Not too many years ago, Sarasota’s out islands were inviting tropical isles characterized by striking stretches of sugar white sand, verdant foliage and sparkling azure waters beckoning mainlanders and tourists for a relaxing getaway.
Although within sight of the mainland, they seemed miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city with its frenetic spurts of construction and growth.
Until well after World War II, island development was minimal. No high-rise condominiums, gated communities, walled estates or throngs of bars, restaurants, strip centers or bumper-to- bumper traffic marred the charm and ambience that made them so inviting. Indeed, until the mid-’60s, the Stickney Point Bridge was a single-lane swivel bridge that was hand-cranked to open. The Ringling Bridge linking Lido Key remained a two-lane bascule made mostly of wood until 1959.
All of that has changed, of course, and dramatically so. The islands’ exquisite beauty proved to be their undoing — as that beautiful, pristine paradise was a lure for developers. Today no one would feel transported to a haven far from the madding crowd after a day trip to Lido, Siesta or Longboat Key.
Explaining Siesta’s rampant development, Tim Seibert, one of Sarasota’s most prolific architects, remarked in an interview: “Siesta looks the way it does because so many members of the old Sarasota establishment sold their land out to developers and got big bucks. Now some of these same people … are complaining about the way things have turned out.”
Growth notwithstanding, our keys are still inviting venues to live and visit, as the crowds attest, with Siesta often named the best beach in the country.
Harry Higel, along with Captain Louis “Big Daddy” Roberts and E. M. Arbogast, platted the northern tip of what was known alternately over the years as Clam Island, Muscle Island, Little Sarasota Key, Sarasota Key, and, finally, Siesta Key. They began promoting it nationally as an “ideal spot for winter and summer homes.” It was referred to as a tropical island in Sarasota Bay.
Some of the locals erected shoreline beach huts, primitive to be sure, but handy for a changing station and great to gather around for sing-alongs, roasting marshmallows and sitting in front of campfires.
In 1917, Siesta became the first of Sarasota’s keys linked to the mainland by a bridge although Harry Higel, “Sarasota’s indefatigable booster” offered ferry service after his Higelhurst Hotel opened on Big Pass in 1915, noting, “It takes only 20 minutes to run from Sarasota [to Siesta] on a ferry.”
When the hotel burned to the ground, Higel’s son, Gordon, recalled his father watching the blaze from the shoreline, tears streaming down his cheeks. He vowed to rebuild, but never did. Higel’s desire for the key was to “appeal to the well-to-do who wish to leave the north and get down here for five or six months of continuous good weather.”
As Siesta was the first key readily accessible, it became the first to offer day-trippers recreational activities. “Uncle” Ben Stickney for whom the Stickney Point Bridge and Stickney Point Road are named, was universally loved for hosting popular picnics. “Big Daddy” opened the Robert’s Hotel (later the Siesta Inn) in 1906, and in the 1920s his Robert’s Pavilion could accommodate up to 3,000 guests.
Another key player in the early development of Siesta was merchant I.G. Archibald, who, along with the city’s first mayor, A. B. Edwards, created the heart-shaped Palm Island, dubbed “the heart of Siesta.” His son, Frank, recalled that in the early 1920s a paddlewheel steamer had washed ashore. He conjectured it had been blown there by a hurricane, and that it contained the skeletal remains of passengers, some with gold rings on their fingers. (During the same interview in “The News” Frank confessed it was he who had destroyed Sarasota’s first roundabout in the center of Five Points by accidently smashing into it with his father’s Model T Ford.)
Another legend has it that a treasure chest of pirate gold and jewels is buried offshore near Point of Rocks, though several earnest attempts to locate it have proved unsuccessful.
During the real estate boom of the Roaring ’20s, progress on all the out islands sped up. The replacement bridge to Siesta was opened in 1927, but even before that, Siesta offered the Mira Mar Casino, “Sarasota’s Exclusive Nightclub,” the Archibald bathing pavilion and the Gulf View Inn with its rustic interior, a pond in the center of the lobby with alligators milling about, and dancing to jazz music, “Music by Dale Troy, the Fastest Steppin Jazz Steps Ever Stepped.”
In 1927 the new bridge was dedicated to Higel who had been brutally bludgeoned to death on the key in 1921. “To the memory of Harry L. Higel. A beloved Citizen of Sarasota County.” An arrest was made, but the defendant was declared innocent and the case has never been solved.
Driving along the pristine shoreline was not only permitted, but encouraged. And public celebrations offered auto and motorcycle races, horse races, greased pig catches, beauty pageants and bon-fire picnics.
In the early 1950s, long before Dr. Beach discovered Siesta, National Geographic magazine proclaimed Siesta’s beach one of the four most beautiful in the world.
By this time it was called home by renowned writers and artists such as Travis McGee, author J.D. McDonald, Pulitzer Prize-winner MacKinlay Kantor, Duane Decker, E.B White, who wintered there, Jerry Farnsworth and Thornton Utz to name but a few. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt often visited her uncle David Gray, whose home was on the key.
With the ability to keep the dreaded hordes of mosquitoes at bay with the use of DDT, liberally sprayed from planes and fogger jeeps, Siesta became even more popular. By the mid-1950s approximately 500 permanent residents resided there.
Pressure was put on the Board of County Commission to purchase beachfront property for public use before it was gobbled up for development. Ultimately 2,400 feet of Gulf frontage was acquired. The public beach was enhanced in 1959 with the completion of the Siesta Key Pavilion designed by Tim Seibert, a major light in what became known as the Sarasota School of Architecture.
Initially, Bird Key was the romantic dream haven of Davie Lindsay Worcester and her devoted husband, Thomas, a Cincinnati industrialist. She was visiting “salubrious” Sarasota in the early 1910s for health reasons, took a launch for a look-see of the area, and fell in love with what she discovered. Writing to Thomas of the inspiring sunsets, the colorful shell-lined shore, the beautiful birds and verdant foliage, she poured out her heart to him: “This is what I want for my old age. Words cannot paint the scene, imagination cannot conceive of such grandeur.”
The loving couple purchased the island from the state and built the area’s first mansion, the Worcester Mansion, also known at New Edzel Castle after her ancestral estate in Scotland.
Sadly, Davie passed away before her dream home was completed, and, after changing hands, the property was acquired by John Ringling who hoped to use the home as the Winter White House for Warren G. Harding. Unfortunately Harding died before staying there.
Bird Key remained untouched until 1959 when the Arvida Corporation purchased all of Ringling’s holdings, and soon dredged and filled the area to accommodate 511 home sites. The dream mansion was demolished to make way for the Bird Key Yacht Club.
While Siesta Key followed an evolutionary course of development with many players, St. Armands and Lido burst upon the scene like a skyrocket, lit by John Ringling and his associate, Owen Burns, Sarasota’s first major developer.
While Ringling was away from Sarasota conducting circus business in America and Europe, Burns was his trusted point man, buying up parcels of land on the keys until they were ready to develop, showcase and sell property on Ringling Isles.
Burns, with his dredges, Mud Hen and Sand Pecker, undertook one of the largest dredge and fill operations in the state. He formed up the area of mangroves and beautified it with thousands of palms and Australian pines as Ringling’s dream resort began taking shape.
Wide boulevards and sidewalks lined with antique statuary accentuated with lush foliage reflected the European look. The area’s hallmark was the magnificent St. Armands Circle, aka Harding Circle, and the streets were named for presidents as Harding was still slated to winter on Bird Key at the time.
On Lido, Ringling, Burns and Sam Gumpertz built a $30,000 pavilion “in the European style” and, for the opening, Mayor E.J. Bacon declared a holiday so that the school children could join in the celebratory festivities, which included the colorful Czecho-Slovakian Band which performed live concerts throughout the day. The musicians had been brought to Sarasota by Ringling to add some glamour to the affair. They also performed free concerts downtown regularly and were usually on hand at grand openings and major events during the 1920s boom.
Progress on the goings-on were closely followed on the mainland. Full-page articles with photographs, numerous advertisements of the bridge, “an engineering marvel” and the development, “a tropical island … and perhaps the greatest development in the state” kept the community informed. Nationally known landscape architect John J. Watson was put in charge of beautification.
When Ringling donated the bridge (and the problems associated with upkeep) to the city, the Herald enthused, “There are no words adequate with which to express our appreciation for this wonderful donation.” A full-page article showed Ringling at the middle of the span, his hands on the rail staring off into the distance: “Causeway is Proof of John Ringling’s Courage” blared the banner headline.
For the grand opening of the bridge, a steady stream of cars and buses took the curious across for a look-see at the “cynosure of all America and the world.” It was said that approximately $1 million worth of property was sold the first day.
The Herald editorialized what Ringling Isles meant to the fortunes of Sarasota: “To know that Sarasota is going to be a wonderful city, both beautiful and prosperous, one need only to go on a day’s inspection of St. Armands and Longboat keys. They tell the story.”
After the real estate crash in September of 1926, construction on Ringling’s keys came to an abrupt standstill, not to resume in earnest until well after World War II.
Included in the cessation of construction was Ringling’s great dream, a Ritz-Carlton hotel on the southern tip of Longboat Key. Its nearly completed shell stood as a forlorn reminder of the bitter crash until 1964 when it was finally demolished by the Arvida Corp. (While it stood, several people fell to their deaths in the elevator shafts.)
The brightest light on Lido for nearly 30 years was the Works Progress Administration’s storied Lido Casino, which opened in 1940 and immediately became a cherished landmark. In spite of a bond referendum for funds to renovate it, the iconic building was razed in 1969.
While it stood, sparkling and bright, its seahorses starring stoically into the distance, the Casino was the place to go in Sarasota for all age groups, and all manner of occassions: dining and dancing, shopping, and swimming. Major social, political and sporting events were held there, and it is still fondly recalled and missed by locals and longtime visitors.
Longboat Key of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, as Tim Seibert, who was one of Arvida’s key architects recalled, “was a beautiful piece of nature … a wild tropical paradise.” Speaking in 1983 he went on, “Now I’m playing a considerable role in its development, and, yes, that gives me a lot to think about. I honestly don’t know what I would do if I could turn back the hands of time on Longboat. ”
One early developer was so impressed with the virginal beauty of Longboat that he remarked there should never be a building on the key taller than a palm tree.
During World War II, Longboat was so void of habitation that it was frequently used by the Army Air Corps as a site for practicing bombing runs, and target practice for machine gunners.
Today, “the circle” is a major tourist attraction filled with upscale shops and fine restaurants. Throngs from around the world visit there annually, thus fulfilling the vision of Ringling and Burns.
Indeed, as prophesized by the Herald so long ago, St. Armands, Lido and Longboat Key do tell the story of a wonderful city, both beautiful and prosperous.
This article originally appeared in the Herald Tribune