Downtown Gotha is one of Central Florida’s best kept secrets. Visitors to the charming town will find wonderful examples of Old Florida architecture as well as historical sites including Palm Cottage Gardens, Florida’s oldest remaining botanical garden, and Camp Ithiel, a religious retreat that served as an internment camp for German POWs during World War 2.
From the corner of Hempel Avenue and Gotha Road, visitors can see both the church, which still hosts a weekly congregation, and the two former residences now converted into commercial dwellings including a restaurant/store known as the Yellow Dog Eats Cafe and, next door, a quintessential beauty shop. Drop in during business hours for a sandwich and coffee or a haircut (walk-ins are welcome) and take a step back in time. Be sure to park behind Yellow Dog Eats in order to see the great structures from every angle.
Just north of “downtown,” historical Palm Cottage Gardens was established by Dr. Henry Nehrling. Nehrling was known as “Florida’s Premier Botanist” in the early 1900’s. His research resulted in the creation of the caladium industry as well as the introduction of many new species popular today. The charming home was actually constructed on a site nearby and later transported to the current site by Dr. Nehrling himself. Palm Cottage Gardens, the botanical garden and home, were added to the National Register of Historic Places in November 2002 and was recently purchased by a group of concerned local citizens who are seeking funding for its renovation and preservation. Their efforts are supported by Mr. Richard Nehrling, great-grandson of Dr. Henry Nehrling.
Camp Ithiel, which today is a beautiful lakeside religious retreat, had a not-so-glorious past: During World War 2, it served as a prison camp for German POWs. In the 1940’s, one local newspaper printed a story announcing that the congregation of the historical church at the corner of Hempel and Gotha had invited the German prisoners to Christmas Eve dinner prepared by the church’s members. General Dwight David Eisenhower visited Camp Ithiel in 1945 and later recounted the visit in a letter to General George Marshall.
Gotha was once the commercial center of West Orange County. It was the busiest railroad station in the area until neighboring Winter Garden became more popular with railroads and tourists alike. Other West Orange County cities also grew in popularity while Gotha remained in the background, the private jewel of those who lived there. Today Gotha still has its quaint downtown but is endangered by unchecked growth all around.
Architecture and history buffs alike will find something to explore out in Gotha. Spend an hour or an afternoon peeking into the nooks and crannies, and who knows just what you will find.