photography by Michael Nielsen

There’s a tree-lined neighborhood on the west side of South Florida Avenue, edged with prewar and midcentury homes, fragrant with the scent of gardenia. The sweet, natural perfume recalls memories of a time when neighbors invited each other into their homes for Saturday afternoon sweet tea or the occasional evening toddy. It was a time when neighbors shared that essential ingredient of life: friendship.
Beacon Hill is just south of downtown and adjoins another 1920s’ boom neighborhood, Alta Vista. In the 1990s, both were listed as historic districts and included on the National Register of Historic Places following a lot of grassroots work and a Historic Preservation Grant awarded by the state of Florida. Plated in 1924, some think Beacon Hill was named after the tony Boston neighborhood of the same name. Others aren’t so sure. However it came into being or found its name, Lakeland’s Beacon Hill is unique. Its uniqueness comes not only from its distinctively blended architecture and refined sense of place, but also from the people who call it home, the people who enjoy the safety and easy familiarity of friendships developed, earned, and cultivated within the rhythm of their neighborhood.
Visiting friends in Beacon Hill got me thinking about what I saw and experienced there and why I was consistently charmed by the harmony and ambiance of this old Lakeland neighborhood. What subtle code was I sensing? What was that special something that made this neighborhood resonate so profoundly with me? All of this led me to reconsider my concept of shelter and how I define it. It led me to look from the outside in instead of the more traditional inside-out viewpoint.
What makes a good place to live? What makes a good neighborhood tick? Where does the heartbeat and breath actually come from? How and where do we want to live and raise our kids? How and why did Beacon Hill’s families and homeowners choose this place to live, and how and why are they emotionally, physically, and yes, financially, invested here.
Recently, while driving, and later walking, through Beacon Hill, I was left savoring the undeniable aroma of a place well situated, where prewar and midcentury modern architecture come together in a seamless, integrated, open-ended blend of design ideas. It’s composed of a proportionately infused cocktail of structural ideas, complementing each other in spite of their dissimilarities.
Arched doorways, intricate moldings, the warmth of wood and red brick typical of prewar design, in the same neighborhood with the organic flat planes, stone, metal, aluminum, and oversized glass windows of midcentury modern. Wood floors, high ceilings, and divided living areas mix with open floor plans and integrated spaces. A pretty, fern-green Florida bungalow with its columns and covered front veranda sits near a stately prewar two story with steep, red-brick front gables. Down the street you find the clean simplicity of a midcentury modern emphasizing a more direct, organic
aesthetic — harmony between form and function instead of conflict between form and function.
Beacon Hill is a place where the intimacy of a warm brick fireplace can live timelessly and subtly in the midst of the clean simplicity of glass walls and flat roofs. I read somewhere that style (and life) is like the blues. Everyone has the same chords available to them. It’s how those chords are played that counts. Beacon Hill is an example of folks playing different chords but somehow meeting and connecting to produce Muddy Waters’ classic “Got My Mojo Workin’.”
In his article describing the perfect neighborhood, Andrew Price declared, “You are where you live.” A great neighborhood should be a reflection of the style and personal vibe of the people who live in it. Beacon Hill does just that. The people seem to value the space that surrounds them. The neighborhood is relatively compact and visually interesting with the diverse, informally defined natural architecture, curvilinear streets, and a cool attitude. Azalealined sidewalks and oak-canopied lanes wind their way through magnoliasand crepe myrtles. Groupings of homes situated on lots of varied shapes and sizes sit among mature, natural vegetative screens. Sunlight filters through a vast variety of leaves forming a mosaic of colors and shapes on lawns and gardens while palm trees gently sway in the afternoon breeze. As you wander through the neighborhood, you can feel the swirling and drifting of a nostalgic past, modern life left behind amidst the traffic and excited energy of South Florida Avenue.
The inherent, natural enemy of historic neighborhoods is simple maintenance deferred over the years by increasingly unenthusiastic homeowners. It’s a plague that has blighted and destroyed countless historic places throughout the country. Without love and tender care, a distinctive home can’t weather unforgiving elements. This seems particularly the case with midcentury modern architecture and its emphasis on more maintenance-intensive materials like aluminum and metal. Brick and steep pitches are friendlier to our harsh Florida weather than flat roofs and steel. But the people living in Beacon Hill understand the need to nurture their homes and shared community, recognizing the importance of stewardship as part of their neighborhood responsibilities and historic identity. The streets are fringed with homeowners who knew what they were getting into, carefully preserving the beauty of old materials and staying true to original designs. They have embroidered a sumptuous arrangement of distinctive homes into a cohesive, integrated circle representing a cross section of styles and periods. They have embraced both their singularity and similarities within the shared history of Beacon Hill. But, architecture, style, streets, and history are only one part of what makes this a great neighborhood. The most important component is the people who live there.
Jackie and Bert Houghton moved to Beacon Hill several years ago after outgrowing their first house, a 1920s bungalow. They were looking for a place to raise their family, a place where they could enjoy a sense of community and yet be close to the activities and places associated with their busy lives. “The quality of life here is wonderful for us,” Jackie says. “We wave and stop to catch up on the sidewalk. Our kids all hop on their bikes, scooters, and skateboards and do the loop. With each turn they’ve gained another one or two kids in the process. We love that. It greatly impacts how we live.” She and Bert also like the weekend gatherings for football games and holiday parties. Some are preplanned, but many are spur-of-the-moment, informal get-togethers as neighbors assemble to enjoy each other’s company and share a special recipe. “We are surrounded by friends,” Jackie says.
Beacon Hill resident and executive director of Polk Vision, Sara Roberts, lost her husband, Randy, unexpectedly six years ago. “Our neighbors have become our family in many ways. After losing Randy, my brothers called all my close neighbors the ‘cavalry.’ They loved that we had a huge support system in a very hard time. We all look out for one another, our families, and the ’hood,’” she says.
Susan and Lamar Rogers moved to the neighborhood in 2002 thinking they would only be there for a few years. “We’ve found some of our dearest friends here,” Susan says, adding that she and Lamar are grateful that they have never moved. “There are lots of ways I have gotten to know my neighbors. The sidewalks make it easy to get out of the house and go for a walk after dinner or on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I think getting out of the house on foot is a big part of getting to know your neighbors. There are usually kids out playing or riding their bikes and people walking their dogs. That’s where the conversations happen and the friendships begin.”
Tiffany and Adam Marshall say this about Beacon Hill: “The residents are as varied as the houses. We have friends in the neighborhood and so do our kids. Older children can follow the “be home before the streetlights come on” rule because the neighborhood is safe (and there actually are quaint streetlights!).Shoot, folks even say ‘Hi’ to our dog when they walk by in the evening. What’s not to love?”
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I’m charmed to find a coterie of neighborhood friends gathered in chairs on the back lawn of a midcentury modern home, exercising that time-honored tradition of moms everywhere, chatting about the state of the world, kids, and jobs (and husbands, I bet), while their children play on a nearby swing set. They’re taking an impromptu break from the normal weekend activities of yard work and household maintenance and have come together as neighbors to share stories and solve world affairs. They are animated, inspired with laughter, savoring
the day and each other. It’s Beacon Hill at its finest and most characteristic.
This wonderful Lakeland neighborhood reminds me that shelter means much more than just four walls and roof lines, lawns and landscapes. Shelter protects us from more than unforgiving elements. Shelter is loving and caring neighbors who support us through life’s difficult moments, who lift us up in times of sorrow and celebrate with us in times of joy. Shelter is a Saturday afternoon party, kids on bikes, friends visiting on the front lawn. Shelter is also being there, faithful and steadfast for a young widow following the sudden loss of her husband. Shelter, as defined by a neighborhood, shapes our natural character.
Beacon Hill teaches us that no matter how beautiful the neighborhood or interesting the architecture, the true value is found within the people who live there. “Beacon Hill is more than just a physical place,” Jackie says. “It’s a community of people who really care about each other.”
Isn’t that the kind of shelter we’re all looking for?