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 ruled.

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 past.

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 Burns.

Municipal Auditorium
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 Bickel.

Historic Schools
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 world

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.

U.S.S. Sarasota
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 organizations.

This information provided by "Steve Rabow's Official Guide Book".

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