It’s quite an exciting moment when you find that mysterious, abandoned house you’ve been stalking on the internet over the years– never quite certain whether it even really, truly exists– finally appearing on a realtor’s listing, announcing its officially going up for sale. The Howey mansion in Florida is a bit of local legend, built by the 1920s citrus tycoon William Howey who once hired the entire New York Civic Opera Company to entertain 15,000 guests, who arrived in a parade of 4,000 automobiles at the mansion’s gates in 1927. For nearly two decades, the 20-room Mediterranean Revival style mansion has sat empty, deteriorating in central Florida just outside the town that Howey founded and named after himself.
Before we begin our tour, I thought it might be appropriate to set the mood with an excerpt from Charles Dicken’s magnificent novel Great Expectations, describing Pip’s entrance into the mysterious and decaying home of Miss Havisham…
“We came to Miss Havisham’s house, which was of old brick, and dismal, and had a great many iron bars to it. Some of the windows had been walled up; of those that remained, all the lower were rustily barred… we went across the courtyard. It was paved and clean, but grass was growing in every crevice… We went into the house by a side door, the great front entrance had two chains across it outside,—and the first thing I noticed was, that the passages were all dark, and that she had left a candle burning there… we went through more passages and up a staircase, and still it was all dark, and only the candle lighted us…. In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall ever see… I began to understand that everything in the room had stopped, like the watch and the clock, a long time ago.”
William John Howey was the developer of the largest citrus empire in the world at the time. He started buying land in New Haven. Florida as early as 1914 and by 1920, had amassed 60,000 acres.
He bought the land for $8 to $10 per acre and sold at $800 to $2000 per acre. He offered a no-risk guarantee to prospective buyers promising that he would buy back the land for the original cost plus interest if their citrus trees did not turn a profit within a set amount of time.
Buyers flocked to the area and Howey built accommodation, hotels and housing for his new investors, growing a thriving community he called “the town of Howey”, which later officially became Howey-in-the-Hills in 1925. He even served as Mayor until 1936.
Howey is buried in the mausoleum that can be found at the back of the house. He died young of a heart attack in 1938 at the age of 62, but his wife went on to live at the house for another 43 years until her death in 1981. The town’s most treasured house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but sold soon after to a couple who purchased the home for $400,000.
The fate of the house would turn when the mistress of the house was widowed in 2000. To pay for her husband’s failing health, Marvel Zona had taken out a reverse mortgage to pay her a fixed income for life. As her own health began to fail, she hoped to leave the property to the town as a museum, but county officials deemed it not eligible for state historic preservation grant funds due to the fact that it was privately owned.
In 2005, an ageing Mrs. Zona was approached by some real estate schemers who convinced her to take a bad loan. Within two years, the Howey mansion went into foreclosure and Mrs. Zona was living in a nursing home.
As the house fell into serious disrepair, the scheming parties who had the house tied up wouldn’t settle for less than $2 million (which didn’t include the estimated 1 million dollar renovation bill needed to bring the mansion into the 21st century).
Police were constantly called to the property over reports of trespassers– mostly curious locals and history buffs hoping to get a glimpse inside of the legendary Howey Mansion.
The house, now owned by the bank, was opened up in 2010 for an estate sale where locals could purchase one of Howey’s 1930s chandeliers for about $20, among other treasures. The Howey Mansion still remains a time capsule however, even with a vintage intercom system still installed and most of the home’s original historic features.
Some claim the property is haunted, but that hasn’t stopped a flurry of interested buyers coming forward since the dilapidated gem hit the market. After being stuck in financial limbo for the past couple of years, the Howey Mansion is now officially for sale with an asking price of $480,000. Let’s not forget about the million dollar renovation expenses, but could it be worth cutting a few corners on the gardening bills? You’ve gotta love that haunting Miss Havisham look of the wild, overgrown grass and the vines crawling over nearly every surface of the house. Actually, I wouldn’t change a thing.