Inn Tries to Preserve Its Colorful History
Orlando Sentinel (Florida)
April 8, 2006 Saturday
Daphne Sashin, Sentinel Staff Writer
SECTION: LOCAL & STATE; FINAL; Pg. B1
YEEHAW JUNCTION — Someday, when there’s a brand new city across the street and the other ranchers have sold their land to developers, Beverly Zicheck hopes the little old Desert Inn will still be around to remind people how life in south Osceola County used to be.
The dimly lit barroom and former brothel served cowboys and lumber men as early as 1889, from what the current owner has learned from patrons. It sits at the corner of State Road 60 and U.S. Highway 441 near Florida’s Turnpike — a solid 70 miles from Walt Disney World but just across the highway from where developer Anthony Pugliese is planning to build a city of 75,000-plus called Destiny on 27,400 acres.
Zicheck got the Desert Inn listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994 and converted some of the unused rooms above the restaurant into a modest museum of Yeehaw Junction’s past.
But now she is suffering from health problems and says she is ready to quit the business. She is holding out for a buyer who has a vision for the historic building, not some investor with a mind to tear the place down and build something new.
“They take this down, they’re taking down part of the old Florida, Zicheck said this week. “It’s been through no telling how many hurricanes and it’s still here. It deserves to stay here.”
She is asking $2.4 million for the restaurant and adjacent motel on 3.4 acres. Zicheck thinks there are people out there who could afford to pay it, but she is willing to come down on the price for the right person.
“I just want the building preserved,” she said. “I don’t want to get it into the wrong hands.”
At various times in the past century-plus, the Desert Inn has served as a trading post, gas station, dance hall and brothel. It has always been sort of a strange meeting place, where a man in great need of a bath could walk through one door while a lady dressed in a fur coat strides through the other.
“When I came through yesterday, a couple cowboys came in with spurs. How often do you see that?” said Dave Smith, 47, a businessman on his way back to Tampa from Riviera Beach. He stopped at the Desert Inn two days in a row for cheeseburgers.
These days, burgers are indeed the most popular items on the menu, though the place honors its heritage with gator and frog dinner platters. Not frog legs, Zicheck hastened to point out, but “frogs, with the toenails on. Everything from the neck back.”
About the time Zicheck got the Desert Inn listed on the historic register, she began soliciting memorabilia from Yeehaw Junction’s early days and displayed it above the bar in rooms that hadn’t been used in decades. The bordello suite is the main attraction, with its red carpet, lace pillows and a swing hanging from the ceiling.
Zicheck has spoken with The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit organization that has helped save culturally significant buildings under threat of being developed. The trust bought the historically black Wellsbilt Hotel in Orlando in 1996 and turned it over to a local nonprofit group that converted it into a museum.
Preserving the Desert Inn to promote Osceola’s history fits in with the trust’s mission and “sounds like a great idea,” but the group hasn’t reached an agreement with Zicheck, said Doug Hattaway, a project manager with the trust in Tallahassee.
The inn’s spot on the National Register would make its future owners eligible for a substantial income-tax deduction if they make major renovations consistent with the state’s architectural-preservation standards, said Bob Jones, a historic preservationist with the state’s Bureau of Historic Preservation.
“The idea is to retain as much of the historic material and character of the property, so it basically doesn’t turn into appearing something other than it was 50 years ago,” Jones said. “Often times, changes will occur toward the rear of the property, things that aren’t seen, so the character doesn’t change.”
Zicheck said the new buyers don’t have to continue operating the Desert Inn as a bar and restaurant. They could turn it into a welcome center and gift shop, expand the hotel or develop the museum and charge admission. Just something, she says, that will secure the inn’s place in history.