Villa Formosa

“Villa Formosa”

802 North Lake Formosa Drive

On February 27, 1929, the Orlando Evening Star announced that Miss Mary Morse and Miss Margaret Collard, recently of Argentina, had purchased property in Loch Haven, where they planned to build a Spanish home.  They paid cash for two lots to the west of the “super artistic typically Mediterranean home now in the course of construction by Miss Matilda A. Fraser.”  It is not certain that their house ever materialized, but Miss Fraser’s elegant mansion, designed by the Orlando architectural firm, Ryan and Roberts, remains one of the city’s finer examples of the Mediterranean Revival style of architecture popular during the 1920s Florida Land Boom.

Matilda Alexandra Fraser, born in Canada in 1865, immigrated to the United States with her family in 1866, and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio.  She studied at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1894-1895, and graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about 1896.  She retired in 1927 after a thirty-year teaching career in the mathematics department at the highly-regarded Girls Latin School in Boston, Massachusetts, the first college preparatory school for girls in the United States. 

From the beginning of her teaching career Fraser, who preferred to be called Alexandra, took an active role in educational organizations, publishing studies and serving on committees.  In 1917 she argued for pay equity for women.  She served as an officer in the Women’s School Voter’s League in 1911, and in 1913 she joined a party of Boston suffragists on an automobile trip to Washington, D.C., to take part in a constitutional amendment demonstration on July 31.  Traveling in a car decorated with pennants and banners promoting votes for women, the group stopped for suffrage meetings along the way.  

Fraser, whose Scottish-born father, may have been an architect in Cleveland, Ohio, could well have known architect Ida Annah Ryan in Boston.  Fraser was eight years older and graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology several years before Ryan, who graduated in 1907, but both were members of the Cleophan women’s social club at M. I. T., and, as single,  professional women, both supported feminist causes.  Ryan already worked in Orlando when Fraser retired in Boston and bought her building site on Orlando’s Lake Formosa.

Architect Ida Annah Ryan, the first woman to graduate with a Master of Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, won a scholarship in 1907, another first for a woman, that enabled her to study architecture in Europe.  She spent most of her time in Spain and Italy.  Ryan established the first women’s architectural practice in Waltham, Massachusetts, designing structures in New England and in Central Florida, but the Massachusetts chapter of the American Institute of Architects refused to accept her because she was a woman. 

Ryan moved to Orlando when the construction industry slowed during World War I, becoming Orlando’s first woman architect, and in 1921, the eighth woman to become a member of the American Institute of Architects.  She worked with F. H. Trimble in 1918-1919, and in the 1920s, as the Florida Land Boom created a need for more construction in Orlando, Ryan joined with Isabel Roberts, a former associate of Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago, to open a new firm, “Ryan and Roberts.” 

They joined a group of architects in Orlando who sought to create a distinctive Florida architectural style, one especially suited to the Central Florida climate.  The Mediterranean Revival style, with its low pitched roofs and wide eaves, built of more durable stone and clay tile, met the need and became popular in 1920s Orlando.

M. Alexandra Fraser bought three lots in the new Loch Haven Subdivision on Orlando’s Lake Formosa.  In 1928, she took out a building permit for a residence to cost $21,700.  She hired the architectural firm of Ryan and Roberts to design the house, and C. & O. Construction to build it.  When the 1926 subdivision was replatted in 1930, her property became lot 3 of block 9.   

Fraser chose an elegant setting for her home.  Developers of the Loch Haven Subdivision advertised a “secluded retreat” and a “vista of green, wooded slopes” set among three lakes.  They promised paving, sidewalks, sewers, water and gas mains, and underground lighting and telephone systems.  The home sites featured orange trees remaining from the Charles Jacocks grove, famous for its pecans and oranges from 1879 until 1915, when Jacocks’s widow sold the forty-four acre property, for $50,000.  The grove continued as a mail-order business until 1923.  The Loch Haven Company bought it in 1926 for a residential development.

 Ryan and Roberts designed a Mediterranean Revival masterpiece for Alexandra Fraser, with their own trademark embellishments. Built of concrete block and stucco, with a traditional red barrel tile roof, the 15-room mansion features the architects’ signature window shapes and asymmetrical arrangements for the most pleasing play of light.  Varied ceiling heights and step- downs add flavor, while Spanish tile floors, accented with Art Deco Rookwood tiles, and two sets of French doors opening to a large open porch in the back make it a charming residence.

Alexandra Fraser lived for a decade in the house she called “Villa Formosa.”  The federal census found her there in 1930, but the city directory shows nothing on the site until 1931.  In fact, for several years hers was the only house on North Lake Fprmosa Drive.  She reportedly lived alone, though she employed a cook who shared the house.  The 1940 census report has her widowed sister, Belle Smith, living in the house with her, along with two other women. 

A member of the Sorosis Club and the American Association of University Women, Fraser took an active interest in Girl Scouting in Orlando, playing an important part in the establishment of the Girl Scouts’ Little House. She entertained frequently, giving teas and luncheons for friends, and regularly hosting meetings of the A. A. U. W., beginning with an elegant Christmas tea in December 1930. She followed that with a large reception for Boston friends on New Year’s Day 1931. 

House guests from Boston and family from Cleveland visited each winter.  Among her Boston guests were Lucy Wheelock, pioneer in the American kindergarten movement, and well-known organist and Unitarian clergyman, Eugene Rodman Shippen, who became a resident of Winter Park. Mary E. Dow, the sister of the Dow Chemical Company founder, probably a childhood friend from Cleveland, visited from Saginaw, Michigan. Margaret Collard and Mary Morse, who had hoped to become her neighbors, came to Villa Formosa from Orange City, where they settled instead.  They later returned to Argentina, where they both died in 1945.  

Matilda Alexandra Fraser died on April 30, 1940.   She left an estate of $185,905, including her house, appraised at $13,000. She valued her home enough to make special provisions for it in her will, requesting that the house be offered for sale for two-thirds of its appraised value to three people, in the sequence that she named them.  The first person, a relative, declined the offer, but the second, Raymond D. Robinson, bought the house for $9,310.70.  He lived at Villa Formosa for six years, before selling it in 1946.               

Like so many ambitious developments in the 1920s, the Loch Haven Subdivision fell victim to the Great Depression of the 1930s.  The city foreclosed in 1931, taking possession of the failed development, by then with liens of nearly $100,000 for paving and sewer assessments.  Plans called for a world’s fair, called “Florida on Parade,” to be built on the site of the Loch Haven Subdivision, but that, too, failed in 1936.  The city eventually offered some of the properties for sale and created a city park on others.  Villa Formosa now faces Loch Haven Park and the Mennello Museum of American Art, with Lake Formosa at its backyard. 

When the City of Orlando foreclosed in 1931, it took possession of all of the Loch Haven development except Fraser’s property, and the Florida on Parade failure possibly spared her a fight to keep her beloved mansion. In 2008-2009, the city again attempted to acquire the house, this time to be demolished to create green space around Florida Hospital.  Four houses were bought and destroyed, but with a recession coming, the Villa Formosa offer was withdrawn.  It would appear that economic downturns have twice saved the irreplaceable mansion, an outstanding example of Mediterranean Revival architecture and one of only two remaining Ryan and Roberts-designed houses in Orlando.

Tana Porter