The Smith House

The Smith House

529 South Eola Drive/621 Palmer Street

Martha Lee Smith, better known as Mattie, was born in Leesburg, Florida, in 1862.  Her father, George Lee, one of Leesburg’s first aldermen, also served as a State Senator.  In 1885, Mattie married Holly Read Smith, an attorney who was born in Illinois in 1861.  In 1889, the family relocated to Orlando. They lived at Lake Lucerne Terrace when their second child was born in 1890, and bought property on South Eola Drive in 1899.  Holly R. Smith, admitted to the  Orange County Bar in 1896, practiced law and operated an abstract business in the Court House until his sudden death in 1901.  He left 39-year-old Mattie a widow with four children, the youngest a year old.   

 Mattie L. Smith raised her children in a large house facing Lake Cherokee between South Eola Drive and Summerlin Street, with Palmer Street on the south.  Her son, Frank A. Smith, followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming an attorney in 1914, a county judge and, in 1925, a circuit judge.  In 1980, Holly Smith’s great-granddaughter was admitted to the bar.  The Smith’s daughter, Marion H. Smith, worked and travelled for many years as the assistant business manager for the Orlando Sentinel.  When Mattie Smith died in 1938, her obituary eulogized her as a “beloved woman,” who “bequeathed to her children the precious, priceless virtues of character and goodness.”  In addition to Judge Frank A. Smith, and Marion H. Smith, Mattie Smith left daughters, Mrs. Margie Holbrook, and Mrs. Helen Ange, eleven grandchildren, and many friends.

Mattie L. Smith surrounded her house and property with gardens and citrus trees, which she asked for time to move when she sold her property for the Cherokee School in 1926.  The Great Florida Land Boom of the 1920s brought new families to Orlando and with them came children.     Newly-established neighborhoods needed schools quickly, and each new school required real estate.  Having chosen the fine residential Cherokee Park neighborhood in southeastern Orlando for a new junior high school, the local trustees found Mattie Smith’s property and an adjoining lot belonging to Bruce L. Compton, a suitable location.  The three existing structures could be moved and the two property owners could be persuaded to sell. 

Mattie Smith owned almost all of Lot C of Block 6 of the Revision of F. T. Poynter’s Addition to the Town of Orlando, and Bruce L. Compton owned all of the smaller Lot B.  The school board spent $120,000 on the 3.27-acre parcel, paying $30,000 to Bruce Compton and $90,000 to Mrs. Smith.  They paid out only a portion of the total price, giving the sellers interest-bearing bonds in the amount of $50,000 to Smith and $15,000 to Compton. 

While Mattie Smith had owned and lived there for more than twenty-five years, Bruce Compton had acquired his property on the death of his father the previous year.  James H. Compton, grove owner and president of the Bank of Clermont, whose wife had died in 1910, bought the Orlando property in 1919.  He moved there to live with the Theodore Bethea family about three years before his death in 1925.  His son, who lived in Philadelphia, negotiated the sale to the school board. 

The three existing houses remained on the property, but their positions shifted to make room for the new school building.  Sanborn Fire Insurance maps for 1925 and 1928 show that Compton’s house, originally set well back from the street facing west toward South Eola Drive, was moved a few feet to the east and turned to face Summerlin Street, where it became the school’s manual training department.  Mattie Smith’s two houses moved to Palmer Street, where they lined up, one behind the other, to provide housing for school teachers.

School board-owned apartments or rooming houses were often called “teacherages,” as church-owned homes for ministers are known as “parsonages.”  Teachers needed to live near their work and in the 1920s, many were unmarried ladies who needed safe and respectable places to live.  The Smith houses, on the grounds of the Cherokee Junior High School first appeared in the city directory in 1928 as The Teacherage, at 621 and 623 Palmer Street, and that listing continued until 1931.  The superintendant of schools occupied one of the houses from 1930 until 1932, and Orville R. Davis, later principal of Edgewater High School, lived there from 1933 until 1940.  The other house was vacant from 1932 until 1934.  Both houses were vacant in 1940, and neither address appeared in 1943.

In 1933, during the Great Depression, the county ran out of money to pay school teachers. Hoping to use some of the money owed to bond holders to pay salaries instead, the school board renegotiated some of its outstanding bonds.  In the process they found that the purchases of the Cherokee School property were illegal because the proper procedure had not been followed.  Having selected the properties and settled on the terms, the local trustees went ahead with the purchase, when they should have reported to the school board, who would have referred it to the county commission, who would have called for a special vote of the freeholders.  Only when the citizens agreed could they move on with the purchase.  The school board’s attorneys ordered that  payments to the bond holders be stopped.

Mattie L. Smith agreed to exchange her $50,000 notes on the property for negotiable paper worth $42,000, accepting a loss of $8,000.  She also reduced the interest rate from eight to six percent.  Bruce Compton asked for the $15,000 and interest the school board had originally agreed to pay within five years of the 1926 purchase.  He sued for the money, which was past due, but when it became obvious that he had little chance of getting money, he asked for the property to be returned to him.  The Sentinel headlines announced: “Wants Cherokee School.”  Federal Judge Akerman ruled that Compton should return all the money before he asked for the return of property sold in an illegal sale.     

 Across Palmer Street from the school site, the Sanborn maps show vacant lots in the 1920s, and the city directories show no address numbers for those lots until 1945.  The addresses, and presumably the houses at 621 and 623 Palmer Street, on the Cherokee School grounds, disappeared from the city directories about a year before address numbers showed up on the south side of Palmer Street.  The Orlando Sentinel reported in June of 1939, that, “Workmen were busy yesterday moving a house from a site at 621 Palmer Street to a new location directly across the street, in the southeast section of the city.”  The school board owned the house and its new location across the street.  In 2019, directly across Palmer Street from where The Teacherage once stood, the footprint of the Palmer Apartments looks amazingly like the footprint of the old Smith House as shown in the Sanborn Atlases in 1925 and 1928.  In addition, the façade appears much like a photograph of the Smith House from the Holly Read Smith record in  The evidence suggests that, after two moves and more than one hundred years, the Smith House remains standing.

Tana Mosier Porter