419 N. Magnolia Avenue
One of Orlando’s oldest and most elegant houses stands on the east side of North Magnolia Avenue near Livingston Street. Sam Robinson built it in 1884. According to Orlando historian, Eve Bacon, the large Colonial-style frame residence “featured a gable and widow’s walk. It had famous plate glass windows that puzzled the town because of their near invisibility. The only running water in the home was through a hose in the bathroom off the ground floor master bedroom, which connected to the faucet on the back porch. Its installation was considered almost grotesque modernity on the part of Mr. Robinson.”
Samuel Austin Robinson came to Orlando from Michigan in 1876 to help his older brother, Norman, set out a citrus grove in what is now Lake Eola Heights. A civil engineer, Sam Robinson soon established a surveying practice in Central Florida and worked for seventeen years as Orange County’s Surveyor. He also served as tax assessor and tax collector, alderman, school trustee, and city surveyor, in addition to two terms in the State Legislature. Robinson laid out the downtown streets, and with Otto Fries, he surveyed the new Greenwood Cemetery.
Sam first built a log house on Norman Robinson’s grove land at the northeast corner of Hillcrest Street and Cathcart Avenue, followed in 1884 by one of the first houses in the Lake Eola Heights area. Robinson built on land deeded to him in 1878 by his brother before the area was platted, resulting in difficult property descriptions. His acreage eventually became part of the Speirs and Lockharts Subdivisions, but efforts to trace property ownership remain complicated.
Robinson lived in the house until 1900, when he sold it to Levi Dodge, for $2000 and release from the mortgage Dodge held on the property. Sam Robinson relocated at that time to the North Main and Washington Streets area, where he occupied several different houses over the years and died in 1926. At some time, probably before 1913, renovations to the front façade of the Magnolia Avenue house, including the addition of the four two-story columns, changed the Colonial Revival house to an imposing Classical Revival mansion.
In 1902, Dodge sold the same property to Isaac C. Mann, who lived there until his death in 1917. His widow, Lizzie Mann, sold it to Alice H. Baker for $5000 in 1919. John and Alice Baker sold the house in 1920 to T. C. Brannon. Brannon, a citrus inspector, conductor on the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, realtor, and prominent Orlando citizen, occupied the residence, advertised as “The Magnolia,” for fifteen years. The very social Brannon family gave numerous parties and gatherings, and they operated a boarding house, renting out rooms in the former Robinson house. The Broadway Methodist Church was organized at a meeting in the house in 1922.
In 1934, the Majefee Corporation, a housing construction firm which held a mortgage encumbering the property on Magnolia Avenue, foreclosed on T. C. Brannon. The judgement required that the property be sold at auction for no less than $9,000 and Majefee was the highest bidder. The house, called “The Colonial,” operated as a boarding house for the next ten years. In 1936, the Colonial Tea Room advertised in the Winter Park Topics: lunches, dinners, special parties, and rooms by the day or the week. The Orlando Sentinel society column praised the colonial atmosphere, furnishings and architecture, and noted “the particular charm” of the house.
By 1946, when the Majefee Corporation sold the property to William C. Haynie, commerce had begun to move out from the city along Magnolia Avenue. Luther and Virginia Damron bought the house in 1948, with plans to open a twelve-room tourist hotel to be called “Magnolia Manor.” The Damrons paid $32,500, with $13,000 remaining to be paid on $15,000 mortgage granted to the Majefee Corporation.
The Damrons sold the property to W. O. Daley, a certified public accountant, in 1954, and Daley’s newly organized firm, Four Nineteen, Inc., occupied the structure until 1986. The Daley family sold in 2015 to Thorne Properties.
Today, Sam Robinson’s Colonial Revival residence that fronted a vast orange grove in 1884, has become a Classical Revival mansion on a heavily-traveled street in the heart of Orlando’s downtown. Parts of the residential neighborhood that replaced the orange groves has itself given way to commercial concerns, and 419 Magnolia Avenue, a business for more than a half-century, led the way. The imposing four-columned mansion appears wedged between two unfortunate additions of its own with businesses flanking those. The oak trees that Sam Robinson planted are all gone in this section of Magnolia Avenue, which has been realigned so that the house is set back from the one-way street on a curve, obscuring it from the fast-moving traffic. Many Orlandoans who pass every day have probably never noticed the beautiful and historically important house at 419 North Magnolia Avenue.
Tana Mosier Porter 2018