History museum chronicles downtown Winter Garden’s rebirth

A Winter Garden Heritage Foundation exhibition shares the history of the city’s downtown area and how it became the popular destination it is today.

The original Winter Garden Theatre, which opened in 1935 and closed in 1963, was given new life as the Garden Theatre in 2008.
The original Winter Garden Theatre, which opened in 1935 and closed in 1963, was given new life as the Garden Theatre in 2008.
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Downtown Winter Garden has been referred to as a setting for a Hallmark movie — with its charming shops, theater, restaurants and museums — but it didn’t always look this way. A great deal of vision, funds and effort went into revitalizing the Plant Street corridor starting in 1991 with the creation of Main Street Winter Garden and really ramping up with the removal of the railroad tracks in 1999.

A Winter Garden Heritage Foundation exhibition continues through this weekend at the Heritage Museum, 1 N. Main St., and it takes viewers through an illustrated timeline of the rebirth of the city’s downtown and all the collaborative efforts between city staff and the Winter Garden City Commission at the time.

“Modern Day Renaissance: The Winter Garden Story” is on display through Sunday, March 31.

Before the West Orange Trail linear park was added along Plant Street, a set of railroad tracks ran through the middle of the city. The intersection at the top of the photo is Plant at Lakeview Avenue looking west.

The WGHF got its start in 1994 as a fundraising arm for the MSWG initiative, and a permanent heritage museum opened in 1998.

The flourishing downtown area started declining in the late 1960s and would continue on this path for more than two decades before experiencing its rebirth with commerce, culture and entertainment.

Perhaps what fueled Winter Garden’s renaissance more than anything was the creation of the West Orange Trail. When the railroad tracks were removed from the center of the city, the trail took its place, bringing hundreds of thousands of runners and cyclists and, eventually, the opportunity for successful businesses and restaurants to fill the empty storefronts.

This was spurred by the creation of a Community Redevelopment Agency, which needed government approval. CRAs receive extra funding and reallocate it in multiple ways to improve the economic health of an area.

Multiple sizable projects would be started after this, including the revival of the Garden Theatre and the Edgewater Hotel.

The original Winter Garden Theatre, which opened in 1935 and closed in 1963, was given new life as the Garden Theatre in 2008.

From 1935 through 1963, the Winter Garden Theatre was one of the only constant sources of entertainment in the city. The popularity of the television reduced moviegoing to the point that owner Collie Biggers sold the building to Pounds Motor Company and it was used as a tractor warehouse.

In 2003, the WGHF launched a movement to restore the theater to its original grandeur, and a grand-opening celebration was held five years later.

Down the street, the Edgewater Hotel faced similar highs and lows. It was constructed as the tallest building along Plant Street in 1927 and housed many fishermen who came from around the world to experience the thrill of catching a prize-winning large-mouth bass from nearby Lake Apopka. When pollution killed off all the fish and destroyed the local fishing industry, the hotel, now without a strong clientele, shuttered its doors.

The hotel sat empty — except for the pigeons that came in through the broken skylights — until the downtown Winter Garden resurgence gave the structure new life as a boutique hotel with businesses and restaurants on the ground floor.

Revitalization efforts have continued in recent years, and, today, the downtown area draws shoppers, diners and visitors with its shops, restaurants, festivals, outdoor music venues, scenic photo backdrops and overall charm.

The business at 126 W. Plant St. has changed names multiple times in the city’s resurgence; one of the most popular restaurants was Downtown Brown’s, a sandwich shop owned by Eric and Claire Brown. It was one of the first businesses to set up shop in the heart of the city’s revitalized downtown.



Amy Quesinberry

Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.

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