Lake Mirror Historic Tour: Lakeland’s History
By Elizabeth Morrisey

In the heart of Lakeland one can find neoclassical architecture, modeled after the Chicago World’s Fair, skirting Lake Mirror in downtown. Residents and visitors interested in learning similar tidbits of Lakeland’s rich history can hear researched facts and passed-down tales while walking the Lake Mirror Historic Tour, which is held on the fourth Tuesday of each month in the evenings.

While the tour is free, reservations are required. Meeting at the top of the loggia of Lake Mirror, history-seekers need only to look for tour guide Stacy Smith, dressed in period clothing and carrying a lantern.

Smith, a native Lakelander and city employee, started digging around for historical information more than a dozen years ago.

“I found all of the things that were interesting to me,” he says. The parks and recreation employee presented the data to the city and they turned it into a tour, which lasts about two hours and is now in its eighth year.

As Smith walks around the lake, stopping at specific points, he shows historic pictures on his iPad and regales the crowd with specific dates from the 1800s to now. “I have to get all of the dates in my head,” he says. “I continue to learn more and more.”

Lakeland resident Norma Miller brought friends with her to enjoy the tour in late September. “Most everyone here is not native,” she says. “We need to know about our city’s history. It’s such a pretty walk and beautiful area.”

The tour’s historical timeline starts primarily with Thomas Jefferson Appleyard Jr., the manager of the Chamber of Commerce. In 1923, Appleyard  had the idea to turn Lake Mirror into a Civic Center with big structures as part of the City Beautiful Movement. Other examples of the results of the City Beautiful Movement are Bok Tower, Central Park in New York City, and the Washington Mall in DC.

“Lake Mirror is one of the last examples of the City Beautiful Movement,” Smith explains.

Charles Leavitt, known at the time as a world premier architect, was hired to design the Civic Center and construction began in 1926. It was completed two years later with 50,000 in attendance, along with Florida’s governor, to celebrate. A $1 million bond was used to construct it.

Grand columns and the long promenade can be found along the walk and is based on the Chicago World’s Fair’s Court of Honor. However, there are things missing along the way. The structure was supposed to include an obelisk, ticket booth, as well as an amphitheater, but those ideas were canceled due to the economic crash.

The lake is also rumored to have tunnels running underneath that were possibly used during prohibition and/or to help transport money from businesses to the bank.

At one point in the tour, everyone sits for a slideshow presented in the loggia, the open architectural feature consisting of arches on the west side of the Lake Mirror Civic Center complex. After the slideshow is over, Smith posits that just maybe the rumors of tunnels below are actually a possibility, by letting a chair drop from about half a foot high to demonstrate a hollow sound that resonates in the room for all to hear.

“I believe (the tunnels) exist, but I can’t find access to them,” Smith says. The rumors are that tunnels run under the Polk Theatre, Hotel Terrace, and Harry’s Seafood Bar and Grille. But, they can’t be accessed. “Even if they exist, they are sealed up,” says Smith.

Unfortunately, the Civic Center began to decline in the 1950s, especially due to a road built around it, and it continued to decline until local donors and Historic Lakeland helped renovated it in the 1980s. Lake Mirror was listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks in 1983.

Historic Lakeland and the Hollis, Barnett and Kryger families helped give the Civic Center life again.

Jean Bunch, the first president of Historic Lakeland in 1979, says it’s always important to stay in touch with your history.

“We lost touch for awhile and in 1979 (Lake Mirror) was at its lowest point,” she says. “Our first mission was to be sure it was restored.”

Restorations were completed in 1986, says Bunch. The structures around the lake were fixed and venues for performances were put into place. Now the promenade is used for many local events. A few years ago, the American Planning Association named Lake Mirror one of the top 10 great public spaces in the United States.

In 1946, the walk around Lake Mirror was dedicated to Lakeland’s most famous former resident, Frances Langford, who attended Lakeland High School and won an American Legion Talent Show in the 1920s. She then worked for a Tampa radio show, performed on Broadway, and had a national hit song.

Smith says the Frances Langford Promenade is beautiful at night. In addition to facts of early city development, those who led it all — and their rivalries — Smith also points out architectural details that might go unnoticed by the average person. He also expounds upon some more commonly known history such as the lake’s famous resident for many years, Blinky the Alligator. He also throws in a funny story of a pet goat that let itself into the city hall building back in the day and ate several pages of city ordinances, causing the then-mayor to be the laughing stock of Lakeland.

Tour hours vary (beginning after dark) and starts at the foot of Main Street adjacent to Kryger Park and on top of the loggia above Lake Mirror. For more info visit LakelandGov.net or call 863-834-2280.

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Blinky the Alligator and the goat that ate the city ordinances — stories coming soon!