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POSTCARDS FROM FLORIDA

A view of old Florida at Ormond Beach's Rockefeller Mansion -- The Casements

Jim Abbott on Florida Travel

Postcards from Florida

March 14, 2010

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So I set out to see how the other half lived.

John D. Rockefeller, after all, was the richest man on the planet when he bought the Casements, his retirement home in Ormond Beach in 1918. Named after the casement windows that face the Halifax River, the residence has a long history that has seen both glory days and disrepair.

Just over the bridge off Granada Boulevard on the east side of the river, it's one of those places that I had driven past many times without stopping. I had the notion it was a stuffy old museum, but in reality, the Casements is a bustling hub of community activity.

There was a photography exhibit on display when I stopped this week and the Casements also hosts an array of classes on yoga, Tai Chi, wood-carving and other topics. At Rockefeller Gardens, across Riverside Drive along the riverbank, there are weekly farmer's markets, occasional outdoor movies and other events.

My guided tour of the house took about 30 minutes. It included visits to the living room, dining room and kitchen on the main floor, as well as many of the 11 bedrooms and bathrooms up the spiral staircases on the second and third floors.

For all his money, Rockefeller had a frugal streak, according to my guide, Brenda. He decorated the house with second-hand furniture, she told me, although he also was never without dimes in his pockets to hand out to local children. Another fun tidbit: He also wore multiple toupees, to foster the illusion that he still had genuine hair that was occasionally in need of a trim. Genius!

The historic pictures that line the walls offer a glimpse of Casements life in Rockefeller's day, including shots of such famous visitors as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Will Rogers. Others document the building's days of decline, when it became a vagrants haven for a time after Rockefeller's death in 1937. Those days, thankfully, are in the past.

Hours: 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays; 8:30 a.m.-noon Saturdays. Call: 386-676-3216.

Follow a late-afternoon visit with an early dinner at Billy's Tap Room & Grill (58 E. Granada), a local fixture since 1922. There's a terrific twilight menu served from 4 to 5:30 p.m., which I recommend, along with the seafood au gratin.

Call 386-672-1910 for reservations.

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