The Autrey House
108 Hillcrest Street
The handsome red-brick mansion built in 1921 for L. M. Autrey stands on Hillcrest Street, at the south-east corner of Magnolia Avenue, just outside the Lake Eola Heights National Register Historic District. North Carolina native, Latta M. Autrey, vice-president of the Lake Wales Naval Stores Co., relocated to Orlando with his wife and six children in 1920. He took out the building permit for a house to cost $30,000 in January 1921.
Orlando architect Murry S. King designed the two-story residence in the Chicago/Prairie Style, with the typical horizontal profile, low hip-roof, wide eaves, and rows of windows. He added Tuscan columns and white concrete trim. Mr. Autrey bought three lots in the Chauncey Holt Addition to the Town of Orlando, which provided ample space for lawns and landscaping and a porte cochere rear entrance from Magnolia Avenue. The plans for the elaborate structure, to be built of solid brick, rare for Orlando construction, included a center porch, open terraces and an enclosed porch with a large fireplace. The living room, reception room, library, dining room, and breakfast room completed the first floor, with four bedrooms, four baths, dressing rooms, closets, and sleeping porches on the second floor, for a total of about 7,000 square feet.
Mr. Autrey took an active role in his new community, which elected him mayor in 1925. During his three-year term, Autrey brought his progressive vision to Orlando, completing a long list of beautification and improvement projects, but he declined a second term, citing family considerations. The ending of the boom times no doubt influenced his decision. The Autrey family moved in 1929, to Valdosta, Georgia, the site of his naval stores business. In 1930, Autrey sold the house at 108 Hillcrest Street, by that time vacant for nearly a year, to Clarence Thomas. Latta Autrey died in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1938.
Clarence Thomas, a millionaire owner of chain stores in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a winter resident of Orlando, paid $65,000 for the Autrey House in 1930, one of the city’s showplaces, rumored to have cost more than $100,000 to build. A pioneer in chain marketing, he built his original Grand Rapids store into one of the Michigan city’s leading businesses, adding new stores throughout the area until he had more than one hundred stores. He bought another chain store company, and in 1929, he sold his entire holdings to Kroger Stores, reportedly for about $3 million. He next started a chain of hardware stores in Grand Rapids. The Thomas family lived in the palatial Autrey house with its spacious grounds for twenty-seven years, though they may have divided that time between Orlando and Grand Rapids.
Westwood, Inc., the firm of Carl T. Langford and William Slemons, paid $100,000 for the Autrey house in 1957, with plans to use it as an office for their real estate, insurance, and mortgage businesses. Clarence Thomas, who possibly bought a smaller house in the area after the sale of the Autrey House in 1957, died in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1973.
The various enterprises of Langford and Slemons occupied offices in the Autrey House from 1957 until about 1969, when they dissolved their partnership. Carl T. Langford, elected Mayor of Orlando in 1967, closed out his business interests to devote his time to the city. In 1970, a local insurance company headed by Frank C. Drane, Jr., bought the Autrey House and announced plans to restore it as much as possible to its former appearance and to dedicate it to the memory of Mayor Autrey. The first floor would be furnished as the original home, with commercial offices on the second floor.
The Autrey House sold again in 1975, when three attorneys bought it for $205,000 as an investment. They sold it in 1980 to Robert Oreck for $305,000. Oreck, who had started his own restoration of the brick mansion he called the Embassy House., intended to make it the headquarters for his new development firm. He sold it two years later for $500,000. It sold again after about a year for $460,000. The new owners, the law firm of E. Clay Parker, held the property from 1983 until 1994, when Parker bought it. He sold in 2007 to another law firm for $1,435,000. That firm sold to an investment company in 2017, for $1.4 million. In 2019 the investment firm still owns the Autrey House.
The impressive mansion looks much as it probably did when new. Its quality design and solid brick construction remain sound, though parking lots and multi-lane streets have whittled away at the once beautiful grounds. Mayor Autry’s vision for Orlando came true, built on the many accomplishments of his administration, including an adequate water supply, an airport, miles of brick-paved streets, sidewalks, drainage wells, sanitary sewers, storm sewer, and fire hydrants. He set out to beautify the city, and his own residence contributed to his vision.
Tana Mosier Porter