Clermont -- Lake County is known for its citrus heritage. Generations of growers have enriched the region's soil, planted groves in orderly rows and nurtured blossoming trees until they produced ripe, juicy globes ready for the picking.
U.S. Highway 27 sliced its way through this agricultural panorama, cutting a swath for vacationers in search of sunny beaches, roadside fruit stands and kitschy tourist attractions. Today U.S. 27 is the road less traveled -- by tourists, at least.
I am on that road, heading north from State Road 50 toward the Citrus Tower, an attraction that opened in 1956 as a tribute to Lake County's citrus producers. The 226-foot monolithic structure -- its pinnacle 525 feet above sea level -- juts up alongside U.S. 27 on one of the highest hills on the Lake Wales Ridge.
It seems far-fetched now to think that a view of citrus trees from 22 stories up would draw enough tourists to turn a profit. But it was a simpler time, before Disney World and other mega-tourist attractions found their ways to Central Florida. Big thrills in the mid-1950s came from watching alligator wrestlers at Gatorland in Kissimmee and acrobatic water-skiers at Winter Haven's Cypress Gardens. The Citrus Tower was a welcome addition to the lineup.
Today's giant theme parks may have glitz, glamour and thrilling rides, but the Citrus Tower has staying power, and as a newcomer to Clermont, I'm curious about this landmark, which wears a coat of muted beige paint.
On this Thursday morning, I step through the tower's double glass doors into a spacious lobby full of empty chairs tucked into a cluster of plastic white tables. The faint, tangy scent of citrus greets me as the door closes behind me. The lobby is eerily quiet except for my sandals clipping across the terrazzo floors and Frankie Valli's voice wafting from speakers somewhere above.
"You're just too good to be true, Can't take my eyes off of you.
You'd be like heaven to touch, I want to hold you so much . . ."
Evidence of the attraction's bygone days is everywhere. Aged black-and-white photos hang as reminders of the view the tower once captured -- lakes, rolling hills and row upon row of citrus trees. Along one wall are crates of rosy-hued tangelos, marked five for $1, along with lemons and navel oranges for sale for 25 cents apiece.
Across the lobby is a glass showcase that displays old tower souvenirs -- plates, shot glasses, an ashtray. A miniature wooden model of the tower rests atop the showcase.
Longtime residents have told me that in its heyday, the tower's grounds once boasted such things as candy and jelly factories, a restaurant, a citrus packing house, and about 70 acres of groves. The attraction bustled with as many as half a million visitors each year who sampled pecan rolls, watched a glass-blower create delicate works of art, and loaded up bags of oranges to take home, usually somewhere up north.
Locals mingled with tourists, savoring orange ice cream and exchanging gossip with neighbors at the post office that once occupied part of the lobby. After all, residents such as Oakley Seaver, 87, had a stake in the tower's success.
Seaver, who was Clermont's postmaster in the 1950s, remembers when A.W. Thacker and Jack Toole hatched a plan to build the monument in 1955 and began making the rounds of civic organizations, trying to gain support for their idea. Like many others, Seaver succumbed to the pitch.
"They carried a scale model in a suitcase . . . looking for investors," Seaver says. "Local people put up small amounts. I had a very, very small investment."
A TOURIST HOT SPOT
The tower opened its doors after almost 13 months of construction. It took 5 million pounds of concrete and 149,000 pounds of reinforcing steel to build the structure.
"It was quite something," says Seaver, who carries a Citrus Tower key chain from the '50s. "On opening day, the parking lot was full."
Tourist maps featured the attraction, making the tower a popular stop for travelers and others interested in what brochures boasted was its 2,000-square-mile, panoramic view of south Lake County.
Maps still pinpoint the tower, but changes in the region have taken a toll on this gathering place. Florida's Turnpike, which opened in the late 1950s, diverted tourists away from the tower. Several back-to-back freezes killed crops and pushed citrus growers farther south or out of business altogether.
Like the industry it was built to honor, the Citrus Tower fell on hard times. Visitor figures slumped, the building's paint cracked and peeled, and the tower changed hands several times.
Various owners attempted to revive the flagging attraction. A tram tour, for example, was added in 1988 to take visitors through a 4 1/2-acre grove behind the tower. There they could learn about the history of citrus in Lake County and see the 30 varieties of fruit being grown. But the tower never regained its former glory as a tourist hot spot, and it functions now more as a unique office complex. Gone are the tram, the citrus packing house and other tourist lures. Visitors now find business offices, a church, a thrift shop and a Mexican restaurant.
Travelers who stop today are more likely to be searching for a clean restroom. Locals come for the enchiladas.
Greg Homan, 48, a former citrus grower turned real estate investor now owns the tower. "It's still serving as a tourist attraction," he tells me, "but not without being supplemented."
VIEW FROM THE TOP
As the morning drifts lazily toward noon, a handful of people begin trickling into the lobby. A retired couple driving down from Iowa has stopped to stretch their legs and get a cup of coffee before heading to their winter home in Sebring. A couple of local women browse the thrift store.
I peek through the glass doors of Santiago's, a restaurant in the tower's base, and see a group of diners noshing on tortilla chips and salsa in a dining room awash in the sunny yellows and oranges of a citrus grove. Though I am beginning to feel hunger pangs, I want to finish my tour before I succumb to a platter of Mexican favorites. After all, I can't leave without experiencing the view from the top.
Fewer than 15,000 people each year -- many of them British tourists -- now pay to see that view. I hand $3.50 to the gift shop clerk, take the elevator up and step out onto the observation deck, which buzzes with wasps rather than tourist activity.
The windows still frame the picturesque hills and lakes for which the county is famous, but the landscape is peppered with strip malls and fast-growing subdivisions. I scan the view for a glimpse of my house, a mile west of the tower, but trees hide it. Just across the highway, a cluster of orange trees grows in the tower's shadow, but the original view of thousands of acres of groves is no more.
Directly beneath the tower to the north is a new Publix-anchored shopping center, and to the east are real estate and doctors' offices. Just across the parking lot to the south is the Hall of Presidents, which features memorabilia related to U.S. presidents. I spot State Road 50 and my eyes follow it toward the horizon, where the downtown Orlando skyline rises into sight. From this vantage point I can plainly see how development is pushing its way out of Orange County and pouring into Lake County.
Homan says he sees the development as a sign that Clermont is a healthy, thriving community despite the setbacks faced by longtime residents whose survival once depended on citrus.
"People ask, `Where's the citrus?' They assume it's [gone] because of the growth," he says. "They assume growth has pushed out the citrus. That's not so. If it hadn't been for the freezes, we still wouldn't have this growth. We'd still have citrus. If it wasn't for growth, this town would've died."
When Homan bought the neglected tower in 1995, he expected it would be demolished for future development.
"Since then I have fallen in love with it," he says. "It's still Clermont's identity."
Homan is toying with ideas that will keep the tower viable for future generations. Maybe a restaurant on the observation deck, he says.
Dinner with a view, I think. It has possibilities.
I take the elevator down and step into the gift shop, a small glass booth in front of the elevator. I poke around, just another tourist seeking souvenirs. Grapefruit spoons, miniature orange trees, hot pads stamped with Florida scenes and orange-flavored salad dressing . . . and then I spot something I have to have. It's a T-shirt stamped with famous icons, including the Eiffel Tower, and the cities they represent: London, Paris, Rome, Clermont.
Now I've seen them all.
Carrie Alexander can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5499.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun