By Dan Harkins
ORANGE CITY - Chicago seed baron Albert Dickinson was an integral part of the first building boom here just after the Civil War. Though some of his sizable brood merely wintered in Orange City, others called it home.
One daughter, an ophthalmologist named Frances, fought for women's rights with cousin/friend Susan B. Anthony, ran a Chicago medical school and flew planes so frequently that she created the Betsy Ross Airport at the current location of Arawana Estates.
Another daughter, Melissa, started the city's first library and community meeting hall in 1897. Shortly after she died in 1910, her brother dedicated a new library building in her name that's still used today.
But the 1886 home where both women lived, nearly across U.S. Route 17-92 from that library, hasn't stood the test of time so well.
Still standing on the 200 block of South Volusia Avenue, the 5,180-square-foot, two-story house has sat vacant and dilapidated for more than a decade, as have two smaller homes and three cottages on the five-acre property.
Vines cling to the porch fretwork. Paint peels from the fašade. A knee-high picket fence is faded and warped.
"It's a beautiful property," said Dallas Wittgenfeld, history docent at the 1876 Heritage Inn across the street. "But it's hard to tell that from a distance."
Help might be on the way, though. After the 200-plus homes of the city's historic district were placed on the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation's Top 11 Most Endangered Sites list for the second straight year, properties like this have started to garner a little more attention from preservation-minded investors across the state, said Mr. Wittgenfeld.
"The people who care look at that list," he said. "The only reason they're here is because we're on that list. We've got the right people looking in the right places now."
Charles Jordan, a Brevard County construction contractor who focuses on historic restorations, recently toured the property with a real estate agent and Mark Carstens, an area preservationist with a bachelor's degree in historic preservation from the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Another prominent preservationist, Miami-based Frances "Dolly" MacIntyre, has also expressed interest in the properties to Mr. Carstens, offering to write letters of support to preserve the Dickinson properties.
Both Mr. Jordan and Ms. MacIntyre couldn't be reached for comment.
Mr. Carstens has repeatedly urged Orange City Council to enact a law that would preserve historic properties like the Dickinson house from the wrecking ball, particularly since the property is zoned commercial and has been used commercially in previous decades.
The only thing he and other preservationists can do, he said, is press the owners to be mindful of the history they're holding in their hands.
Unfortunately, those owners, an elderly couple from North Carolina, are "absentee landlords," he said.
"It's obvious that not much has been done here for a long time," he said.
Todd Swann, of Swann Realty, is the real estate agent who's listed the property. If all three main houses are purchased, Mr. Swann said, he's authorized to sell for $549,000.
The owners have no preference, either, for the future use of the property.
"I have sympathy with the idea of it being restored," Mr. Swann said, "but it has to make economic sense. Those are the hard issues we're dealing with. It's my job to facilitate the transfer of this property from the old owner to a new one, be it a preservationist or somebody who wants to take it in another direction."
He added, "To some people, that would be catastrophic. But life will go on."
Local preservationists vow to press whomever the new owners will be to retain the original roots of the property.
"The first day," Mr. Wittgenfeld said, "we'll be at the front door making sure they know what they're dealing with here."
He'll bring with him information he recently obtaining showing how this property not only would easily qualify to belong on the National Register of Historic Places, but also for up to $2 million in restoration help from the Florida Division of Historic Resources.
If no new owners come, Mr. Wittgenfeld has another plan, too: He'd like to turn the property into a living history museum, purchased, designed and dolled up with the available money from the state.
"Right now, we're on a holding pattern" to see if any of this new attention pays off, he said. "But we'd be more than happy to go that route, too. Now's the time while the spotlight's on."
Mayor Tom Laputka said this situation is similar to one the city faced a few years ago, when the house of another town founder, Seth French, was deeded to the city with the stipulation that it become a museum.
City leaders decided it didn't have the money to repair the house then, so it was deeded back to another French descendant, Frances Weir, who's continued the home's restoration with her own money.
If the Dickinson property was purchased for a museum, Mayor Laputka said, he would be a supporter - as long as it was understood that the city can't afford to financially support that kind of an undertaking.
"Most historic preservation like that takes place with grants and private groups that are set up to do that," he said. "If we can help make that work, I'm always for that, but I'm always guarded on the fact that we have a city to run. We have to keep the lights running like everywhere else."