The 85-year-old, three-story Britt Mansion in Winter Garden is being preserved — and will avoid the wrecking ball — thanks to its new owner.
The Ort Law Firm recently purchased the mansion from BankFirst Realty of Winter Park and has been restoring much of the structure. The $1 million purchase is composed of 5.18 acres of land, the 5,292-square-foot brick house and a carriage house and cottage that total 1,964 square feet.
Kay Cappleman, director of the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation, said the property is not in either of the city’s two historic districts and therefore does not receive their protections.
“It is zoned commercial,” she said of the mansion site. “We expected it would be leveled and a shopping center would go in there. So the law firm buying it and restoring it is good news.”
On June 5, the law firm began relocating its seven employees from its office at 2739 S. Maguire Road, Ocoee, to the mansion, 1305 E. Plant St. The new offices were scheduled to open June 9.
“I love the building,” said Joseph Ort, the firm’s 34-year-old owner. “I know there was some concern in the community about what might happen to the property, but I have no intention of using it other than for a law-firm office.”
The firm’s Ocoee office is about 2,000 square feet, and working in the much larger space “is going to be a really welcome change,” Ort said.
Moving into ‘the big house’
The mansion was built in 1929 by Morgan Britt, a Georgia-born farming and real-estate magnate. According to the Heritage Foundation, he became known as one of the largest lettuce producers in Florida and established several Winter Garden subdivisions, including the now-defunct Britt’s Quarters.
“Fronted by four Corinthian columns, this grand example of Classical Revival architecture reflects a building trend spurred by the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893,” according to the Heritage Foundation. “For many years, vegetable fields managed by the Britt family stood on both sides of Plant Street, giving the home the “big house” aspect inherent in so many histories of plantation life.”
Later surrounded by orange groves, the mansion stayed in the Britt family until 1967. Since the early 1970s, it has been home to various entities, including a residence for senior citizens.
It also has housed an accounting firm, a staffing agency and a butler-training center, said David Calcanis, from the Orlando office of Cushman & Wakefield of Florida. Calcanis, the senior director of the firm’s Land Brokerage Services Group, handled the recent sale of the mansion property for BankFirst Realty.
The property’s overall 2014 assessed value is $605,220, according to Orange County Property Appraiser information. BankFirst Realty had purchased the property for just more than $1 million in early 2013.
“BankFirst took it back from foreclosure,” Calcanis said. “It wasn’t looking to make money, but to mitigate their losses. As a broker, I probably could have gotten more competitive bidding, but the city wants [the mansion] in place,” rather than have it demolished and replaced with a convenience store, he said.
Ort said his firm has “put a pretty large amount of money” into restoring the house. “We’ve fixed the roof, the A/C and the plumbing, and we’ve repaired a lot of water damage,” he said. “We’ve stripped the first floor down to the original flooring and have been restoring it. You name it, we’ve done it to get this house back to its original look.”
An employee gym is planned for the cottage — where Mrs. Britt once grew orchids — and the carriage house might be leased out, Ort said. Nature trails will be cut through some of the property’s woods for the law firm’s staff, and the mansion’s third floor will serve as a play/study area for the children of employees and clients.
“I want my firm to be here for the next 30 to 40 years,” Ort said.
One room of the mansion will be named “The Bishop Room” and one “The Holcomb Room” in honor of Ort Law Firm supporters Billy Bishop and Keith Holcomb.
Ort said he is open to the idea of having the mansion listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which can lead to benefits such as tax incentives for restoring the property.
Officials from Cushman & Wakefield — the world’s largest privately held commercial real-estate services firm — noted how the property is in a “prime location” at the signalized corner of Plant Street and East Crown Point Road, about one-quarter mile west of State Road 429.
For more information about the law firm, visit www.ortlawfirm.com.