My name is Harriett Lake and I was born in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.. Listen as one of Central Florida’s top philanthropists tells where the money came from, how our community developed, her reasons for giving, and what she plans to give in the future in this oral history interview in her home on March 4, 2014.
LISTEN Part I (20:38) (text highlights excerpts from audio recording.)
Books and Homework
My name is Harriett Lake and I was born in Lebanon, Pennsylvania about five miles from Hershey, Pennsylvania. Growing up? I’ll tell you its 92 years since I was growing up so it’s hard for me to remember. But, it was a small town, maybe 25,000 people were there and I spent most of my time just studying. I was obsessed with books and homework. And if I didn’t get an “A” on my report card I would be distraught. Well that was my background anyway. My dad had a furniture store, six stories, and we lived next door to the furniture store. And I was born in 1922.
So we were doing okay and then the Crash came, the Depression and that’s when I got into my obsession with clothes. We could never afford to buy the stuff that I wanted to buy, like a little red coat. And I would go up to the department stores and check out the whole inventory. I think I might have been five or six years old. That’s why I can’t get enough red coats. I don’t know how many I own….
Harriett Lake in one of her many red coats.
Education and Military Service
I left town when I was 17 and I went to state teacher’s college. And back in those days the girls had to be into the dormitory at 7 o’clock in the evening. I majored in history, politics, and social studies. I got my BS from Westchester State Teacher’s College which is now Westchester University in Pennsylvania. And I got my degree in 1942-1943. I was 20 when I got out of college and because everyone in the whole town had gone – it was the war effort: 1941, ’42, ’43, ’44, ’45 we were all in WWII including me. I wanted to be in the WAC’s which is the Army division of the girls or the WAVES which is the Navy, but I was too young. You had to be 21.
United States Marine Corps
But then I found out that the Marine Corps took girls at 20 years old and I became a United States Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. The boot camp was in New York at Hunter College. Then I was sent to North Carolina where I spent a memorable month on KP which is kitchen patrol. And they get you up at 4 o’clock in the morning. This was in North Carolina and it was bitter cold. It was December… all of a sudden I found myself with tears running down my face over a bucket of hot soapy water with steel Brillo going into my hands. I was in charge of washing the knives, forks, and spoons, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Four o’clock in the morning we had to get up to be at breakfast…
World War II
Anyway, after a month or two I was assigned… Bloomington, Indiana, University of Indiana where I was trained to do payroll and quartermaster. Then I was transferred to El Centro, California where I did payroll for 250. Well, I get a lump in my throat when I think about it. They were kids. They were Marine Corps kids on their way to what could have been a death sentence over to the Pacific. The islands, Iwo Jima. It was horrible. I can tell you war is hell. I don’t know how guys can go out there and face it. I really don’t. All I can say is the happiest day of my life, and I’ve lived a lot of days, was – August the 14, 1945 – when the war was finally over.
What I remember most about the war is even the coffee was rationed. We were allowed – this is the population of the United States – we all were just allowed two pairs of shoes a year and you had to have a coupon. Oh well, I could write a book about WWII and how horrible it was for everyone. It was a 100% effort by all of America with little candles in the window for the boys who were overseas.
Okay, so the war came to an end and then I went home to Pennsylvania. I went home to Pennsylvania and I had two jobs. One was teaching Hebrew to pre-Hebrew kids and the other was keeping books for a radio station….
Where is it nice and warm out of Pennsylvania, no snow, and where I can meet a half decent responsible guy? I’m going to Miami Beach. So I took my bathing suits and all my clothes and I found a space off Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. And every Friday night I went to The Temple. I got dressed. Even though I was having a nervous breakdown over this guy who jilted me… One night there I found this guy who might have been looking for a wife… and after a year of kind of going together, breaking up, I married him.
Harriett and Hymen Lake
He was a poor, penniless struggling lawyer with a tremendous sense of humor and looking back on everything he was totally brilliant. And I guess that’s why I decided to spend the rest of my life with him. Very unusual man. Although I didn’t really know it. When you get married it’s like a lottery. You don’t know really what you’re getting. And I almost didn’t marry him because he was so poverty-stricken. And that wasn’t exactly what I was looking for at the time. I wanted some kind of security. Well, I figured if I lived the rest of my life in a one room efficiency that was my lot, that’s the cards I was dealt…
I had Michael Lake about a year and half later. And then my father couldn’t stand my living the way I was in this one bedroom, so I got a house and a car and moved to North Bay Village which is between Miami and Miami Beach on the Causeway. Three islands and we lived on the poor man’s island. That first house was $14,000 and it was a three bedroom two bath.
So then I had Shelley Lake, my daughter, and Hy was practicing law. His name was Hymen Lake. Hy was practicing law in Miami Beach, He was an appeals lawyer – that’s the kind of lawyer after the case is lost – he revived it and won. And he was brilliant. And then he got involved in the politics of North Bay Village and he was elected mayor and councilman for two years of the village.
No Jews, Blacks, or Felons
One of the islands, the one where the wealthy people lived, that was North Bay Island, had a restriction about who you could sell your house to. The restrictions were no Jews, no felons, and no blacks allowed on the island. And when Hy found out about it he says, “I’m bringing a suit against them. Discrimination.” And, of course, he won.
And he was practicing law and he was busy with his politics. And then one day I guess it just hit him over the head when he was like 30, 31. He says, “I am not going to have a huge bank account practicing law in Miami Beach. I’m gonna go out out of town because we can’t afford to buy tracks of land in the beach area, and I’m gonna buy some land….
441 from Miami Beach to Sand Lake Road
We went up 441 from Miami Beach to Sand Lake Road on 441. We drove all the way from the beach to Sand Lake Road which was truly a two lane dirt road. And then all of a sudden there was the South Orange Blossom Trail. And he put on the brakes and he said, “This is it. I’m calling a broker.” So he calls from one of those phones on the highway. You remember that was before the cell phones. And he bought a little track on South Orange Blossom Trail, which was a dairy, with very little down and we went home. At least he’d bought some land. It was a cow pasture. Can you believe that on Sand Lake Road and the South Orange Blossom Trail there were cows grazing right off the road? So we went home.
Two Square Miles of Florida Ranch Lands
[Hyman] belonged to like a poker club with eight other guys, accountants, and doctors and they were all professionals. And when he told them he had bought some land they said, “Well, we were thinking about buying stocks, but maybe we just ought to invest in some land. So Hy you go back and find another tract.. anything’s better than sitting on money and maybe land is the best way to invest it instead of stocks.” So we went back to the broker, Florida Ranch Lands and he said, “What have you got in a huge tract of land? I got a syndicate here.” And the broker took us in a jeep to a dirt Indian path. I mean it was a swamp. You couldn’t get a car in it because there was no road. It was like a dirt path. And there were two square miles of it and it was a hopeless swamp. And Hy says, “Should we buy it?” I said, “I don’t know Hy what do you think?” It was scaring me, I got to get out of here – there were gophers running around and all kinds of unidentified insects. And since there was almost nothing down, I think it was almost $35.00 an acre. But nothing down and the first payment was to be in six months or so. And he bought two square miles.
Now, of course, it’s all of Universal and all of Turkey Lake and the dirt Indian path is now the eight lane or ten lane Kirkman Road. Anyways six months after he bought it, he’s reading The Sentinel which we got every day so we’d know what happened to the land, and there in the headlines it says Martin Marietta’s buying a whole acreage very very close to the two square miles. And then Hy gets a call from Major Realty in South Florida and they offered him a million bucks. And his dream was always to be a millionaire by the time he was 35. I tell you that was a dream. He got his first million when he was 36 on a land deal and, of course, he had a syndicate. And then, of course, what is he going to do with the money?
He had great visions about Sky Lake which was a square mile on South Orange Blossom Trail and Sand Lake Road. So, he bought that square mile. I don’t know what he paid. It was less than a thousand an acre. I don’t remember exactly how much it was. And at the time I remember all of the housing projects built the houses right on the highway so everybody would know there was a housing project. And Hy says, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to go 650 feet back and I’m going to build houses in the center and hope that the highway is the profitable, commercial that I’m thinking about where I’m going to make enough to live on plus.
He was so poor as a child that I think he was driven. It wasn’t even the money. It was the game of knowing that he would never have to be in the same conditions that he grew up in. I didn’t mention that he lived on the third floor of a black tenement house in Chicago with one bathroom serving eight families. And he just had to get out of there. Oh, I didn’t tell you about Hy. He worked his way through law school selling shoes at night and weekends. And I think he graduated second in his class. And then he served in WWII like the rest of the population. And after the war he went to Miami to see his sister and that’s how I met him – at The Temple.
Who knew what was going to be. This was pre-Disney. And we all thought, we knew somebody was buying the land in the south part of town. But we thought it was some kind of airplane factories like Boeing, Lockheed. We really didn’t know what was going to be – buying all this land. Huge tracts, huge miles. And the secret was that the people from Disney didn’t even make direct flights from Orlando. They went to Atlanta while they were accumulating all this land and then they would go from Atlanta to the little tiny airport in Orlando which was McCoy Air Force Base. And that airport was about the size of a small house as I remember. It was so tiny. Maybe it’s some kind of a small warehouse if it’s still there. I mean it was like a dream to see this city grow the way it did after Disney.
Developing Sky Lake
Anyway, Hy bought this square mile, Sky Lake, and he started building houses in the center. We didn’t even live here. He bought in let’s see the year was 1956 when we drove up the trail, so it’s like 60 going on 70 years ago. Well, 60 at least. He started building houses that were like $10,000 – nothing down. And I guess he was steadily selling houses in the center. And there were floods when we thought we would go bankrupt because the water came to the front door of the houses. But fortunately, with pumps.. they did everything they could to get the water out of there. In the meantime he put the residents in, I don’t know there were no motels around.. maybe he put them up in those rinky-dink motels along the trail at that time. We survived the floods. Then in 1962 he said to me we’re leaving the beach I have to move. We can’t do both. I can’t commute every week anymore. We’re moving. So kicking and screaming I moved to Orlando…
Sky Lake, there might have been a 1,000 homes down there. And then he built the motel, the Travel Lodge, it was called. I worked at the Travel Lodge.And I think he sold it in 1974. I think I did about 40 model houses at least because he had Sky Lake, he had Candlelight Park, he had Lancaster, there were all kind of projects. The houses ranged from $10,000 – two bedroom, one bath to $15,000 – four bedroom two bath and den and a living room. I remember at $15,000 he said we aren’t making any money on these houses. So when he told the salesman we’re raising the price of the house to $16.500 for a four bedroom / two bath house, the salesman said, “Hy, you will never ever sell another house.” So, he said, “We won’t sell another house, but that’s what we’re going to do.” Then suddenly we had a whole project there of houses and then little by little, the Publix came to one corner and then we had two gas stations and then we had a Kmart and then a restaurant and then a hotel, a 174 rooms….
Sky Lake: an Integrated Community
Orlando in the 70’s was totally, what’s the word – in South Africa- the whites were separated from the blacks. Well, I guess it was discrimination. But no blacks were sold to in any of the white projects. It was unthinkable and it was just impossible. If a black came you just told him that he didn’t qualify or one reason or another, but he was asked to leave. Well, a black family showed up at Sky Lake in the 70’s and the salesman came over and he said, “Hy these people are so qualified. He’s a veteran, he’s got like two or three kids. It’s just difficult. If we sell the house we’re going to have to close up because we’ll never ever sell another house and the people who live here will be leaving. They’re not going to live in the same neighborhood where there’s a black.” And Hy says, “You know what I have been discriminated against all my life and I’m not going to start now. If the man is qualified and he’s responsible and he has a family he’s going to move in the minute we sign the papers.”
So the black family moved in and signs went up and down the streets in the neighborhood – “For Sale” – and, I guess, life went on. Nobody bought the houses because of the black and then little by little the signs went down and the whole place became integrated. And it is the first community that I know of maybe in Florida, I’m not sure, that had an integrated housing project….
Sky Lake South
Then he started a Sky Lake South and I was decorating houses down there, too. And then we got a radio station and we sold that. And then one day he sold Sky Lake South to a New Jersey corporation. [Hymen] had four people working at the project, but when the New Jersey people moved in they hired all of their family, maybe 40, and they went bankrupt in a short time….
If there’s anything you want to know about Sky Lake it’s probably in the newspapers from then. I know we had ads in every week. And he sold a lot of houses and he sold a lot of frontage. But we never took the money seriously and he always treated money like it was going to be snatched away from him at anytime because of his childhood. I had no idea when he left how much he really made.
However ever since then I’ve been trying to give it away as fast as I can to my own 189 charities and hospitals. Of course, it’s always easy to raise money for kids who have no socks and underwear, but it’s very difficult to raise money for the arts. I mean the opera, the philharmonic, the ballet and all the Shakespeare, the Mad Cow, they’re all on my list, and I’m dedicated to keeping the arts alive, because somebody has to do it and I consider it now my job.
I always had the feeling that there would be somebody to take care of the unfortunate among us and so I’ve concentrated on the arts in my last years. I refuse to die until I have a place for the ballet to rehearse and practice… and that will be the last thing I probably do. I’m dedicated to the ballet.
And, of course, I feel strongly about the Trauma Center. Nobody gives to the Trauma Center. They don’t even know that it has to be financed with private individual funds. They think somebody is sending those helicopters on I-4 when you’re bleeding to death. They don’t know. They think the city is paying for all that. Well, they’re not. It’s the Orlando Regional Hospital that’s doing it. I intend to help them after I’m gone.
I think that covers the philanthropy. Well, about the philanthropy. I give away a million and a half dollars every year for the past 7-8 years. It’s come to about 12 million now. And as long as I live I will continue doing that. I have a list. It’s my job. That’s what it comes down to. Somebody has to do it. A lot of people are with me on this, too. Thank God for them. Bless them. It’s wonderful.
About the clothes, the truth is when I was growing up I was so, so totally homely that I had to do something to detract from the face so I discovered people were attracted to clothing and that’s how I got into clothing. And then, of course, I had some help because across the street there were two little girls who were just a year or two older than me and bigger fortunately. And every season they were supplied with the ultimate fashionable clothes. Because, this is a strange story, their grandmother who was so devoted to these two little girls, was the owner of the whole red light district in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. And there was an Indiantown Gap military place right next to us so she and her girls were very busy and made an awful lot of money. And every season she would go to New York and buy really, really quality stuff for these two kids: Fur coats, grey flannel suits. I mean they were drop dead call out the cops gorgeous these clothes. And that’s how I got into fashion through her and the distraction from my homely face.
And, of course it’s been like that the rest of my life. I could never get enough clothes. And at 13 I discovered the sewing machine and I would be up day and night when I wasn’t in school or studying, making all kind of clothes. And then even when Hy and I were destitute I was taking in clothes, I was taking in alterations from the neighbors and buying fabric to make more clothes. I could never get enough. And that’s why I had to move out of my first house in Orlando because I outgrew the closets and the rooms. And every time a kid would leave I took over their room. I had one room for after five. One room for winter, one room for summer.
Finally, I decided to just build one huge closet with conveyor belts and move into Longwood. I built a closet actually and then, of course, I outgrew the closet. And now I’m in a three car garage and you can’t even walk into any of the rooms. I’ve got a disease. I admit it. I’m a clothes junkie. And I probably will never where any of these clothes ever again and yet I can’t give them up. Because did you ever get attached to some clothes and say, “Well, there’s a slight chance that I’m going to be wearing this maybe down the road, who knows.” I can’t get rid of it, so that’s part of my disease.
Judith Leiber Collection
I’m a hoarder . I admit it with the clothes. I’ve never outgrown it either. Even when I can’t shop I’m into catalogs and sending for stuff. Oh yeah, I collect stuff like I’ve got 100 Judith Leiber bags over at the Orlando Museum of Art. They stored them for me. Thank goodness, I wouldn’t have room. And every Christmas they bring out the 100 bags and everybody gets to see them. It’s such a thrill to just look at those bags I can’t believe I own them, but they are mine.
And I collect hats. I’ve got thousands of hats. And I loan them out and they have hat shows. And, vintage clothes. Oh yeah, UCF is writing a book called, “Too Much Is Not Enough” and it’s about my vintage clothes. That’s the stuff, the labeled stuff from designers through the years. I don’t know when that’s going to be out, but we are going to publish it one of these days. I could talk forever about clothes, but time is limited.
Harriett Lake Oral History Interview, Part II