31-year-old Henry Nehrling moved from Wisconsin to Gotha, Florida, in 1885 to make true his “dream of a garden where he could grow his tropical and sub-tropical plants year round.” His 40 acres of land would eventually become Florida’s first experimental botanical garden and helped scientific greats like Thomas Edison as well as laying the foundation for Florida’s nursery industry. Nehrling had a vision of the future – one whose homes were surrounded by “wonderful tropical gardens” and were “not…expensive structure[s]”. Nehrling’s property in Central Florida was an attempt at creating his horticultural paradise, from the natural path between Hempel Avenue and his house darkened by the towering trees blocking the sun to the private botanical garden in his own backyard. One would not find many dissidents by saying that Nehrling’s home was his vision of everyone’s home in the future – and if not everyone, then certainly the masses. He believed in not just an eco-friendly world, but an eco-incorporated one long before environmental awareness groups coined the phrase “eco”. While the post-WWII world may not have created a living environment exactly to Nehrling’s specific predictions, I aim to discover just how close Americans came to his dream. By examining Nehrling’s home I will compare and contrast his prediction with Florida’s – and much of America’s – reality.
Nehrling’s house is a beautiful white Victorian-style structure with a second-story balcony and rocking chairs placed on the porch. It is so typically Southern in its architecture that one can almost see Rhett Butler fleeing from its flaming timbers with Scarlett O’Hara hot on his heels. To actually see the house, though, one must walk up so that one is almost already inside – the flora is so dense that a clear view of the home is obstructed in every direction.
The brick chimney along the side – perhaps an architectural vestige of Nehrling’s Wisconsin days, for it would only add aesthetic value to the home – is surrounded on 180 degrees by more types of shrubs, bushes, and trees than one can count. There are no vines crisscrossing up the edifice, as Nehrling predicted, nonetheless the chimney appears cornered and looks like it’s at risk of being consumed by the encroaching overgrowth.
Between the back porch and the greenhouse, around a domineering standalone palm tree, lies a little garden, with bright attractive flowers and some pots the contents of which have yet to be planted. But surrounding that, indeed surrounding the greenhouse and even Nehrling’s house, taking up a vast majority of the property, is an untamed wilderness of greenery. Nehrling’s vision of “a fine green grassy lawn” appears to have been taken to the extreme. Clusters of each plant species – including an intimidatingly thick clump of bamboo two stories tall – encircle the buildings and don’t create a sense of nature so much as force it.
Even the covered walkway extending into the nature receives no mercy – trees flank it on either side, some branches pressing down on the roof while smaller plants intrude on the walkway. These plants form a sort of perimeter around the back of the house, as if they were a barrier between Man and nature.
Beyond the bamboo trees, once the little pathway has disappeared, the uncertain footing of the Lake Nally marshland appears. The breathtaking view is interrupted only by a forest perhaps a football field away; nonetheless it is an instance of nature bordering nature.
To argue that Nehrling’s vision of the future completely came true would be fruitless. On a grand scale, Americans on the whole have not lived their lives alongside nature. Instead, nature has lived according to what Man wants – the straightening of the Kissimmee River, the drainage of the Everglades, and even “the very existence of Deltona and Golden Gate Estates” are all testaments to Man’s ability and desire. The existence of Levittown and its descendants decades later speak to society’s quest not for natural beauty but for uniformity and security. Even on an aesthetic level he was wrong: his “more or less…colonial style” homes took the silver to homes built on a more New England, Cape Cod style. However, most suburban homes do have “a fine green, grassy lawn” and though perhaps vines don’t cover houses, a plethora of bushes and shrubs are certainly prevalent where they can be grown. But most clearly, and most importantly from a sociological perspective, was his prediction of cheap homes. Levittown may not have been Nehrling’s perfect image, but it captures the essence of Nehrling’s vision once one takes nature out of it – a difficult thing to do, but something that must be done nonetheless. Decades before modern suburbia was plotted out on a map, Henry Nehrling correctly predicted American residential life in a casual note about horticulture.
Henry Nehrling, Nehrling’s Plants, People, and Places in Early Florida. Abridged and edited by Robert W. Read (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001), 236-7.
Nehrling Gardens. “History: The Nehrling Years.” Last updated November 24, 2012. http://www.nehrlinggardens.org/
Jon Teaford, The Metropolitan Revolution (Columbia University Press: 2006).
Gary Mormino, Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams (University Press of Florida: 2005).
David A. Horowitz and Peter N. Carroll, On the Edge: The United States Since 1945 (California: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2002).
Informational Brochure. “Nehrling Gardens.” 2267 Hempel Avenue, Gotha, FL.