LAKELAND — In its prime, the house ranked among the most distinguished in Lakeland, a Victorian treasure standing along a street whose very name signals prosperity.
The house at 1022 Success Ave., one of the oldest in the South Lake Morton Historic District, is a modified Queen Anne structure in a neighborhood dominated by Craftsman homes and bungalows. Built before 1910, it stood stately with such exterior features as a hexagonal turret, oversized bay windows and a wraparound porch.
On the inside, the home gleamed with sophisticated details: an ornate staircase, 10-foot ceilings, mahogany-stained crown moldings, broken-tile floors and three fireplaces, including one in the parlor lined with Delft tiles.
These days, the house stands out from its surrounding structures, but not in a positive way. David Collins, who lives directly across the street, puts the matter bluntly: “It was a grand home in its day. Now it’s piece of s—.”
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For years, the house has lacked occupants and has appeared forlorn and abandoned, a spooky blight among houses — such as Collins’ — reflecting the status that comes with living on Success Avenue. The blue-gray siding has grown dingy, and mildew stains the roof fascia. The wood framing the glass panels beside the front door is badly faded.
Until recently, a small tree was growing out of the house’s roof and the yard resembled an unkempt jungle.
Collins estimated that the blighted house decreases the value of his and other neighboring properties by $20,000 to $30,000.
A recent sale, though, raises hopes that the house might be restored after decades of decline.
Facing foreclosure, the couple who owned the house sold it last month to Mission Property Investment Group, a Lakeland-based company. One of the company’s principals said he plans to do basic rehabilitation before selling the house to someone willing to undertake a full restoration.
Gordon Cuthbertson — whose wife, Holly, is listed as owner of Mission Property Investment — said he appreciates the house’s significance.
“That’s the heart of our history right there, for sure,” he said.
Though the saga might have a positive resolution, the house’s deterioration in recent decades raises questions about whether Lakeland should do more to protect valued structures in historic districts from potential ruin through an owner’s lack of care.
“We have rules against demolition by neglect, but they’re hardly enforceable — or enforced, one or the other — under the current mindset or under the mindset that was,” Collins said. “We’ve got a whole new commission. I have no idea what their thoughts are. But we should be able (to do more), from a historic standpoint, when it’s already designated a historic home in a historic district.”
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The house was built around 1908, according to a state inventory, on two lots in the Dixieland Revised Subdivision.
The house’s known history comes from Emily Foster, Lakeland’s senior planner for historic preservation, and the late Martha Sawyer, a local historian who wrote about the structure in a column for The Ledger in 1992. The builder and original occupants were thought to be a doctor and his wife, choosing a site along a street with a propitious name.
“It was one of the prettiest streets, with all the oak trees, and it’s also on a hill between two lakes,” Foster said. “It was considered if you lived on this street you were someone of means and you had made it.”
City directories list the owners from 1917 to 1919 as Arthur D. and Irene Hartsell, the former the manager of the White Line Garage and White Bus Line Co. Foster said it’s possible that the Hartsell Building at 104-106 E. Main St. and Hartsell Avenue are named for him.
The Rev. Percy C. Barkley, pastor of the defunct Southside Baptist Church, and his wife, Ethel, took residence in 1923.
At some point, the house was divided into five rental apartments. A new owner made renovations in the 1970s, restoring it to a single-family dwelling. Florida Southern College owned the structure for a short period, Sawyer wrote, though the college has no record of that.
And then in 1981, Dr. John Simmonds and his wife, Julianne Simmonds, purchased the house. They covered the original exterior with vinyl siding, Sawyer wrote.
The couple divorced in 1985, and Julianne took ownership of the house as they split possessions, court records show. She retained ownership until last month.
Sawyer’s 1992 column mentions Simmonds — identified as Julie — and includes a photo of her sitting beside the parlor fireplace. The column gives no indication that the house’s condition had begun to decline.
Sawyer described it as “… a warm and friendly old historic home nestled in the midst of one of Lakeland’s most distinguished historic districts (that) represents a very special part of Polk County’s vanished era.”
The historian also mentioned rumors of a “friendly ghost” inhabiting the home.
Collins, who has lived across the street since 1980, said the house’s deterioration started soon after Simmonds took ownership. The house apparently sustained damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017, and water began intruding through a hole in the roof.
Simmonds married Ernest Gates and added his name to the property’s deed. It isn’t clear when the house was last occupied, but Collins said it has sat empty at least since 2017.
The Gateses still owed $170,000 on the home’s mortgage as of 2017, when Bank of America began foreclosure proceedings. After various delays, a judge ordered the house to be sold at auction on April 22.
Six days before that, the couple signed the quit-claim deed to Mission Property Investment Group. Gordon Cuthbertson declined to reveal the price.
The Gateses did not respond to an interview request last week.
Cuthbertson said a business partner, whom he declined to name, previously lived on Success Avenue and knew the owners.
“He used to walk by the house every day; that was the neighborhood he walked his dog in,” Cuthbertson said. “He just kind of fell in love with the place. He was going to keep it himself and fix it, and then he realized that he didn’t have the money to be able to do that type of work, and that’s when I got involved.”
Cuthbertson has taken steps to prevent further water intrusion into the house, as evidenced by a tarp covering a section of the roof on the house’s north side. The yard and hedges along McRorie Street have also been trimmed.
Cuthbertson said he has planned treatment for a termite infestation, but he described the house’s condition as “not terrible.” He said a contractor has estimated that restoration would cost $150,000 to $175,000.
“It needs a whole new roof on it, but that’s not what I do,” Cuthbertson said. “We’re just going to patch what’s there and hand it off to somebody that’s going to spend the real money to do the work that needs to be done.”
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Historic preservationists Gregory Fancelli and Natalie Oldenkamp took an interest in the house, and Fancelli said he inspected it before the planned auction in April. He said water intrusion had compromised the structure.
“If the house can be saved, it would need to be completely stripped down to its bare bones, outside and inside,” Fancelli said by email. “Basically a massive undertaking. On top of replacing all the damaged and rotten wood in the roof and the walls.”
Fancelli added that a 1993 renovation did not reflect the city’s current guidelines for the historic district.
“It’s a real shame that many of Lakeland’s historic properties are lost this way,” Fancelli wrote. “It’s a situation I have seen over and over again. Delusioned owners that hang on to the property as it rapidly deteriorates until there is nothing left to do but demolish it.”
Like most cities, Lakeland relies on code enforcement as its main mechanism for ensuring that owners maintain their properties. The city’s housing code, based on a 1997 publication from the Southern Building Code Congress International, sets minimum standards for residential dwellings.
The code applies to roofs and their components, exterior walls and doors, windows, interior floors, walls, ceilings and electrical and plumbing systems. Owners may also be cited for overgrown lawns, derelict vehicles, environmental hazards and stagnant water.
Lakeland’s Code Enforcement Office has cited the owners of 1022 Success Ave. more than 20 times since 1995, city records show. The violations included derelict vehicles, lawn overgrowth, tree debris, bee infestations and exposed wood around the front door.
An inspector’s report from June 2020 described a damaged roof and roof portions, multiple holes in the walls of an accessory building and a large crack on the top step of a side porch.
One of two cases still open, a violation dating to 2018 for overgrowth and tree debris, shows the property has failed 42 subsequent inspections. At least once, the city has hired a contractor to do yard work and billed the former owners. Their unpaid balance is $125.95.
Code Enforcement Manager Jim Denhe said the city had to halt its two open cases when the house went into foreclosure. If the new owners fix the problems, the cases will be closed.
Code-enforcement citations can result in liens against a property. But Denhe said he only recalls one time in 20 years that Lakeland took possession of a property over code violations.
Code-enforcement officers are limited to reporting violations they can see without trespassing on a property. Denhe stressed that the city has limited power in compelling owners to maintain their houses.
“You’ve got to remember, these are minimum violations,” Denhe said. “They don’t have to make it look like a pristine home on Lake Hollingsworth. It’s a minimum code.”
The only difference for homes in historic districts is that owners need the city’s approval before making renovations.
What about demolition by neglect?
Earlier this year, Lakeland lost a historic dwelling to actual demolition following years of decline. The city allowed the razing of a former National Guard armory at 845 Pinewood Ave., a nearly century-old structure.
Foster said some cities have ordinances covering “demolition by neglect.” Those provisions are more comprehensive than city codes that focus on standards for specific structural elements. Foster said the idea came up during a recent discussion with leaders of the Lake Morton Neighborhood Association.
“We don’t currently have that, and there has been discussion over the years, at least since I’ve been here, about creating such a provision,” Foster said. “But that would require definitely the historic district residents’ support and also (city) commission support because it would be an amendment the commission would approve, ultimately.”
Fancelli said the city needs to take that approach to protect its historic houses.
“Myself and other preservationists, like Natalie Oldenkamp and Grant Miller, have been advocating for the city to create ordinances with more teeth as tools to more effectively deal with this problem,” he said by email.
Dan Fowler, chairman of Lakeland’s volunteer Historic Preservation Board, said the city seems to have little power to stop cases of demolition by neglect.
“I think over the years we’ve had some small discussions related to situations like that, but when the city attorney chimes in, that’s when we learn, really, as far as the preservation board is concerned, we don’t really have any power, to my knowledge, to take any actions along those lines,” Fowler said. “It would be wonderful if we had some means to address these things, but we don’t, to my knowledge.”
City Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley praised Lakeland’s Code Enforcement Office for diligently seeking to make property owners comply with basic standards. She compared the idea of combating the cumulative decline of historic houses to personal wellness.
“So for us, preventative health care and being well keeps us from getting sick and going to the hospital and having severe illness, potentially,” she said. “And that’s what it seems to me — almost like a wellness preservation program. I’m not sure we have something like that, but I would not assume that we don’t.”
McCarley, who lives in the Beacon Hill Historic District, said neighborhood residents have a role in reporting violations to the city.
Foster said the idea came up during a recent discussion with leaders of the
Billy Townsend, president of the Lake Morton Neighborhood Association, said he wasn’t familiar with the house at 1022 Success Ave. but does know of others in the district — mostly rentals — that he thinks are not well maintained. As restoration continues on many homes on Success Avenue and neighboring streets, Townsend said it might make it harder for owners to neglect their properties.
“It reflects the value that has been built over time in the neighborhood,” Townsend said. “I think, at this point, properties that have deteriorated through bad ownership stick out so much that they invite improvement. I think that’s a good thing.”
Gary White can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.