The abandoned Howey Mansion in Florida was left to simply crumble for almost a decade. Sadly, the historic home was a shadow of its former glory when a drone filmed it in 2016. Though footage of the forgotten site contained some fascinating details. And events since then have shown that there’s still life in the impressive old structure.
Howey Mansion was a vision of opulence and splendor when it was first built in the 1920s. The ivy covered façade of the home featured an impressive entranceway, while inside the original owner’s wealth was clear to see. But time had been far from kind to this once-palatial home.
The house became the haunt of vandals and historians alike as it fell into disrepair. Photographers and filmmakers braved the abandoned home to document its decay and provide us with an insight into a bygone era. And the resulting images and footage were often completely captivating.
The mansion’s history can be traced back to one man – William John Howey. He was born in the Illinois village of Odin in 1876 and began his career as an insurance salesman. But Howey would go on to build an empire from these humble beginnings. And by 1900 he had started developing land for the Oklahoma railroad.
Later, the entrepreneur ventured into the automobile business – establishing the Howey Motor Car Company in 1903. Yet it seems that the motor trade wasn’t for him. And after making just seven Howey Cars, the website Abandoned Florida notes that he canned the business and traveled south to Mexico to sell pineapple plantations.
Howey was later forced to return to the United States in the lead up to the Mexican Revolution. It was then – in 1908 – that he ended up in Winter Haven, Florida, where he established himself as a leading figure in the citrus farming industry. As part of his business model, he bought land to develop into citrus groves and then sold the ready made farms to investors.
What was clever about Howey’s approach was that he offered a no-risk guarantee, Abandoned Florida notes. He prepared citrus groves for cultivation and his company would also maintain the land if required. If landowners did take Howey up on his offer to care for the plot, in exchange he promised to buy back the land for its original price plus interest if it didn’t make a profit within an allotted timescale.
Howey’s business acumen would make him a very successful citrus developer indeed. Buyers were drawn to Winter Haven, where he had purchased almost 60,000 acres of raw land by 1920, according to Abandoned Florida. His goal was to build a city, which would eventually be named the Town of Howey and ultimately Howey-in-the-Hills in his honor.
Having founded his own town, now Howey needed a mansion to suit a man of his standing. So with the help of his wife Mary Hastings Howey and the architect Katharine Cotheal Budd, he completed the plans on his family lavish home in 1924. And the impressive pile was completed within three years.
The involvement of Budd in the construction of the mansion made it somewhat of an anomaly in design terms. She was a revolutionary architect based in New York City. During World War I, Budd had worked on so-called Hostess Houses for the YMCA. These facilities were located near to army bases and were intended to house female visitors of the troops.
Budd designed or renovated 72 of the 96 Hostess Houses during this period, according to Sarah Allaback’s book The First American Women Architects. She was credited for achieving a homely atmosphere, as most of the lodgings took their inspiration from country piles. Budd went on to design a number of buildings, but it’s thought that the Howey Mansion is one of the only remaining examples of her work.
Abandoned Florida notes that Budd’s design for the Howey Mansion featured 20 rooms set over 7,200 square feet. In total, the build cost $250,000, which equates to around $3.2 million in today’s money. And when the house was finally complete, it seems that Howey was eager to show it off.
Howey was keen to celebrate the completion of his brand new mansion in 1927. So he invited the New York Civic Opera Company with 100 artists to take part in an outdoor performance, according to the website. This free event attracted 15,000 spectators who arrived on site in 4,000 automobiles, so it was quite a spectacle to behold.
A local newspaper report described the concert at the time. It read, “In all Florida history… never has there been anyone who has attempted to bring a musical company of such prominence to give a concert at his own expense so that the people could have the opportunity of hearing some of the finest operatic stars.”
The report added that such an event would have been “impossible had it not been for the generosity and thoughtfulness of W.J. Howey.” And another line read, “… The greatest applause was when W.J. Howey was introduced, the applause ringing and ringing until it echoed from miles around.”
In 1932 Howey became a Republican candidate to be governor. Because of this, he welcomed a number of distinguished guests to his home. They included the Kansas governor Alfred Landon, Lord Bathhurst of England and the golf master Chick Evans. President Calvin Coolidge was also the guest of honor at a dinner party held at the mansion in 1930, the home’s official website notes.
Unfortunately, Howey only got to enjoy the home he’d built for a little over a decade. He died of a heart attack at the age of 62 in June 1938. His widow continued to live in the mansion until her own passing 43 years later. She was interred in the family mausoleum on the property’s land – alongside Howey and their daughter Lois.
Two years after the death of Howey’s widow the mansion was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Then in 1984 the property was purchased by Marvel Zona and her husband Jack for approximately $400,000. Though the latter’s health began to fail around a decade later. Marvel consequently got a reverse mortgage worth nearly $350,000 to pay her some income on the property for life.
Jack sadly died in 2000, and soon after Marvel began inviting in visitors for tours of Howey Mansion, but she struggled to maintain the grand property. In 2003 she considered turning the house into a museum and selling it to the county. Officials, however, declined the offer, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Interestingly, it described the property as “beautiful, but a money pit.”
Marvel subsequently sold some of the property’s grounds to developers in a bid to raise more money. In 2005 she then took out a $1.2 million adjustable-rate mortgage to pay off her reverse mortgage, Orlando Weekly reports. To do so, she had to use her second mansion in North Carolina as leverage. Yet the decision proved to be a bad one, and rising interest rates eventually made her payments an impossibility.
As of 2009 Marvel had moved into a nursing home in Leesburg, the newspaper notes. She had already lost her property in North Carolina, while Howey Mansion was put up for sale the following year in order to pay for her care. After no buyers came forward, the impressive home subsequently fell into a state of abandonment for almost a decade.
During this period, among the few visitors to Howey Mansion were vandals, photographers and filmmakers. This second group of people included the YouTube user RebelPhantom. They posted drone footage of the decaying pile to the video-sharing platform in 2016. And it provided a fascinating glimpse into the once luxurious home, which by now was looking slightly worse for wear.
But what footage did RebelPhantom manage to get from the decaying site? Well, the footage opens with an aerial view of Howey Mansion’s grounds. The old house was originally set in 15 acres of land known as “The Park.” In its heyday, the estate was home to a number of botanical species. But by 2016 it was overgrown with lackluster lawns and cracked paving stones.
Next up, RebelPhantom’s drone turns to Howey Mansion’s crumbling exterior. The house follows the Mediterranean Revival design style. It features rose-colored stucco walls which were once adorned with a glossy creeping vine. The majority of the roof is covered in terracotta barrel tiles, while the remaining corner is complete with a fairytale turret.
One of the most prominent features of the Howey Mansion exterior is its grand entrance. It features a decorative frontispiece covering two stories of the house and incorporates a square window above an arched double doorway – complete with a fanlight. Furthermore, all the glass used on the building sports ornamental grille work.
By the time that RebelPhantom captured footage of the Howey Mansion, most of its exterior features were still intact – albeit looking a little dilapidated. As we see in the footage, a few of the house’s ground floor windows are boarded up. And the ivy-like plant which once climbed the walls looks all but dead.
Beyond Howey Mansion’s grand entrance lies a curved foyer dominated by a sweeping stone staircase with a decorative iron banister. We don’t actually get a glimpse of the inside of the home in RebelPhantom’s footage. But it was captured in a 2014 video by the Howey Mansion YouTube account that promised viewers a “virtual tour” of the property – as well as in photographs posted online.
From these sources, we can get an insight into the interior of the Howey Mansion in all of its exquisite detail. One of the home’s grandest rooms is undoubtedly the ballroom, which features floor-to-ceiling windows and an impressive fireplace. In its abandonment, a layer of dust had settled on the dance floor. Yet it was clear to see that the spot was once perfect for entertaining large groups.
As you might expect in a home of such grandeur, there were a number of nods to the status of Howey Mansion’s former owners. For instance, the huge beamed ceilings and the extravagant fireplaces are testaments to their wealth. And a servant bell system points to the luxurious lifestyle they led.
But while the Howey Mansion may share similar features to other grand homes of its time, there are some architectural surprises to be found. For example, in a tower situated to the back of the home lies an intimate breakfast room. The snug is accessible from the main staircase but is serviced by a secret stairway.
Below the breakfast room lies the library. Though not a large room, this space is opulent nonetheless, with permanent shelving and arched windows that look out onto a courtyard. It’s also home to a hidden passageway – concealed behind a sliding bookshelf. This leads to a basement room, which may have been used to store liquor during the Prohibition era.
So what did the secret room conceal? Well, we don’t actually know, but its contents must have surely been valuable. That’s because it was protected by a fireproof door – similar to those used on bank vaults – which can be opened and closed without making a sound. Not only that, but some of the basement’s inner walls are more than a foot thick, according to the home’s official website.
Photographs posted online show tiled old bathrooms and dingy sitting rooms that might have once welcomed guests for tea. There’s also an enclosed portico with arched windows and ornate spiral columns. Elsewhere, a disused kitchen lies intact – complete with retro units and an old refrigerator.
While the Howey Mansion lay in tatters for some years, the charm of the old place didn’t seem to waver. Following Marvel’s death in 2015, ownership of the property fell to Nationstar Mortgage of Dallas. It was subsequently put up for sale two years later, and perhaps unsurprisingly, there was plenty of interest in the historic home.
According to a realtor who spoke to Abandoned Florida, in total there were ten offers made on Howey Mansion. And just nine days after going on sale, the property was sold to Brad Cowherd of Florida Oranges Land Co. He reportedly paid $630,000 for the house – significantly over the $480,000 asking price.
Cowherd is a Florida native and already owned a number of businesses in Orlando. Even so, he and his brother Clay had their eye on Howey Mansion for some time. And the family was eager to restore the home to its former glory with a crack team of historians and expert tradespeople.
Brad spoke about the progress of the Howey Mansion restoration in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel in 2016. He revealed, “No one has done any maintenance on it since 1925.” The developer added, “It has been a challenge to find craftsmen who know how to build and restore a house… But we have found them.”
First of all, though, they poured $600,000 into the renovation work. Their efforts included restorations on the property’s ailing roof and repairs to its ancient electrical system. The old pine floors throughout the house were also brought back to life, while every broken window was repaired.
Howey Mansion eventually opened its doors in January 2018 to accommodate the scores of people who wanted a glimpse inside of the historic home. Within a matter of weeks, thousands of visitors had taken in the restoration work on planned tours. They still run to this day – giving sightseers the opportunity to walk the house’s lavish corridors while learning about its fascinating past.
It’s also possible to hire Howey Mansion for weddings, events and meetings. The venue boasts eight guest rooms that can sleep as many as 17 people, according to its website. So finally, after almost a decade, new life has been breathed into the bones of this old home. And it can now be enjoyed by a whole new generation of people.