Peggy Beucher Clark about the town of Howey-in-the-Hills.

Designed by architect Katherine Cotheal Budd, of New York, the inside features curved walls, a Florentine beige marble staircase, dome ceiling, a semi-circle of stained glass in a peacock design above the door, brass sconces, and carved stone fireplaces. Construction took place from 1925-1927. There were originally 15 acres with the property, but the Cowherds own three and a half, with the hope of buying more in the future.

The large front lawn has already been the site of a dinner party with 200 guests, and a concrete pad was added to the side of the house, with stones taken from the original walk in the back, to make it blend with the steps on the terrace just outside the ballroom. There’s now room for guests to sit while a wedding ceremony is performed on the raised area.

The portico in back of the mansion had extensive damage, and everything, including the ceiling and archways, are new, and the structure had to be reinforced. However, there was great attention to detail, which means it looks like the original structure.

Just outside the ballroom is a lovely fountain with a siren perched on a bed of rocks with water flowing from her urn. This is another piece that is part of the original estate. Alexis says there are plans for dinner receptions to take place on the area facing the fountain.

“We have an on-site catering kitchen, and we use Arthur’s Catering & Events, to ensure everything is handled with respect for the property,” Alexis says.

As you walk through what was once the formal living room, the furniture provides a feeling of the period. This is now the large ballroom for galas and larger events. It has an antique glaze finish to lighten the colors of the room. A portrait of William John Howey looks down on the ballroom with distinguished grace.

“Most of the furniture was donated or found in thrift or antique stores to provide an authentic atmosphere,” Alexis says. “We even received donations from historical museums and societies.”

After seeing the many grand rooms with their spacious views, visitors find the library to be a cozy, warm spot with leather-bound volumes that definitely appeal to the avid reader. “Most of the books are from one collection, and they were donated so the collection could stay together,” Alexis says.

Behind the books on one shelf was a secret of William’s: the lever that opened a passageway to a mysterious basement room. It was where the owner of the Howey Mansion hid his liquor and wine during the Prohibition years.

“It’s has now been transformed into a speakeasy with a hand-designed backdrop behind the bar,” Alexis says. 

Moving upstairs, visitors are treated to the perfect view of the foyer chandelier, which is another original piece in the mansion. Like the rest of the house, the furnishings in the upstairs bedroom are true to the period. The most interesting bedroom may be in the turret, with its panoramic view. There is a recess in the ceiling that once allowed access by ladder to the top of the turret.

The rooms upstairs are now designed for wedding parties. The gentlemen have a room on one side of the upstairs, and the bride’s rooms are on the other end of the hallway. Both have extraordinary mirrors to allow the wedding party to know they look their best. 

The room that was once William’s master suite is now an elegant sitting room. Behind the tapestry on the wall is the space that held his safe.

“During the 10 years of abandonment, vandals destroyed the safe,” Alexis says. “They actually dropped it on the floor, creating the only damage to the aged oak hardwood flooring in the entire house.”

A private staircase leads out to a terrace that surrounds the end of the house and provides another panoramic view of the property.

The grand family home now is accessible to the public and meant to be enjoyed by all. Historic tours are offered Tuesday through Saturday and tickets cost $22. Information about the tours, events, and meetings is available at thehoweymansion.com.


Update: Mote-Morris House

In October, the Leesburg City Commission authorized moving forward with repairs on the Mote-Morris House. The historic house was damaged in a fire earlier this year. According to City Manager Al Minner, insurance will cover the cost of repair to bring the house back to the beauty it was before the fire. Before this happens, however, the Historic Preservation Board will meet to discuss details of the repair, and the commission must finalize the construction agreement.


A jewel on the river

Tiny Astor makes the most of its idyllic location.

Story: Chris Gerbasi

Astor is a community of extraordinary contrasts: a serene setting for retirees and vacationers but also an axis of activity in the great outdoors. Lakes, springs, and a national forest are destinations for people who love fishing, boating, and hunting.

The tiny, unincorporated community is one of the unique locales in Lake County. Astor is tucked away in the northeast corner of the county along State Road 40 on the St. Johns River, which marks the boundary with Volusia County.

Astor is known as “The Jewel of the St. Johns” for a reason. For residents, life is the river—their livelihoods and their interests flow from it.

“It’s a fishing village,” resident Don Fleming says in a nutshell. “It’s a very quiet community but very well-organized.”

Astor is unspoiled by development and maintains a “woodsy” environment, with tall trees lining the residential streets and inconspicuous back roads. At 2.5 square miles, Astor is not much bigger than a postage stamp, but it does have its own post office, chamber of commerce, and library.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the population at little more than 1,500, with mostly older residents—the median age is about 57—living in quaint houses or modest mobile homes along the riverfront.

Fishing camps and boat tours are popular attractions for visitors, who can learn about local plant life and wildlife during an “eco-adventure” on a covered pontoon boat with St. Johns River Tours. The scenic ride covers the Ocala National Forest, Lake George State Forest, and Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge.

Astor Landing RV Resort & Marina

Astor Landing RV Resort & Marina, and the St. Johns River Campground are ideal sites to park a recreational vehicle or dock a boat. The Astor Bridge Marina, on the Volusia side of the river, has 60 slips filled with boats with names like Kickin’ Back, Live Free, and E-Z Livin’, and also offers motel accommodations.

Directly across the river from the marina is Castaways on the River, a family fishing camp with boat rentals and manufactured home cottages. The camp is set on beautiful property, and staff says the St. Johns can’t be beat for catching bass, catfish, bluegill, and many other species.

Business along the river is back to normal now, but flood damage from Hurricane Irma in September 2017 necessitated costly repairs to the cottages, general manager Sarah Moore says.

Following the storm, the water levels on St. Johns River remained above flood stage for days before leveling out. A voluntary evacuation order was issued for Astor, and Lake County staff opened distribution points for bottled water and sandbags, as well as a comfort area. The flooding prompted a disaster team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to arrive in Astor, the county reported.

Irma’s impact, however, was only temporary with no lasting effects, say residents and employees who work in Astor. Fortunately, the rains hit during slow season. Like most tourist spots in Florida, Astor sees snowbirds start to arrive in October, and the influx builds through the winter months. Between the snowbirds and vacationers, January through April are big months for Astor businesses. On weekends throughout the year, the appeal of watersports brings out a younger crowd to riverfront restaurants and bars such as Blackwater Inn and William’s Landing, staff members say.

Beyond the riverfront, Astor benefits from being in a great location. Sarah says she often heads to Silver Glen Springs, which is about 14 miles north by car, or closer by boat, in the Ocala National Forest. It’s one of several springs within a short drive of Astor. Silver Glen Springs contains crystal-clear water that stays a constant 72 degrees year-round, which makes it the occasional resting spot of manatees during the winter months. Popular activities at the recreation area include swimming, snorkeling, hiking, canoeing, and kayaking.

In addition to providing access to the forest, the St. Johns also leads to Lake George, Florida’s second-largest lake behind Lake Okeechobee at approximately six miles across, 12 miles around, and 46,000 acres, lakelubbers.com states. Lake George is a popular fishing hole to reel in largemouth bass, bluegill, redear sunfish, black crappie, striped bass, and brown bullhead, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website.

Among other points of interest, nearby Bluffton Recreation Area offers hiking, birdwatching, and a nature trail; the Florida National Scenic Trail crosses near the river in Astor; and motorists can travel the east-west segment of the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway on SR 40.

Like many residents, Don Fleming enjoyed Astor’s fishing, but at age 86, he’s hung up his rod and reel and instead fishes for inside straights while playing poker. Don and his wife, Fran Stoll, are former Midwesterners who moved two years ago from “busy” Sarasota to “quieter” Astor. Fran gets involved with activities at the Astor Community Center as well as Ye Old Thrift Shop, a store behind the center that conducts clothes drives to help those in need.

“It’s a very close-knit community,” says Don as he searched for books at the Astor County Library, “one of the greatest libraries in 100 miles.”

“It’s a great little town,” chimes in library assistant Elise Vancise, who has lived in the area her whole life. “Everybody’s friendly and welcoming. There’s a sense of community.”

Elise rattles off some of the annual community events, such as the Fall Festival and BBQ on Nov. 2, the Christmas Parade and Holiday Craft Show, the Rubber Ducky Race, as well as monthly fishing tournaments, and library events such as the Astor Geek Fest, which is like a mini comic convention.

The Fall Festival features local crafts makers selling their wares to raise funds for local organizations. The Rubber Ducky Race also is a fundraiser in which people pay $5 for a rubber duck, hundreds of which are let loose on the St. Johns River to see which one floats to the finish line first. A carnival and live music are part of the festivities.

Blackwater Inn. Photo: Caleb Jensen

Coming up Dec. 1, Blackwater Inn hosts the annual Astor Boat Parade, where guests can watch boats decorated with Christmas lights pass by the restaurant.

Blackwater Inn often is a stop for charter bus groups from The Villages making a day trip and enjoying the river cruises. Dining guests arrive by car or boat, and enjoy a panoramic view of the river. Menus at both Blackwater Inn and William’s Landing, on the second floor of the building, feature a wide array of seafood. Blackwater Inn also will serve a traditional turkey dinner for Thanksgiving, from noon-6pm Thursday, Nov. 22.

The irony of Astor’s small-town traditions and cozy community is that history could have had something much bigger in store. Like many Florida communities, Astor was founded by an entrepreneur from the North looking to build a new town with a new railroad to attract visitors, says Jonathan Dolce, the library branch supervisor and an Astor history buff.

William Astor, grandson of millionaire John Jacob Astor, bought about 12,000 acres in 1874 and laid out a town he called Manhattan, after his hometown. He built a railroad to Lake Eustis, established a botanical garden and citrus groves, and the community later was renamed Astor, according to a history book produced by the Astor Kiwanis Club.

However, competition from larger railroads and the decline of steamboat travel on the St. Johns affected tourism and trade, and major freezes in the 1890s destroyed the groves.

New prosperity arrived in Astor after World War II as fishing camps sprang up and Northerners searched for winter residences and retirement spots.

Just like the residents and visitors of today, they found excellent fishing on the river and enjoyed the calm lushness of the nearby forest—blessings of nature that give Astor a timeless appeal.