Lakewood: Williamson House (The Jacksonville Gene Leedy House)

by Tim Gilmore, 10/29/2021

1. Long Lost Twin

It had to be a mistake. Surely Robert Leedy would know if his long-ago adopted city held any of his father’s architectural designs. Ed must have seen someone else’s Mid-Century Modern and mistaken it for a Gene Leedy.

Gene Leedy, image courtesy Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce

But Ed Washington would know. He’d grown up with Robert, even traveled downstate with him a few times when they were kids to stay at the Leedy Residence in Winter Haven. “You’re a lucky kid to have two fathers,” Ed told him once. Ed never knew his own father, while Robert grew up in Jacksonville with his mother and a loving stepfather and was also close to his biological father and stepmother.

It was April 2015 when Robert sat down for lunch in Avondale with Ed and his wife Lola. “Have I got an interesting story for you!” Lola said. “That’s definitely a Gene Leedy house,” Ed had told Lola when they’d found it. “It looks just like the one Gene Leedy lives in, the one Robert was born in.”

prospective drawing of Gene Leedy House, 1956, courtesy Robert Leedy and Max Strang

Lola had been talking to her brother-in-law, Ed’s sister’s husband, Richard West, and asked him if he knew the artist Robert Leedy. He didn’t, but he was from Winter Haven and knew Robert’s father, the architect. He told her, “During my first marriage, I drove down to meet him in his office and bought plans for a house he designed. I came back to Jacksonville and built the house.”

That was in 1960. The plans were for an inverted replica of the modest modernist house the architect built on Drexel Avenue in Winter Haven in 1956 and called home until his death at age 90 in 2018.

late 1950s model of the Gene Leedy House, courtesy Robert Leedy and Max Strang

As Robert, a watercolor landscape artist wrote later that day on his blog, “I had never heard of a Gene Leedy house in Jacksonville. The only ones I was aware of were in Winter Haven, Lakeland, Orlando and Sarasota.”

Gene Leedy House, image courtesy Robert Leedy and Max Strang

When Robert stepped inside the house that afternoon, the effect was uncanny. He walked into a mirror version of the house he’d known all his life, a version that had existed in Robert’s adopted city without his knowing it since his mother had moved him here as a small child. It was like part of his life had developed on its own, all these years, without his knowledge. It was like finding out he had a twin.

2. Attracted by Awareness

The house always had a Through the Looking Glass quality. It was a strange house to grow up in, a wonderful house, especially in the sense of being “full of wonders.” It was a house tragedy visited too.

1989, image courtesy Mary Jane Williamson

It was the neighborhood party house, Mary Jane Williamson says. “I mean raging parties. My mom was a nurse and worked a 12 hour night shift.” Kids jumped off the roof into the pool at night. Her older brother Tom played his electric guitar and bought kegs of beer and oysters. They watched MTV’s Headbangers’ Ball on Friday nights, from midnight to three a.m.

She and her brothers always knew an architect named Gene Leedy had designed the house, that other architects, Jack Diamond and Robert Broward, designed houses on their block. Lots of kids lived on the street and everyone had a sense that it was special.

1989, image courtesy Mary Jane Williamson

“I saw my first ghost when I was three,” Mary Jane says. Before the visitations became clearer, appliances started acting on their own. “The microwave started beeping by itself. The ceiling fan would turn on. The lights would flicker.” When she and her brother Ed saw the milky white figure in the hallway, they just watched it, giggling. They could see right through it.

She didn’t know until years later about the “evil presence” that appeared to her mother sometime in 1975. Her parents had just divorced. Her mother was at her “most vulnerable.” She didn’t know for another decade about the event that prompted her mother to start holding regular family meetings at the kitchen table.

1975, image courtesy Mary Jane Williamson

“She wanted us to know it was alright,” Mary Jane explains, “that we didn’t have to be afraid. She gathered us together and she’d go from person to person, me and my brothers, for each of us to share what had happened recently, what we’d seen. She taught us about the other side, about the veil between this world and that one.”

All four of them, she says, were “really sensitive to it, and there was so much activity in that house. We used to wonder what had happened in that place before us. Oak Lawn Cemetery is just three blocks away, so we thought maybe they were coming from over there, that since our level of awareness was higher, maybe we were attracting them.”

3. LeedyLand

Architect Max Strang also grew up in a Leedy house, a home, he says, of “pre-cast concrete columns and beams with cantilevers, frighteningly long spans, internal courtyards, intimate nooks, walls of glass, soaring ceilings.”

Max Strang, from The Lakeland Ledger, 2017

One of the “Sarasota School” of architects, Leedy moved from Sarasota to Winter Haven when it was mostly grapefruit groves. Since Leedy designed Winter Haven City Hall, the police and fire department buildings, the Chamber of Commerce, the garden club building, Winter Haven office buildings and several homes, it seemed to Strang, growing up, that Leedy had designed the whole town. People have, in fact, called it “Leedyland.”

Strang became friends with Robert Leedy’s brother Ingram, spent lots of time at the Leedy house. He remembers the architect bringing home scale models one afternoon and letting the boys blow them up with firecrackers.

late 1950s model of the Gene Leedy House, courtesy Robert Leedy and Max Strang

Strang would go on to intern with Tampa architect John Howey, then finishing the essential book on the Sarasota School, and Zaha Hadid in London. Crediting Leedy and the house in which he grew up as primary influences, he’d eventually return to restore the house Gene Leedy had lived and worked in all those years.

In 1959, Better Homes and Gardens Magazine chose the Leedy house as a “Five Star family” home “because it shows how you can build a house for less and enjoy living there more.” The minimalist Mid-Century Modern aesthetic was the opposite of today’s McMansion hodgepodge of excess. The house demonstrated “a new use of familiar post-and-beam.”

from Better Homes and Gardens, 1959, courtesy Robert Leedy and Max Strang

The posts, the magazine explained, “go outside to rest on concrete piers. No walls—not even the exteriors—support the house. Instead, walls are non-load-bearing ‘screens.’ They can be placed wherever room-planning requires, and be composed of any material you care to use. (Here, glass, wood and block alternate.)”

from The Winter Haven Daily News-Chief, March 3, 1957

Strang added the long narrow side-courtyard swimming pool that Leedy envisioned for the house but never built, reupholstered the original Eames lounge chairs and Florence Knoll sofa, retouched the clean concrete block exterior textures, interior Honduran mahogany wall veneer and cork tile flooring. He kept the stacks of cigar boxes Leedy used to organize bolts, nails, switches, knobs and so on. The house still bore its olfactory echo of cigar.

courtesy Robert Leedy and Max Strang

4. Outside-In

Growing up in the Jacksonville Gene Leedy house, Mary Jane Williamson says, was “magical. With all that glass, I grew up with the outside inside my house.”

That childhood architectural experience gave her a perspective on the world and her connections to it she might not otherwise have so keenly developed. “I became a lover of rain, growing up in that house,” she says.

Gene Leedy House, early 1960s, courtesy Robert Leedy and Max Strang

She has distinct memories, from very early on, of those hurricanes that regularly skirt the Northeast Florida coast, of watching great trees bend and bow in the blowing wind. When she was little, she’d hang blankets over the sides of the kitchen table and crawl underneath. There she felt safe, watching the summer thunderstorms, feeling the windows shake and the house rumble.

Barcelona daybed at the Gene Leedy House, courtesy Robert Leedy and Max Strang

Their very lives seemed to bring the outside in, to invite visions and presences most people never witnessed. There was the night Tom woke up and thought his brother Ed was standing at the foot of his bed. But it wasn’t Ed. It was a man, a stranger, dressed in some kind of long-ago military uniform. A Union soldier? He’d been watching Tom while he slept, Mary Jane says, and “when he realized Tom was aware of him, he crossed his arms over his chest and went up through the roof. It left a mark on the ceiling.”

The “activity” in the house waxed and waned, Mary Jane says. There was the night something kept tugging at the sheets twisted around her shoulder. “I never looked because I was afraid, but I felt it, that it wasn’t evil, that it was a mischievous thing.” There was the being that liked to sit on her bed at night and touch her feet. “It would put a finger on the bottom of my foot and run it from my heel to my toes.”

Gene Leedy House drawing, 1956, courtesy Robert Leedy and Max Strang

There were the nights that just opening her eyes “attracted whatever was in there. I saw pings of bright light and they would change shape,” she says. Short short long long. Like some kind of code. And then a face came in the strangest way. When she later saw dropdown screens on computers, she recognized how that face had appeared and then vanished.

5. Magical Extension of the House

Likewise the world outside became a magical extension of the house, another dimension. Where now stand condos and McMansions once grew “gorgeous lush woods,” Mary Jane remembers. “In the woods behind our house lived great big wild jackrabbits!” They fascinated her, frightened her, but not her brothers.

Mary Jane and her brothers, Halloween 1975, image courtesy Mary Jane Williamson

“My brothers made trails with machetes. We built forts, fished off the old bridge over Rose Creek that used to be connected to a road,” she says. “I remember stepping in the muck entering the swampy area once in second grade with brand new saddle shoes on. It was like quicksand. My new shoe got sucked down in it and I had to walk back home in my little white lacy sock and explain what I’d done.”

She remembers the great terrible excitement of giant oaks falling and being left to lay where they fell. “We’d hear that familiar crack, crack, crack, pop, pop, pop, swoooosh, THUD when the roots ruptured and down the big tree would come!” She recalls one particular fallen oak in the woods. “We’d climb up, walk down the length of it, crawl down, walk around behind where the underside of the tree sat, gnarled roots sticking out everywhere. The underside towered many feet above my head.”

Ed’s friend George, Ed and Mary Jane, Halloween 1989, image courtesy Mary Jane Williamson

Some of her favorite childhood memories are of watching the meteor showers with her brother Ed. He always knew when they were coming. They’d gather pillows, blankets, drinks and snacks and set up camp on the utility room roof. “I remember seeing these incredibly beautiful long streaks of color bursting through the night sky and how much fun we had up there, lying there waiting for another one.”

6. “Is That Gene Leedy?”

Visiting Betty Williamson, Mary Jane’s mother, who’s called the Jacksonville Leedy house at the end of Shirl Lane home since 1967, sets Robert to reminiscing about his father and that Winter Haven home.

Gene Leedy at his Winter Haven office, 2012, from The Sarasota Herald-Tribune

“As a little kid,” he says, “my favorite thing to do was to go down to his office and go upstairs to one of the drafting tables. He would give me pencils and markers and the little rubber stamps with trees and I would design my own houses.”

Robert always loved visiting the beach cottage on Casey Key in the summer, but recalls once when his father said he had bad news. They couldn’t visit Casey Key that year. “He said, ‘I have this work I have to do in Hawaii,’ it was 1969, and he said, ‘and you’re gonna go with me.’” Robert took the bad news well. Leedy worked as a design consultant with the architect Alfred Yee in Honolulu. The family stayed at the Ilikai Hotel, visible in the opening shots of the 1968 TV police drama Hawaii 5-0, saw the Apollo 11 astronauts, brought in from the Pacific on their way back from the moon, and rode the elevator down with the soul group Fifth Dimension every day to the swimming pool.

Gene Leedy in his studio, courtesy Robert Leedy and Max Strang

He scrolls through his cell phone and finds a picture of his dad holding a cigar. There are many. “The house always reeked of cigars,” Robert says. He grew up loving the smell. His father owned a diesel Audi that Robert and Ingram jokingly called “Cigar One.” That car had “cigar ashes all over it and the ashtray was always overflowing.”

The old Better Homes and Gardens photospread contains an image of Robert’s mother Kathryn, who went by Bebe, in the house and Gene visible outside through the walls of window. In Bebe’s last years, suffering from Alzheimer’s, she saw that photo and said, “Is that Gene Leedy?” And Robert said yeah. She said, “Is that a lawn mower?” And Robert said yeah. She said, “Well, it must have been a prop then, because he never mowed the lawn.”

image from Better Homes and Garden, 1959, courtesy Robert Leedy and Max Strang

And that story leads to the fact that, as Robert puts it, “Nobody called Dad ‘Gene.’ Everybody called him ‘Gene Leedy.’ Both of his wives called him ‘Gene Leedy.’ I don’t know how that caught on.”

Leedy, in turned, called all his male friends “Ace,” which, Robert says, “was convenient, because if he couldn’t remember somebody’s name, he’d say, ‘Hey, Ace!’ And they called him Ace too.” Eventually Robert and Ingram tried to convince their father that times had changed, that he shouldn’t call all the women he met “Honey” anymore. “And he said, ‘Fuck it. I’m an old man and they like it.’” At his memorial service in 2018, friends wore name tags printed “Ace” and “Honey.”

image (with an infant Robert Leedy in pool) from Better Homes and Garden, 1959, courtesy Robert Leedy and Max Strang

Robert would have loved to buy the Winter Haven house. He and his siblings discussed it. But the house had fallen into disarray and a later mortgage was underwater. He’s grateful to Max Strang for raising the funds to restore the house and for doing so “lovingly.”

7. Night Visitations

Her life has been blessed, Mary Jane says, but also “cursed.” The evil visitations from the spiritual side seem to parallel in some way the personal tragedies, like mirrorings or twinnings, uncanny parallels.

Leedy House, Winter Haven, courtesy Robert Leedy and Max Strang

Perhaps the visitations hadn’t as much to do with the suicides as with motherhood and maternal protectiveness. After all, Tom didn’t commit suicide until he was 40. Nor her father until he was 53, a week before Mary Jane’s 18th birthday.

Her mother’s “visitation,” Mary Jane says, occurred right after the divorce, when Mary Jane was four years old. Her own visitation occurred in her condo when she was single and seven months pregnant. Both stories, she laughs, “make us sound like we’re crazy.”

The Nightmare, by John Henry Fuseli, 1781

“My mother was woken up and she could feel this presence beside her in the room. So she looked at it and its top half seemed human and its bottom half looked reptilian. And then it was on top of her. And it was very heavy and it was smashing her into the bed. She knew what it wanted and it wanted her soul. That’s what it was there for. She sat up in bed and threw her arms out and said, ‘Get out of here.’ Through sheer force of will. And it went away.”

Three decades later, Mary Jane’s visitation happened in the condo where she was living, two blocks away at 1568 Arcadia Drive. She was 33 years old, single, and seven months pregnant. Throughout her life, she says, she’s frequently avoided seeing these entities, averting her eyes, and all she saw of this one was that, from the waist down, it was composed of black shadow.

Ghost of a Flea, by William Blake, 1819-20

“It was standing right next to me. I can’t tell you the kind of terror you feel, when you know it’s evil, that it’s living, in some way, but it’s dark and you can feel its energy.” So she played dead, closed her eyes, and it got on top of her. “And he’s pushing me into the mattress and I can’t breathe, and I’ve got this baby in me, this precious baby, and in my ear, it’s the most alluring, manipulative, but sweetest voice, the most gorgeous voice, he said, kind of singing, ‘It’s okay,’ and I thought, ‘Nothing about this is okay,’ and then he was gone.” For a long time afterward, she slept with her lights on and a Bible in her bed.

8. Strange Properties

Betty and Jim Williamson bought the Jacksonville Leedy house in 1967. It had been built for $12,600 in 1960. “I remember,” she says, looking through her sliding glass doors over the swimming pool, “we paid $100 a month.” The original Modern Maid oven still works in the kitchen.

late 1950s model of the Gene Leedy House, courtesy Robert Leedy and Max Strang

Except for in the bedrooms, the Williamsons replaced the original cork floors with tile, which seemed more practical with kids coming in and out from the pool. Robert remembers that his father replaced his own cork with parquet flooring. Instead of the cypress in the architect’s house, the Williamsons’ ceilings are plaster painted white. The first time the Williamsons invited Robert in, he said he could tell them the layout of the house from just inside the front door and did.

But he couldn’t have guessed the strange outside-in experiences the family had lived in this house. Architecture is art to be lived in, to shape our lives. This house made the trees and the rain integral to the interiors of three childhoods, but also helped connect, Mary Jane Williamson believes, “the other side,” through “the veil,” to this one.

Gene Leedy, from The Tampa Tribune, May 9, 1957

Robert Leedy would love to have purchased his father’s home in Winter Haven and wouldn’t mind one day calling this mirror house home. He knows this house like he knows the settings of his own childhood but inverted.

Yet these mirrorings, as though the house has mimetic properties, like a voodoo doll, have manifested themselves personally throughout Mary Jane’s life. While she says she’s not a psychic medium and doesn’t “hear things” out loud, she does “pick up on stuff,” hears them in her head. “I know I have a bright light that spirits can see,” she says. “It attracts them and they come around. Seeing them and hearing them makes them feel like they’re alive.”

Gene Leedy House, the architect’s Studebaker out front, courtesy Robert Leedy and Max Strang

The Williamsons have queried the source of these strange properties all these years, but never quite figured it out. Mary Jane’s childhood was a fortuitous and wondrous coming together, she believes, of this particular site and a group of people born with the right “natural and organic sensitivities” to it.

Perhaps somewhere, between mirrorings, a young Gene Leedy still stands at the back of the light, lighting a pipe, his back to the wall of windows that brings in the outside, the sunlight of that particular day still written against the future.

Gene Leedy, at home, late 1950s, image courtesy Robert Leedy and Max Strang

Mary Jane knows the house like she knows her mother. Indeed she and her own daughter now call the house home. Even the spirits and ghostly presences were rarely a problem, she says, since “the majority had gentle, loving energy.”

Mary Jane, Halloween 1975, image courtesy Mary Jane Williamson

She’s always loved Halloween, ever since dressing up as a ballerina when she was three years old and Raggedy Ann when she was four, but it’s Easter with which she most identifies. She was born on Good Friday and first came home to the most enchanted house in the world on Easter morning, that ancient pagan holiday of springtide and resurrection. She’s lived her life in a house that attracts life, the life of both the living and the dead.

Mary Jane, Halloween 1975, image courtesy Mary Jane Williamson