One of the 3 towers on US Route 27, the view from the Citrus Tower was once just citrus; today, there might not be a citrus tree in sight.
Construction of the Citrus Tower began in 1955, in the midst of Florida’s tourism golden age, when attractions such as Silver Springs, Cypress Gardens, Parrot Jungle and Weeki Wachee were nationally famous. Opened in 1956, the tower was the tallest building in Florida, even though it only had 4 floors.
It topped out at 226 feet (69 m) tall. Built on one of the many hills around the small town of Clermont in southern Lake County, the top of the tower is about 500 feet (152 m) above sea level, equalling Bok Tower in Lake Wales in overall height. The Citrus Tower boasted remarkable sights from it’s three viewing platforms – blue lakes, rolling hills and thousands of acres of oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and tangerines.
Many Florida attractions began as the vision of one person. While there were others who suggested the idea of a tower near the intersection of US Route 27 and Florida State Route 50 (SR 50), Alfred W. Thacker was the driving force for the tower. The owner of the Skyline Motel, in the early 1950s Thacker spent the better part of a year working on how to make a tower a reality.
A native of Pittsburgh, PA, he turned to his hometown to find assistance. One of the Pittsburghers who became interested was John “Jack” Toole. Toole was an engineer, US Navy veteran and the founder of Triangle Tech, a Pittsburgh technical college that’s still in operation. Thacker was able to persuade Toole to design the tower and to move to Clermont.
Once designed, Thacker and Toole promoted the tower throughout Clermont and Lake County (as well as in Pittsburgh). The Florida Tower Corporation was formed with Thacker as vice president and treasurer and Toole as president. The corporation also included Arthur Ekiert, George Dickson, Bill Lee and Carl Rowsing. Thacker switched to raising the funds, turning their corporation public to raise $250,000 from some 300 stockholders.
By 1955, the tower began to rise skywards on Thacker’s property across from his motel. Primarily made of concrete with a total weight of 2500 US Tons (2270 metric tons), it also had one the tallest elevators in the South. The Tower originally featured two observation levels as can be seen on early postcards and brochures. Initially, both levels were open to the elements. There was also another floor that is located just below the lower observation deck which had louvered windows. The lower of the two observation decks was roofed over and enclosed in the mid-1960s. Eventually, the open-air top deck was closed to the public.
Opened in 1956, the Citrus Tower was an immediate success. Located on US 27, it was in a prime location between the Silver Springs attractions and the Lake Wales area parks – Bok Tower and Cypress Gardens. Located on SR 50, tourists could also head west to get to Weeki Wachee at the end of the highway.
The Citrus Tower added further attractions to the observation tower. There was a restaurant and lounge, gift shop, citrus sales, Jack Raymon’s Wildlife Arena, Don Boutz’s and his family blowing Bohemian glass, a garden shaped like Florida and a circus arcade in miniature.
Unfortunately, the golden age ended. The Citrus Tower was hurt by the expansion of Florida’s Turnpike from Ft. Pierce to Wildwood. While the turnpike passes within a couple miles of the tower, the absence of a nearby exit meant that most tourists drove past without visiting. From the 1970s on, the Citrus Tower struggled to have enough visitors to make a profit.
In the 1980s, the Tower received another huge blow. Florida’s Citrus industry radically changed in that decade and the next. Three different things occurred, all within a few years of each other. 1) Central Florida was hit with a series of hard freezes, which ruined much of the citrus in Lake and Orange Counties. 2) The Mediterranean fruit fly (Ceratitis capitata) was discovered in the state. The fly directly attacks the fruit, rendering them unusable. 3) Citrus canker, a bacterial infection, was discovered in Florida. While canker doesn’t ruin the fruit itself, it attacks the peel, rendering it unsightly. It’s so infectious that the government required entire groves of trees destroyed.
By the 1990s, commercial citrus production in Lake County was basically over. At the same time, Clermont was becoming a “bedroom” community of Orlando. The citrus growers around the Tower eventually sold their groves to home developers. The result? One of the great ironies of Florida tourism: The Citrus Tower is no longer surrounded by citrus.
The 2000s were not particularly kind to the Citrus Tower, however, beginning in 2019, things started to change for the better. The lobby area of the complex was renovated and a coffee bar added. The observation deck was also fixed up with paint and seating was added which encourages people to sit and drink their coffee and enjoy the views. You can see the difference between 2018 and 2020 below in the visits below.
Still an iconic Florida attraction, the Citrus Tower is the last of Florida’s towers that is open to the public without having to climb the winding stairs of a lighthouse.
Below is a comparison of the heights (and heights plus elevation) and construction dates of the three towers.
HEIGHT – TOWER & SEA LEVEL
205 ft (62.5 m) & 500 ft (152 m)
226 ft (69 m) & 500 ft (152 m)
240 ft (73 m) & 390 ft (118 m)
Note that the highest natural point in Florida is 345 ft (105 m). Known as Britton Hill, it’s located in the Panhandle on the Alabama border. Sugarloaf Mountain, located near Clermont, is the highest point in peninsular Florida at 312 ft (95 m).
Interestingly, you can visit all the towers in one day as they’re a total of 103 miles (166 km) apart on US 27. Bok Tower is just about 2 miles off of 27. Two hours of driving time would still leave plenty of time to enjoy Bok Tower Gardens to its fullest. If you do this – time your visit to the Citrus Tower to coincide with the sunset.
Governors’ Grove – another citrus attraction in Clermont, now lost to time.