Winter Park’s Genius Preserve: A Short History

Written by Leslie Kemp Poole, PhD, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, Rollins College

Fig. 1., The Genius Drive Postcard View, as pictured on the Rollins College Department of Environmental Studies Genius Preserve webpage.

Twenty years ago, a unique partnership was formed between Rollins College and a local foundation to protect and improve a valuable piece of land surrounded by urban development. The result of that union is the Genius Preserve, a fifty-acre jewel of green nestled between three lakes in Winter Park, Florida. Along its dirt road lined with moss-draped oaks, there is a sense of place missing in much of today’s Florida. Importantly, the property also serves as an outdoor laboratory for Rollins College faculty and students who engage in restoration and preservation of the site.  

When the Elizabeth Genius Morse Foundation, located in Winter Park, Florida, teamed up with Rollins College in 2002, the parcel had been neglected for years. Portions were overrun by non-native plant species while its borders were feeling more and more pressure from encroaching development. Some local residents considered it sacred space, but proposals arose to convert it to housing, even dormitories for the college. But the foundation, tasked with overseeing its health and maintenance, and members of the college’s environmental studies department knew that its true value was in preserving and enhancing its nature. 

Located in the heart of the city, the property once was a 150-acre commercial orange grove bought in 1920 by Charles Hosmer Morse, a Chicago industrialist and one of Winter Park’s early boosters. The land once was home to indigenous people, a small local rail line, and a citrus packing house when growing fruit was an important product in the area. Two decades later, Morse’s daughter, Elizabeth Genius, and her husband built an expansive two-story home on the property, with Mediterranean-style architecture that mimicked Rollins College, visible from their back yard on Lake Virginia. Elizabeth Genius loved the acreage, insisting on preserving the land’s natural beauty, which included waterfront cypress trees and enormous live oaks. A large dirt road, named Genius Drive, ran through the center of the property, leading to their home, named “Wind Song.”1 

In 1951, Morse’s granddaughter and the Genius’s daughter, Jeanette Genius McKean, an artist and interior designer, and her husband, Hugh, moved from their home in downtown Winter Park to the site, taking with them a very noisy and active pair of peacocks that in two decades multiplied to more than 100 birds. The public was allowed access to the property until 1987 when vandals forced its closure. It was maintained by the Winter Park Land Company, where Jeanette McKean was president. That same year, Hugh became the tenth president of Rollins College, where he had been an art professor since 1932.2 

They made a fascinating and lively couple, entertaining regularly at their home and sharing a passion for art—particularly that of artist Louis Comfort Tiffany. Hugh had visited Tiffany as a young art student in 1930 and admired Tiffany’s affinity for nature and beauty as demonstrated in his work. After their marriage, the couple began collecting Tiffany’s glass art, easily found as it had fallen out of fashion in home design. In 1955, they held the first contemporary exhibition of his art at the Morse Gallery of Art, a museum created in 1942 on the Rollins campus by Jeannette in homage to her grandfather. Their passion included obtaining other nineteenth and twentieth century art and by the 1980s, the couple’s collection was estimated to include more than 4,000 pieces with a value of $6 million.3 

Over time, the McKean property varied in use, even serving as a personal menagerie for everything from peacocks and horses to chipmunks imported from New Hampshire to Egyptian and Canadian geese that paddled around an artificial pond. A newspaper reporter visiting the property recalled that a deer (one of five on the site) approached him and begged for cigarettes. During a spring weekend event at the college, handlers kept three elephants on the property. At the same time, fifteen acres were preserved as a natural oak hammock, as Hugh hoped “to keep the park land wild and unspoiled.”4 

After Hugh’s retirement from teaching in 1969, the couple was devoted to finding permanent housing for the Tiffany collection. The museum moved from the campus into the city in 1977 and was renamed the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, supported by a foundation they created. In 1995, six years after Jeannette’s death and soon after Hugh died, the current museum building in downtown Winter Park opened. The museum has grown to 42,000 square feet and boasts of having the largest Tiffany collection in the world.5 

Fig. 2., Aerial view of Rollins College (foreground) and the Genius Preserve (background), 1970s, courtesy of the Rollins College Department of Environmental Studies Genius Preserve webpage.

With the McKeans gone, changes were in store for the property. The 50-acre parcel surrounding the home was held by the Elizabeth Morse Genius Foundation, but the adjacent orange groves were sold for $34.5 million in 1998 as housing sites. The revenue was used to fund charitable giving and finance the museum. For decades, the Wind Song home sat empty and its grounds were ignored, allowing non-native species to thrive and degrade the quality of the natural habitat. That led to a partnership between the foundation and college to analyze and then restore the site.6 

An important model for the project was the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, a prime example of ecological restoration. As early as 1911, city planner John Nolen advocated that the university and city of Madison create a 200-acre arboretum to serve as an “open-air laboratory” for residents, researchers, and students. The concept was championed by conservationist Aldo Leopold, a wildlife professor who had witnessed overuse of land in the Midwest and the subsequent Dust Bowl tragedy of the 1930s. However, funding wasn’t secured for the project until the 1930s when 245 acres of exhausted, overcultivated lands were purchased; the site soon grew to 500 acres.7 

In 1933, Leopold, using historical records, offered a comprehensive management plan to restore the soil’s fertility and bring back a wide diversity of prairie, wetlands, and forest species that originally existed there. He recommended that it “be administered as a research area for university students, a game management demonstration site, and a refuge for the region’s dwindling native game species.” Leopold, an early leader in the restoration movement, hoped the Arboretum would “bring back into the lives of all confronted by a dismal industrial tangle whose forces we so little comprehend, something of the grace and beauty which nature intended all to share.”8 

Today the Arboretum, which has grown to include 1,200 acres and 513 outlying acres, is widely admired for its native species, flowering trees, and a “world-famous lilac collection.” It is maintained by a “staff of land managers, along with scientists, students and volunteers who restore and protect biological diversity and ecosystem functions.” A visitors center offers information as well as public education programs.9 

With this example, the Genius Preserve restoration project, which formally began in 2003, “was ideal in serving as an educational starting point for the students of Rollins College’s Environmental Studies program,” writes Stacey Matrazzo, who authored an extensive evaluation of the site and program. “Its mixture of natural and cultivated habitats and cultural heritage along with its proximity to the college provided a valuable setting for research in the study and necessity of restoration and management. Through this partnership, the Genius Preserve was established as a permanent site on which research and restoration could be conducted in perpetuity.”10  

Led by Bruce Stephenson, an environmental studies professor whose specialty is environmental planning, the project first focused on analyzing the land’s condition. One section was smothered in non-native trees and vines that had been deliberately planted in the 1920s for their beauty. In 2004, students, faculty, and volunteers jumped into restoring this section, now known as the Cedar Grove, by removing approximately sixty unwanted trees and vines and replacing them with native plant species that could thrive unaided while providing food and shelter for birds, animals, and insects. They filled about forty trash dumpsters with debris.11 

Make no mistake: the Genius Preserve is not a truly “wild” area. While the Cedar Grove area is filled with native species, such as beautyberry, wild coffee, and coontie, other parts of the property are preserved with a nod to local culture and history. A small citrus grove located on the east side, near the historic two-story Ward House that was moved from a nearby lot to the preserve, serves as a reminder of “Old Florida” and the agricultural lifestyle that engaged many in Central Florida by the late nineteenth century. The house is an example of the Cracker architecture used by many early settlers—constructed from locally harvested longleaf pine with a metal roof and raised off the ground for flood protection and ventilation. It features large windows, a screened-in second floor sleeping porch, and, until recently, had no air conditioning. Focusing on this house, the team designed the landscape around it, using as inspiration the wooden Cross Creek home of Florida’s Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, which similarly was situated next to an orange grove.

Stephenson uses Rawlings’s writings about rural Florida’s beauty to inspire and inform his students and drew from her descriptions in creating the Genius plan. Rawlings wrote of her home in 1942: 

When I came to the Creek, and knew the old grove and farmhouse at once as home, there was some terror, such as one feels in the first recognition of a human love, for the joining of person to place, as of person to person, is a commitment to shared sorrow, even as to shared joy.” 12 

Fig. 3., The historic Ward House, as pictured on the Rollins College Department of Environmental Studies Genius Preserve webpage.

Wind Song has not been occupied since the McKean era, although it receives regular maintenance. It has a rose garden surrounded by ornamental, non-native plants that the couple installed. The house and grounds where the couple once entertained and where Jeanette set up her painting easels have not been touched to maintain the atmosphere of their legacy. The citrus packing plant is preserved, but sits unused, and the horse stables are long gone. 

As the college program evolved, students conducted many projects, including “photographic monitoring, species inventory” as well as creating a seventy-page Genius Preserve Field Guide and website. They planted a pollinator garden to attract insects and have been delighted at the number of “volunteer” plants that have sprouted from their work. In 2008, honoring the extensive restoration work, the 1000 Friends of Florida, a non-profit statewide group that promotes wise growth, honored the college and foundation with its Community Betterment Award. “This is a well-planned and implemented effort to restore and protect an important piece of open space in an urban setting,” Charles Pattison, President of 1000 Friends, noted. “It shows what a committed group of people can accomplish with vision and a workable plan.”13  

Studies show that this small urban oasis is an important stopover for migratory birds; some 160 species—including rare and protected birds such as the bald eagle—have been identified on the property; thirty of them nest there. It also is home to more than fifty species of reptiles and amphibians, including gopher tortoises and federally protected alligators, as well as 280 different plants, three of which are protected by law.14  

Perhaps the best way to describe the Preserve is as a collaboration—of community members, students, faculty, and the funding foundation. Every semester fifteen to twenty students work on the property, some earning stipends, and an estimated 400 volunteers have helped, including members of the Orange Audubon Society who conduct bird counts in addition to removing annoying invasive vines. High school groups and community organizations, including the city’s library and the local native plant society, have gained special permission to tour the Preserve, which remains closed to the public. However, it is used for educational purposes by several Rollins professors, including Stephenson, who take their classes there for field studies in topics that range from art to literature to biology.15 

Fig. 4., Rollins College professor, Dr. Bruce Stephenson, and students as depicted on the Rollins College Department of Environmental Studies Genius Preserve webpage.

Philosophy Professor Ryan Musgrave regularly brings her students to the Preserve—sometimes by canoe from the college—to help them relate to class readings. They read Transcendental writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson who extolled the spiritual qualities of nature and then go to the preserve to see if they can find and feel the same connections. “The response is one of wonder,” Musgrave said. “…it hits a sweet spot of wow, that was an amazing nature park but I didn’t know it was out there. That it is in Winter Park’s backyard is a lesson for students as well.” She describes the preserve as a laboratory for experiential learning.16  

After two decades of town and gown cooperation, the Genius Preserve has become a special place where wildlife, volunteers, visitors, and college members thrive. It is a clear example of how saving green space can make a community more sustainable and provides a model for other cities debating their futures. 

Leslie Kemp Poole is an award-winning writer and historian. Poole received her PhD in History from the University of Florida in 2012 and is now an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. Her articles are published in many academic journals and she regularly presents about her research at historical conferences. Poole is the sole author of the a 2009 local history book about Maitland, FL, and the 2015 book Saving Florida: Women’s Fight for the Environment in the Twentieth Century. She also appeared as as a subject expert in the 2008 PBS documentary In Marjorie’s Wake as well as the 2019 PBS Documentary The Swamp. Recently she co-edited a collection of essays about writers who found inspiration in Florida nature called The Wilder Heart of Florida.

Fig. 1., “Genius Drive Postcard View,” Rollins College Department of Environmental Studies Genius Preserve Homepage, accessed 4/13/2023,

Fig. 2., “Genius Preserve and Rollins 1970s Photo 2,” Rollins College Department of Environmental Studies Genius Preserve Image Gallery, accessed 4/13/2023,

Fig. 3., “Ward House,” Rollins College Department of Environmental Studies Genius Preserve Image Gallery, accessed 4/13/2023,

Fig. 4., “Wildest Place in Winter Park,” Rollins College Department of Environmental Studies Genius Preserve Image Gallery, accessed 4/13/2023,

1 Stacey L. Matrazzo, “The Democratic Landscape: Envisioning Democracy Through Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic.” Thesis for Master of Liberal Studies degree, May 2013, P. 52; Barbara White, “McKean Home: ‘Wind Song.’” Winter Park Library website. Accessed Nov. 28, 2022, at–wind-song-.

2 White, “McKean Home: ‘Wind Song’”; Denise K. Cummings. “McKean, Hugh F. Presidential Records.” Archives at Rollins College website. Accessed Nov. 28, 2022, at

3 Cummings, “McKean, Hugh F. Presidential Records.”

4 A. Carl Kupfer. “McKean’s Value to Rollins.” Orlando Evening Star, April 15, 1954. Page 12-A; “Tea For Three.” Photo and caption from Orlando Sentinel. March 28, 1958. No page number; Jo Cox, “Florida Magazine Woman of the Week.” Florida Magazine, Nov. 22, 1959. No page number. All articles obtained through the Winter Park Library Archives files: Jeannette Genius McKean and Hugh McKean.

5 “Morse History.” Website of the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. Accessed Nov. 28, 2022, at

6 Jack Snyder. “Sold Sign Sits On Slice Of Historic Winter Park.” Orlando Sentinel. Aug. 8, 1998. Accessed Nov. 28, 2022, at

7 Matrazzo, “The Democratic Landscape,” 41-42.

8 Matrazzo, “The Democratic Landscape,” 42, 48.

9 “About Us.” University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum website. Accessed Jan. 2, 2023, at

10 Matrazzo, “The Democratic Landscape,” 52-53.

11 Matrazzo, “The Democratic Landscape,” 53-54; Bruce Stephenson email to author, Dec. 16, 2022.

12 Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Cross Creek. New York: Simon & Schuster, First Touchstone Edition, 1996), 17.

13 Matrazzo, “The Democratic Landscape,” 53-54; R. Bruce Stephenson, “Teaching Sustainability in metro Orlando: the evolution of the pragmatic liberal arts at Rollins college.” In Smart Cities Policy and Financing: Approaches and Solutions, (Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing, 2022), ed. John R. Vaca, 162-163.

14 Matrazzo, “The Democratic Landscape,” 56-57.

15 R. Bruce Stephenson email to author, Nov. 10, 2022.

16 Ryan Musgrave telephone interview with author, Dec. 20, 2022.

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