The town of Windermere’s 106-year-old Cal Palmer Memorial Building has served various purposes in its lifetime, including as the town founder’s office.
The old front door is painted red, and a small piece of wood screwed into the frame flips over the door handle to keep it from blowing in the wind.
Walk up the steps into the 106-year-old cabin. Although it looks a bit different than it did in 1911, it hasn’t lost its charm. There are stories written in these walls, cracks in the floorboards, and decades of history surrounding all of it. A red-brick fireplace sits square in the center of the rear wall, and the scuff marks on the blue-painted floors serve as a reminder that this building has welcomed many people through its doors.
This historical building once served as an office for one of the town of Windermere founders, John Calvin “Cal” Palmer. Today, it still sits proudly next to Town Hall facing Main Street — and known as the Cal Palmer Memorial Building, it also helps to keep Palmer’s legacy alive.
Cal Palmer was born Sept. 11, 1869, in Wauseon, Ohio. A talented carpenter and cabinet-maker, he joined his father in business at Palmer and Palmer in Wauseon. He even served as mayor of Wauseon starting in 1889 and retired from the business in 1909.
After years in Ohio, Palmer decided it was time for a change. He and two friends, Dr. J. Howard Johnson and Howard Lyon, traveled to Florida and discovered the Butler Chain of Lakes — as well as the plentiful orange groves. They purchased for $10,000 the entirety of modern-day Windermere, as well as some surrounding land, and began working to sell lots to people moving to the area.
Palmer built a home for his family and the log cabin, which became the Cal Palmer Memorial Building in November 1995 after its addition to the National Register of Historic Places. When he became postmaster in August 1911 — while simultaneously selling lots and operating the Windermere Improvement Company with Johnson — he operated his business endeavors out of the building.
“Remember this all didn’t exist here … he had probably the optimal location, because it’s like the center of downtown, if you think about it,” Windermere Mayor Gary Bruhn said. “This is the square of downtown, and back then, of course, the trains would come through here, and he’d be sitting by the trains. What he ended up doing was selling all the different lots.”
Palmer also was a member of the Town Council for 17 years, council president for 11 and mayor for two. He co-founded the Windermere Club Company, which developed and sold property in Windermere, and contributed to the citrus industry. He founded the Windermere Citrus Growers Association in 1920 and was a member of the Florida Citrus Exchange from 1929 to 1943.
In addition to his service to the town he called home, Palmer donated land for four parks as well as Windermere Union Church, and served both as a Gotha-Windermere special tax district sub-district and as the chairman of the Orange County School Board Budget Committee in 1933. He died in 1966.
THESE FOUR WALLS
Measuring about 20 feet wide by 26 feet deep, the 520-square-foot building has been at the corner of Main and Fifth streets since its construction. The one-story, wood structure used to have a front porch, which was enclosed in 1941 with siding and windows from the original front wall. But if you look closely, you still can see glimpses of the old porch.
The building is supported by concrete piers, and its low-pitch gable roof is covered by composition shingles. The portion of the roof over the porch is supported by two tapered-wood columns. On the outside, the building is covered by horizontal wood siding, except for the east gable wall, which is covered with tongue-and-groove vertical siding. The frame vernacular-style building has craftsman-style details, including the large, tapered porch columns and continuous beam supporting the roof.
Perhaps one of its most charming features, though, is the red-brick fireplace and chimney. The exterior chimney stretches up the exterior back wall, and the fireplace sits in the center of the wall inside.
The town designated the Cal Palmer Memorial Building as a local historic building in 1992, and it was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places Nov. 29, 1995.
Perhaps one of the biggest modern-day challenges the town has endured in maintaining the building was when Hurricane Charley ripped through the state in 2004. A large water oak fell right through the middle of the Cal Palmer Memorial Building.
“That morning I went out and walked down the street, looked around and thought, ‘It doesn’t look too bad,’” Bruhn said. “I was getting ready to go back into the house, and someone rides by and asks if I’ve been downtown yet. He said, ‘There’s a tree through the Palmer building,’ and I went down there and there was a big old water oak, and it ... cut it right down the middle.”
It took nearly a year to restore the building to its former glory, because town staff had to find someone who would be certified in historical rebuilding for preservation.
“How many places can say they have their founder’s office — who started the whole town — intact and in place, almost exactly as it was 106 years ago?” — Windermere Mayor Gary Bruhn
“To rebuild that was historically a lot of work that we had to go through,” Bruhn said. “It’s so much work, hassle and paperwork. He spent probably two months … to put the building back up and bend it (back into shape) slowly. If you’d have tried to bring it all the way back up (at once), it would’ve just fallen apart. We literally had to take the building and pull it back into its shape and frame. He was able to restore it. You can’t even tell that it’s been done.”
Over the course of its lifetime, the building has been rented out and has served myriad purposes — from a post office and sales office to shops, a gathering place for local organizations and possibly even a church. It has sat empty now for four months, and Bruhn said the town doesn’t plan to continue renting it.
“For a long time, it was what they called Finders Keepers,” Bruhn said. “After Finders Keepers ended, it was rented briefly to one of the residents who ran an interior-design shop, but it started becoming various different kinds of merchandise, and that came to an end about a year ago.
“Last year, we took the steps and aren’t going to rent it out anymore,” he said. “We’re going to use it for storage area for our historical stuff.”
Looking around inside the empty space now, it’s easy to go back in time and imagine Palmer sitting at his desk, looking out the window at the trains rolling through town.
“It’s important to preserve and protect our history,” Bruhn said. “How many places can say they have their founder’s office — who started the whole town — intact and in place, almost exactly as it was 106 years ago?”