Nearly a century ago, a pair of lovers built a grand castle on the island we know
as Bird Key.
By Jeff Lahurd. Sarasota Historic Society.
For most, the story of Bird Key extends hack to the late 1950s, when Arthur V, Davis
Arvida Corporation bought the John Ringling holdings and set upon the cask of redefining
Sarasota. Through a massive dredge-and-fill operation, the key was enlarged to accommodate
291 water-front and 220 off-water lots. Bird Key was and continues 10 be a real estate
agent's delight and to this day remains one of Sarasota's premier addresses.
Sales began in 1960 with hoopla not seen since the land boom of the Roaring '20s, Lots
were offered for between $9,000 and $32,000. Incentives for agents to sell, sell, sell
included a 27-foot Chris-Craft Constellation cabin cruiser and a new Lincoln Continental,
But there is another story about Bird Key char very few know. It's a romantic tale of hope
and heartbreak, and it began 50 years before Arvida discovered Sarasota's potential.
The story began on a sunny afternoon in 1910. Mrs. Davie Lindsay Worcester, who was
visiting from Cincinnati and six friends, took a launch to Bird Key, still a virginal
paradise not connected to the mainland. Bird Key was only 14 acres large in those days
and barely broke the surface of the water. But it was stunningly beautifully filled with
palm trees, brightly colored seashells, and birds that flocked there for food and rest,
Mrs. Worcester was a woman of means and a singularly gentle lady whose reputation was
forged on acts of kindness. As one of her friends put it, she was "a woman of great
heart [who] loved intensely all that was beautiful in nature and humanity." She
served on so many charitable boards that in her hometown she was considered the
"greatest woman philanthropist [they] had ever known,"
She came to Sarasota after an illness, hoping to relax and recoup in the "salubrious
climate." The beauty of Bird Key on that day so many years ago awed her. She wrote
her husband, Thomas, one of the most vivid descriptions of Sarasota ever penned.
Choosing her words as carefully as a painter chooses colors from a palette, she wrote:
"...the shore was laden with shells...so beautiful I could not pick them, dear, at
first. I felt that my heart would, burse on that shell-bestrewn shore. With thousands of
palms soaring toward the cloudsat our feet the Gulf of Mexico washing up, restless,
to our toe tips, and scatteredscattered everywhere...all the beautiful toys, as it
were; not given stingily or grudgingly but five, ten feel deep, perhaps, scattered
like beautiful flowers so far as color and form was concerned, on that white sand, until
you felt you could not tell the dear Father enough how grateful you were."
Thomas Worcester, described by a contemporary as "a courteous and pleasing
gentleman...full of genuine romance" for his wife and anxious about her frail health,
must have been moved. They had been married for 36 years and he loved her dearly. In her
letter she longed for him to share her joy and added, "This is what I want for my
old age...Oh! Words cannot paint the sceneimagination cannot conceive of such
In 1911, Thomas bought Bird Key from the stare and set about fulfilling his wife's wish.
Sand from the bay bottom was dredged to increase the size of the key. Davie, thrilled
that her dream was about to come true, designed much of the home that she chose to
name New Edzell, in honor of her family's ancestral estate in Scotland.
The Worcesters' mansion took three years to complete. At a cost of $100,000, it was
lavishly furnished and outfitted with such amenities as electric lighting, practically a
first in Sarasota, and acetylene gas. From the opposite shore it was said to glow with
startling radiance; and as it was still not connected to the mainland their launch, Dido,
ferried the Worcesters and their friends back and forth.
But on Oct. 14, 1912, before her home was completed, Davie Worcester, who had never fully
regained her health, unexpectedly died on Bird Key. She was brought back to the mainland
on the Dido and taken to Cincinnati for a funeral service and then to Kentucky, where she
was interred. Mr. Worcester, now a grieving husband, carried on with the project; and in
1914 New Edzell Castle was ready for a housewarming. The Sarasota Sun reminded its
readers chat Davie was responsible for its design and labeled the mansion, "a
Tribute to the Genius of a Talented American Woman."
At a time when Sarasota was barely more than a fishing village, the home was a showcase.
When parties were given, the guest list and the evening's goings-on were glowingly
described in the local paper. One such soiree, headlined "Musical Across the
Bay," was praised in the flowery prose of the day;
"The harmony and beautiful strains from their instruments pealed throughout the
entire mansion grounds to the utmost pleasure of all the guests." When the evening
was over and the guests were transported back to shore, the paper noted, "As the
yacht slipped away into the moonlight waters of the bay the many lights on shore winked
and winked again, 'good night, come again..'"
John Ringling purchased Bird Key in the early '20s and connected it to the mainland with a
bridge. He hoped New Edzell Castle would serve as the winter White House for President
Warren G. Harding, which would help to advertise his development, Ringling Isles, and
boost sales there. He even named the streets on adjoining Lido Key In honor of American
presidents, but Harding died before the plan could be realized; and Ringling's sister, Ida
Ringling North, moved in and lived at New Edzell until she died in 1950.
New Edzell Castle did not figure into Arvida's plans for Bird Key. One of their selling
points was a $250,000 Bahamian-style yacht club, which was built on the site of Mrs.
Worcester's dream house. As has happened so often in Sarasota, there was little effort to
save the home for its historic import, and it was destroyed. Today, not even a historic
marker exists on Bird Key to remind us of Davie and Thomas Worcester and what was to have
been their retirement paradise. But the next time you pass Bird Key, give a thought to the
Worcesters, whose appreciation for beauty and for each other led them 10 settle there.
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