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“Every once in awhile, take the scenic route.” — H. Jackson Brown Jr., author of “Life’s Little Instruction Book”
One of my favorite ways to take a trip is by way of “the scenic route.” Beautiful scenery is a great tonic for clearing the head and renewing the spirit. Before television and air conditioning drew us inside our homes to relax, going for a drive was a wonderful pastime. It offered a chance to court your sweetheart or a way to experience and enjoy the sights about town.
My latest newfound treasure is a 1936 “Street Map of Orlando Florida” complete with a “23-Mile Scenic Drive Around 18 Lakes” and marked with “66 Points of Interest” (http://bit.ly/2dkePNd). It also includes a section called “Things You Should Know About Orlando — Florida’s City Beautiful.”
The scenic route marked through College Park of course includes our beautiful lakes Adair, Ivanhoe and Concord and Spring Lake, too.
And this map notes a remarkable, not-to-miss highlight right between Lake Adair and Lake Concord labeled “4-headed Palm, ‘O-Po-Le-O.’”
I queried local historians and Googled every manner of possible meaning to “O-Po-Le-O” before I discovered it is a Seminole word meaning “place between waters.” More pertinent, O-Po-Le-O wasn’t a four-headed palm but the name Grace Phillips Johnson gave her winter estate.
Who was this Grace Phillips Johnson?
Born in 1877, Clarinda Grace Phillips was the daughter of Pennsylvania’s U.S. Representative Thomas W. Phillips (an oil magnate and prominent Christian leader in the late 1800s). Early in life, she demonstrated a “talent for business, which began a lifelong involvement in commercial and financial ventures” (http://bit.ly/2cppG8c).
Grace Phillips married Charles H. Johnson in 1903, and before his 1918 death the couple had five children.
A decade later, Grace Phillips Johnson employed architect David B. Hyer to bring to life O-Po-Le-O, her eclectic Mediterranean Revival winter estate on Edgewater Drive. Built in 1928, the original wrought iron arched entrances bore plaques with the estate name across the top.
The home reflected her appreciation for the arts, originally including three murals by Florida artist Sam Stoltz. It was also decorated with tiles Johnson collected from her travels around the globe.
Grace Phillips Johnson and her family came to Orlando as winter residents and, thankfully, stayed to become great leaders and benefactors.
She became an active leader in philanthropic ventures in Orlando, often hosting fundraising events for charitable organizations at O-Po-Le-O. Her legacy in Orlando — and oh, what a legacy! — included significant land purchases for the Maitland and Winter Park Christian Churches as well as funding the buildings for the Washington Shores and Central Christian Churches.
Although Grace Phillips Johnson died in 1972, her philanthropic and civic leadership in Orlando was furthered by her children, including her son George Johnson and his (first) wife Elizabeth “Beth” McCullough Johnson, who settled in Orlando in 1934 and lived around the corner on Peachtree Road.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, before his death in 1985, Grace Phillips Johnson’s son, attorney George Johnson, served a broad spectrum of his Central Florida community. Through the years, George Johnson chaired the Orange County and Trinity Preparatory school boards and the housing authority board, presided as president of the University Club and the Florida Symphony, and served on the Rollins Board of Trustees. He even founded two vastly different banks — the Central Florida Blood Bank and Citizens National Bank of Orlando — and was “a charter member of the Optimist Club” (http://bit.ly/1l4rrRh).
Beth McCullough Johnson, Grace Phillips Johnson’s daughter-in-law, “assumed leadership positions in various local civic organizations like the Orlando Junior League, the League of Women Voters, and the Orlando Planning Board,” which she chaired (http://bit.ly/2bUS5k3).
In 1957, Beth Johnson became only the second woman elected to the Florida House of Representatives, where she served until 1962 when she became the first woman elected as a state senator in Florida.
According to the Florida Memory state archives, Beth Johnson’s “greatest achievement as senator came in 1965 when she pushed for the passage of a $7.5 million bond program for the construction and establishment of the University of Central Florida in Orlando” (http://bit.ly/2bUS5k3).
After Sen. Johnson passed away in 1973, the City of Orlando honored her with the dedication of Senator Beth Johnson Park (on Ivanhoe Boulevard beside the Chamber of Commerce).
Today, Grace Phillips Johnson’s legacy of service, leadership, education and support to religious, civic and charitable causes in Orlando remains alive and well.
The Winifred Johnson Clive Foundation, named for Grace Phillips Johnson’s daughter, awards annual grants to various nonprofit groups that focus on children, arts, education and wildlife conservation. (For more information about the Foundation, visit http://bit.ly/2d2rMZL ).
Nowadays when we think of taking in the scenery, it is usually by way of a walk, a bike ride or maybe a Sunday afternoon cruise in the car. A lot of beauty surrounds us right here in College Park.
Nearly 90 years after it was established, O-Po-Le-O’s sweeping views of the downtown skyline, sunrises on Lake Concord and sunsets over Lake Adair place it even today among Orlando’s loveliest homes.
Next time you’re out and about, add a ride past O-Po-Le-O and Senator Beth Johnson Park to your route, and celebrate the difference one family can make in the life of a city. Something we might miss, were we not to take the scenic route.
Teresa TL Bruce also contributed to this article.