Sarasota came of age in 'Roaring Twenties'

Sarasota Herald Tribune. Feb 3, 2008

Four years, maybe five. That's how long the 1920s real estate boom lasted in Sarasota. In the time it took the class of 1926 — the last one before the move to the Collegiate Gothic building on the Tamiami Trail — to work its way through Sarasota High, the city was transformed from a quaint town into a thriving resort destination.

"That's when Sarasota really came together as a viable place to go," said Jeff LaHurd, the present-day author who has made a franchise of his picture books on Sarasota history.

"There was an awful lot of building in '25," said LaHurd. "(Chicago businessman Andrew) McAnsh came, and when he built the Mira Mar Hotel and the Mira Mar apartments (in 1922 and '23), that kind of signaled the boom was going, because now we had a place for these high-brow snowbirds to stay, whereas before there weren't any accommodations for them."

Attracting high-brow snowbirds was key to the Florida sales strategy. There weren't enough of them to buy all the developments planned for the state, and the promoters knew it. Aiming his marketing at high society, Boca Raton developer Addison Mizner said, "Get the big snobs and the little snobs will follow." And follow they did.

While the rich came by rail, the middle class invaded Florida in Model-T Fords, a half-million a year turning the state's brand new highways black -- the only color the cars came in.

"One of the selling points was the 'salubrious climate,'" said LaHurd, whose newest book is "Sarasota Roaring Through the '20s" (Pineapple Press, $24.95). "'Spend your summer this winter in Sarasota' was one of the slogans. They had a giant billboard for Sarasota in downtown Chicago, at the busiest intersection in the world at that time."

Indeed, most of Florida was into the boom. Along with Boca Raton and Coral Gables on the east coast, Venice was another boomtime invention, as the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers hired famous planner John Nolen to lay out the new city.

"California's gold rush of 1849 and the Klondike gold rush of 1898 pale when compared to the Florida land rush of 1925," wrote Raymond Vickers in "Panic in Paradise" (University of Alabama Press, 1994), in which the Tallahassee banking attorney, drawing upon information contained in previously sealed bank-examination records, exposes how fraud and insider abuse by some bankers and some developers fueled the boom and caused the subsequent crash.

"As tales of quick profits captured the attention of the nation, the boom in paradise became the greatest speculative frenzy in history," Vickers wrote. "Florida's climate, new roads, and low taxes had appeal, but the chance of easy money fueled the hysteria. Real estate promoters littered the state with 'the joyful and confident devastation of development.' Anything could happen as subdivisions rose from snake-infested mangrove swamps. Not since the days of the carpetbaggers had so many opportunists and swindlers migrated south."

"It became a Ponzi scheme -- and (Charles) Ponzi was actually mixed up in Florida," said Florida Southern College history professor James Denham. The noted swindler came here to make money in real estate, promptly ran afoul of the law, and fled the state while his case was on appeal.

Although Vickers takes Mizner to task as a key figure in the fraud, LaHurd would not include such men as circus king John Ringling and developer Owen Burns in the same bad bunch. Both had lived, at least part-time, in Sarasota for years before the boom started; Ringling came as a seasonal resident in 1911. Burns moved here from Chicago in 1910, and founded the Citizens Bank of Sarasota, which became First National Bank.

"They invested a lot of their own money in these projects," said LaHurd, whose book includes photos of newspaper advertisements to better convey the feeling of the era. "Ringling and Burns got hurt badly" when the boom went bust. In attempt to shore up Sarasota's image and keep the visitors -- and buyers -- coming, Ringling moved his circus' winter quarters to Sarasota, and opened it to the public on Christmas Day 1927.

"Ringling brought the circus to bolster the economy because he was so invested in Sarasota" with his Ringling Isles project that included St. Armands Circle, said LaHurd. "When the economy went south, he thought bringing the circus here would bring work to people to build the winter quarters, and boost the tourist industry. It was the biggest tourist draw in the state until Disney World opened."

But by then, the boom was history. The highways were black again, with Model-Ts heading north. But in those few short years, Sarasota had gotten 50 years' worth of new buildings, by one estimate, including Southside and Bay Haven elementary schools, Sarasota High, two bank towers, the El Vernona Hotel (later the John Ringling Hotel), hundreds of fine Spanish-style houses, and a bridge to the keys.

Venice, too, gained many new structures, but was a victim of poor timing, and became almost a ghost town in the late '20s. Both cities were virtually frozen in time until after World War II.