Sarasota County History
A few Sarasota County Historic Highlights
Some of the few remaining remnants of 19th century Sarasota history are found downtown.
The Bidwell-Wood House at 849 Florida avenue was built in 1884 and is notorious as the
site where the plot to assassinate Sarasota's first postmaster, Charles Albee, was
hatched. This violent episode ended years of contention between local farmers and groups
of land speculators who, after the Civil War, tried to circumvent the 1862 Homestead Act
by terrorizing early settlers. With no organized system to dispense justice, frontier law
John Hamilton Gillespie arrived from Edinburgh, Scotland in 1886 to help manage the
Florida Mortgage and Investment Company's colony which had arrived the previous December.
Gillespie built one of Florida's first golf courses in what is now downtown Sarasota.
By the winter of 1910, Sarasota had a population of less than 1,000, but a visit from
Bertha Honore Palmer, a wealthy Chicago civic and social leader, was the catalyst that
would help change the little town from a sleepy fishing village to a cosmopolitan city.
Her declaration that Sarasota Bay was more beautiful than the Bay of Naples caught the
attention of the press and visionaries who led the residents away from their frontier
Bee Ridge Community
Named for its bee swarms, Isaac Alderman Redd first settled the area following Florida's
Seminole Wars. The town was platted by one of Mrs. Potter Palmer's companies. Her Bee
Ridge Hotel opened in 1914 and the new town boasted a railway station, an apartment house,
barbershop and store.
The most striking examples of Sarasota's past are landmark homes and commercial buildings
which were built during the real estate boom of the '20s. Growth, which normally would
have taken decades, was compressed into a few short years in a frenzy of development.
Between 1923 and 1926, the town sprouted high rise hotels, theaters, banks, palatial
private residences and housing developments.
In these boom years, builders capitalized on our Spanish heritage and many examples of
this style of architecture can be found throughout the county.
John and Charles Ringling-of Circus Fame
John and Charles Ringling, of the famous Ringling Brothers Circus were major early
builders/developers promoting the merits of Sarasota all over the world. Among the
impressive reminders are the John and Mable Ringling home, the Ringling Art Museum and the
Ringling School of Art and Design. John Ringling also developed Lido Key and built the
first bridge linking the islands to Sarasota's mainland.
Theater Arts District
In the heart of the downtown Theater Arts District is the newly restored Sarasota Opera
House on Pineapple Avenue, built as the Edwards Theater in 1925 by the city's first mayor.
The Florida Studio Theatre and Theatre Works buildings are both worth a visit, not only
for their cultural contributions, but for their historical significance. The Florida
Studio Theater building is the original Woman's Club and the Theatre Works' building was
originally the Palm Tree Playhouse.
As you drive down Palm Avenue, you will see many rehabilitated early structures in use
today as restaurants, art galleries and offices. Continuing south on Pineapple, we come to
Burns Court and Hearald Square, built by Sarasota's most prominent modern developer, Owen
The Florida land bust came in the last months of 1926 when the frantic activity stopped
and growth came to a virtual standstill. While the country was in the grip of the Great
Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) financed several significant
structures, among them, the Municipal Auditorium. Built in 1937, the original Art Deco
facade was covered by a 1970s "renovation." Locally designated as a historic
structure, the building has been restored to its original appearance with current cause
for celebration being the return of the Hazzard Fountain, a gift to the city by Mr. and
Mrs. Robert P. Hazzard in December of 1940 and missing in storage since the early 1970s.
Sarasota County Department of Historical Resources - 701 Plaza de Santo
Domingo. Built in 1941 as the public library, it is now the depository of Sarasota
County's historical collection. Acting in the public trust, this government agency engages
in activities supporting the identification, evaluation, preservation, protection,
development and interpretation of Sarasota County's historic resources.
Sarasota Visitor's Information Center - U.S. 41 and Sixth Street.
Designed by Victor Lundy and built in 1957, this building received national attention for
its use of plate glass walls, massive roof and blue tiles imported from Japan by Karl
Several schools built during the 1920s are still in use. Sarasota High School, built in
the Collegiate Gothic style, Southside School on South Tamiami Trail and Webber Street and
Bay Haven Elementary School on West Tamiami Circle are built in the Mediterranean Revival
style. All have served Sarasota students for more than sixty years.
Sarasota School of Architecture
During the 1950s, Sarasota again began to grow, prosper and modernize. A group of
imaginative architects attracted national attention with their contemporary and
environmentally oriented style which became known as the Sarasota School of Architecture.
Examples of this style are scattered throughout the area - private residences, school -
the Sarasota High School addition, Riverview High School, Brookside Middle School,
Venice-Nokomis High School and commercial buildings the Summerhouse Restaurant on Siesta
Key and the Sarasota Herald Tribune Building, to name a few.
Sarasota Opera House
This beautiful restored building downtown on Pineapple Avenue opened in 1926 as the
Edwards Theater. The name was changed to Florida Theater in 1936 and was the site of the
world premier of Cecil B. Demille's The Greatest show on Earth January 31, 1952.
Sarasota Circus History and the Ringlings
No clowning around, we take the circus very seriously. The notion of Sarasota as "The
Athens of the Gulf Coast" was put in place by John and Charles Ringling who moved the
winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus from Bridgeport,
Connecticut to Sarasota in 1927. The Ringlings were convinced that this area was prime for
growth. At one time they owned tens of thousand of acres here and planned to build a
casino to attract tourists.
The crash of 1929 and the following Great Depression put an end to their dreams of
development. However, their influence continues to play a significant role in the area:
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art - Combines a world class art
collection, circus memorabilia and gardens filled with majestic statues of antiquity. The
palatial Ca'd'Zan, located on the grounds of the museum, was their home. As a collector of
Italian baroque and renaissance art (including huge paintings by Paul Rubens) John
Ringling built the museum which he left to the State of Florida.
Lido Key - John Ringling's dream location for a resort community was once
a series of unconnected islands. Just before the crash of 1929, Ringling filled the areas
between the islands and built a causeway reaching from the mainland thus opening up the
newly formed Lido Area.
St. Armands Circle - Designed by John Ringling as part of the Ringling
Estates subdivision and dotted with his numerous Italian baroque statues, it is now a
shopper's mecca. Ringling built the original wooden causeway to provide automobile access
to his development. The modern causeway is named after him.
Courthouse Subdivision - Designed by Charles Ringling, the Courthouse
Subdivision was platted on land which had been part of John Hamilton Gillespie's nine-hole
golf course. It extended from Links Avenue to School Avenue and from Main Street to Golf
Street and Adams Lane. Ringling provided some of the land for the Dwight James Baum
designed courthouse which opened in 1927. His Charles Ringling Hotel, later the Sarasota
Terrace Hotel, now the county administration building at 101 South Washington Boulevard,
opened in 1926.
The Tradition Continues
No question about it, without the Ringlings things would be much different around here.
However, the Ringling legacy is only one part of our circus heritage.
Currently there are 15 circus companies with headquarters in Sarasota County. You'll find
more circus people living here, both active and retired, than in any one place in the
Part of the 1952 circus film "The Greatest Show on Earth" was filmed in
Sarasota, which, of course, must explain why it won an Academy Award for Best Picture of
the Year - after seeing the film, no other explanation comes to mind.
A Naval attack transport, the U.S.S. Sarasota, was built in California in 1944. She was
named after the County of Sarasota and served in the southwest Pacific during World War
II. During the war, the ship transported troops defended itself against air attacks, came
to the aid of wounded ships and took part in assaults and landings on Ie Shima, Okinawa
and the Phillippines.
After the surrender of Japan, the U.S.S. Sarasota served as part of the Magic Carpet Fleet
which transported servicemen back to the United States and supplied the occupation forces
in Japan. After almost two years of service, she was decommissioned in California in 1946.
The ship was recommissioned in 1951, operated in the Mediterranean and was used in
training exercises in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean.
She dropped anchor in Sarasota in 1951 and again in 1953. On both occasions the officers
and crew demonstrated a wartime landing and beachhead operation by staging a mock invasion
of Lido Beach, coming ashore in assault boats.
The U.S.S. Sarasota was decommissioned in 1955. In 1983 she was sold as scrap.
The wood and brass official model of the U.S.S. Sarasota, built to a precise one to 48
scale - four feet tall and eleven and a half feet long - was moved to Sarasota in 1989
from Washington, D.C. where it was on display in the Navy Museum. Davi and Valenti Movers
transported the model to Sarasota at no cost. The model is now on permanent display in the
lobby of the Sarasota County Administration Building, 101 S. Washington Boulevard, through
the hard work and dedication of a few local residents and the support of many local
This information provided by "Steve Rabow's Official Guide Book".
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