When I went looking for information on the Citrus Tower in Clermont, I didn’t find much. I didn’t even learn much from visiting the tower in person. The basic facts are there, but the visitor is left with a monumental question: If the tower were originally planned at seven stories tall, how did it end up being 15 stories taller than that? Was Central Florida so provincial that in 1956 seven stories was a skyscraper?
The facts, gleaned from the information card I unintentionally stole* from the tower are this:
The tower was built in 1956 as a means to “showcase” the orange groves around Clermont, then a major growing region. It was a tourist attraction that was out in the middle of nowhere, with a gee-whiz view from three observation decks. It is 500 feet above sea level when an antenna is included in the measurement and it is therefore the highest point in Florida. It is built from five million pounds of concrete and 149,000 pounds of steel reinforcements, and it can withstand winds of more than 190 miles an hour. This last figure seemed arbitrary to me–how much more?–but I let it go.
I did a bit of digging and learned that the tower has gone through several changes of ownership. The last owner purchased it more for the development potential of its 12 surrounding acres than for the tower itself. This is made clear when you arrive at the tower and realize that it has no signage and that it rises up from a strip mall of minor businesses. Had I not known about the tower, I’d not have understood that it was formerly a major tourist attraction and that it was something one could pay four dollars plus tax to ascend. I might have merely thought it an example of Bad Mid-Century Florida Architecture, perhaps conceived during America’s fling with space-age design. For all I knew, it might have been a radio station.
I was surprised at how little information about the original tower was available. What I learned came from a old brochure, which is shown below.
Oranges defined Florida the way snow defines Alaska. In the days before the food industry was able to ignore growing seasons, oranges weren’t available in the winter. We grew up on frozen orange juice and listened to Anita Bryant sing the praises of Florida’s orange orbs on scratchy, black-and-white television. To receive a crate of Florida oranges in the dead of a Northeastern winter was to receive a gift of sunshine. They were rare enough that to find one at the bottom of Christmas stocking was a real treat.
The old postcards show that the Citrus Tower had its own post office from which one could send crates of oranges back to the frozen tundra of the Northeast and Midwest. They also had a packing plant, a restaurant, a lounge, an “artists’ workshop,” a carved and animated circus arcade, and “educated animals.” There were three observation decks, one stacked atop the other, and the windows in the glass deck were open for leaning out.
To the rear of the tower, there was a grassy lawn with what looked like a walled outline of the State of Florida. Was this the home of the circus arcade or was it something else? What were the “educated” animals and just how much education did they have? Could you get a Mai Tai in the lounge in order to bolster your courage for the claustrophobic, windowless ascent to the top?
There was also significant, attention-getting signage at the front of the tower plaza. Restaurant! Elevator!
Today’s Citrus Tower is a curiousity relic. About eight miles out of Clermont, I saw a generic road sign for the tower, the same type of sign used to say that Orlando was 21 miles away. Then I saw the tower up ahead and finally another road sign instructing the driver to take a left to get to the tower. Other than this, there was nothing. They may be assuming that an idiot could find the thing, but once I made the left turn I had to thread my way through the strip mall to get to the tower’s parking lot. Finally, I parked and saw that the tower still has some frontage, although the signage merely advertised “Citrus Tower Plaza” retail/professional center and not the attraction itself. It was an all-purpose stop where you could visit the tower and then get a tooth filled.
We went into the gift shop and purchased our tickets. You enter the elevator at the rear of the gift shop. As we got in, some very alert part of my brain, perhaps the part that used to sell commercial insurance, started to worry about inspection certificates. In short order the elevator delivered us to a low-ceilinged deck that had no air conditioning. A couple of overhead fans did little to provide relief from the strong sunlight and I soon was too hot. The view from the tower was a magnificent tableau of excited development, both residential and commercial. To the southwest, we spied a small orange grove, but the rest looked like the type of ambition I last saw around Reno, Nevada, of all places. The only pleasing thing about it was that you could buy nearly anything you wanted without putting too many miles on your car.
That’s not precisely true. As I looked out the south windows, I looked straight down and there, to my delight, I saw a replica of Mt. Rushmore to the side of a small faux-Colonial building. I zoomed in with my camera. Was this the Presidents Hall of Fame that fellow blogger Rick from Visual Ephemera mentioned to me as containing grand examples of the art of the diorama?
It certainly was, and as soon as I saw it I rushed Mr. B. down the elevator and out the door. To avoid getting vertigo on the way down, I sat on the floor.
*As we got into the car, Mr. B. took me to task for removing the information card we’d been given after we paid our admission. He explained that the clerk had said that the brochure was for our use “during the visit to the tower.”
Citrus Tower: ***1/2
If you visit: The tower and the Presidents Hall of Fame make for a double-whammy of vintage roadside Florida. The claustrophic might want to hold back until the tower elevator is free of other riders, but this shouldn’t be too long a wait.
As we were leaving, the carillon was playing the greatest hits of Rogers & Hammerstein: “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” My old theatrical bones had me singing along.
A feature of the restaurant was that it had been done in “refreshing citrus colors.” This not only was thematically in keeping with the attraction, it was also very much in line with the bright pinks and aquas of mid-century modern decoration.
These pictures make things appear closer than they really were. Trust me, I was over 700 feet in the air, breaking a world record. I’m so glad I was able to record it for you.