Indepth Local History

From gulf to golf to “Best small city in the usa”
An overview of The Palmers, architecture, neighborhoods and circus history

The City of Sarasota traces its beginnings to a group of colonists who came from Scotland in December 1885 to start a new life on land marketed to them by a British land company. Although most of the colonists left after several months, the John Browning family stayed and their descendants are still here today. The company town slowly grew under the management of John Hamilton Gillespie, who arrived in early 1886. At a town meeting in October 1902, residents voted to incorporate as the Town of Sarasota. Gillespie was elected the first mayor. Gillespie, an avid golfer, built one of Florida's first golf courses south of Main Street and east of Links Avenue in 1905.

By the winter of 1910, Sarasota had a population of less than 1,000. 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. The arrival of John Ringling (of Ringling Brothers Circus fame) helped to secure a continuing spotlight on the area by making Sarasota his winter headquarters. Sarasota became an arts colony in the 1950s, attracting writers, painters and architects who founded what became known as the Sarasota School of Architecture. The arrival of the Hollywood 20 Theaters in 1997 launched the continuing downtown boom, providing a focal point for development that embraces the arts. This ongoing “sense of celebration” has contributed to Sarasota being declared “The Best Small City in America.”

Sarasota County History

Sarasota County was part of Manatee County until 1921 and shared much of the earlier history of that county. Only a little remains to remind us of the Cuban fishermen who set up camps along the coast during fishing season, then left with barrels of dried fish to sell back home. Felipe Bermudez was one such fisherman. Periodically, the U.S. Army used him as a guide to Seminole campsites during federal efforts to remove the Seminoles from Florida. His name, with a spelling variation, was given to Phillippi Creek.

William H. Whitaker is considered to be the first permanent white settler in present Sarasota County, having arrived and built a small house at Yellow Bluffs (on the bay at 12th Street and U.S. 41) in the early 1840s. His grandson recorded family lore about experiences during the Third Seminole War and with federal troops who blockaded Florida during the Civil War. The primary pioneer migration into Sarasota County came at the conclusion of the Civil War when settlers acquired land by homesteading or cash purchase. Groups of families created the early communities of Bee Ridge, Englewood, Fruitville, Laurel, Manasota, Miakka, Osprey, Sarasota and Venice.

While the Gamble Plantation in Manatee operated with the labor of more than 100 slaves, there were no plantations in what would become Sarasota County. The few enslaved African-Americans in this area were attached to individual households, including that of the Whitaker family. After the Civil War, early African-American pioneers settled the area later called Overtown in Sarasota. John Mays, a builder, and Lewis Colson, a member of the surveying crew that laid out the Town of Sarasota, were two of these pioneers whose descendants are still in the area.

It was during the following era that the Scottish colonists arrived in December 1885. The town slowly grew until, in October 1902, residents voted to incorporate as the Town of Sarasota. John Hamilton Gillespie was elected the first mayor and built one of Florida’s first golf courses south of Main Street and east of Links Avenue.

In 1910, Bertha Honore Palmer, a wealthy Chicago civic and social leader, triggered the evolution of Sarasota 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.

The breaking away of Sarasota County from Manatee on July 1, 1921, provided added impetus for the area to participate in the Florida real estate boom of the 1920s. Rapid population growth, investors seeking quick financial returns, and a frenzy of development produced a flood of new residential, commercial, business and government buildings. A Mediterranean-influenced architectural style became one of the hallmarks of the period. It was evident in the John and Mable Ringling mansion, the county courthouse, a series of new elementary schools, the City of Venice (built by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers) and countless structures that today remind us of that time.

Although a depressed economy was evident as early as 1927, the people of Sarasota County did not experience the extreme hardship found in other parts of the country during the Great Depression. Unemployment was high, but if you could fish, you could eat. The beaches, spring training for major league baseball, and the winter quarters for the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus continued to attract tourists. Federal funds contributed to the construction of Myakka River State Park, a number of public buildings, and road and bridge projects. The Kentucky Military Institute moved to Venice for the winter term and Dr. Fred Albee established his internationally recognized Florida Medical Center in Venice.

During World War II, both Sarasota and Venice hosted Army air bases, providing recreational and homelike hospitality for the soldiers who trained here as fighter pilots. Blackouts and beach patrols characterized an area anxious to prevent infiltration of enemy agents from the German U-boats that came uncomfortably close to the Florida coastline.

With the conclusion of the war, many Americans turned to creating a new life, unfettered by the restraints of the Depression and war years. A second population and building boom characterized the next decades in Sarasota County. A modernist architectural movement attracted a number of innovative architects to the area. Their work, illustrated in homes, schools and businesses, was later named the Sarasota School of Architecture. Growing numbers of artists and writers moved to the area, and attracted others to follow. They and their patrons created performing and visual arts institutions that would contribute later to Sarasota being marketed as “Florida’s Cultural Coast.”

Bee Ridge Community

Isaac Alderman Redd first settled this area, named for its bee swarms, following Florida’s Seminole Wars. The town was platted by one of Mrs. Potter Palmer’s companies and she opened the Bee Ridge Hotel in 1914. The new town also boasted a railway station, an apartment house, barbershop, post office and store.


In 1896, Herbert, Ira and Howard Nichols platted the community of Englewood along Lemon Bay, in the southernmost section of present Sarasota County. They had hoped to develop a community of lemon growers, but severe freezes in 1894-95 destroyed the young trees. Thereafter, they marketed the community, named after their hometown in Illinois, as a fisherman’s paradise in a beautiful subtropical setting. Riding the momentum of the land boom in the 1920s, Englewood incorporated as a city. A few years later, however, as the Depression left the city treasury too low to provide even the barest of municipal services, the city unincorporated. An unusual feature of the Englewood community is its location straddling the county line, with part of the community in Sarasota County and part in Charlotte County.

Fruitville Community

Charles and Martha Reaves are associated with the founding of Fruitville. They had moved east from Tatum Ridge in the late 1870s and provided the name Fruitville when Charles Reaves applied to become the first postmaster of the community. Their corncrib became the site of the community’s first school. In the late 1920s, the Palmer Farms and associated Growers Association made celery the key crop in Fruitville, and in the following decades Fruitville became one of the top celery-producing areas of the state.

Miakka Community

Excellent grazing lands drew some of the earliest residents to Miakka. During the Civil War, “Shade” Hancock looked after stock that Tampa cattleman Jesse Knight had sheltered along the Miakka River. Augustus Wilson brought his cattle in the 1870s and planted citrus, opened a general store and became Miakka’s first postmaster. The small community became a stopover point for travelers between Manatee and Pine Level, the county seat. In the 20th century, the spelling of Miakka changed to the current Myakka.

Osprey Community

John Webb, whose family had moved from upstate New York to Spanish Point in 1867, named the Osprey community when he applied to be its first postmaster. After finding their new home isolated from neighbors, the Webbs’ invitations to family and friends to visit led to their establishment of the Webb Resort Hotel, one of the earliest tourist facilities in the county. The Webbs sold their property to Bertha Palmer after her arrival in 1910. She used it for guest facilities and various gardens.

Woodmere Community

Woodmere was a company town built around the Manasota Lumber Company. South of Venice on the road to Englewood, at the height of sawmill activity from 1918 to 1923, Woodmere included dormitories for single workers, houses for families, a dining hall that could seat 1,200, commissary, school, machine shop, and railroad yard, along with the large sawmill. The company laid narrow-gauge rail lines throughout the thousands of acres of timber that it leased. After the sawmill burned and the land essentially cleared, the company closed and the residents left. Some of the houses were moved to nearby communities.

The Palmers

Bertha Palmer, widow of Potter Palmer of Chicago’s Palmer House fame, visited the Sarasota Bay region in February 1910 with her two sons, brother and father. Within a short time, members of the family with some others, formed a number of companies that purchased about 90,000 acres in the area and proceeded with a variety of development projects. Before she died at her winter home, which she called The Oaks, in Osprey in 1918, Mrs. Palmer had introduced new techniques and breeds of cattle on her ranch along the Myakka River, dubbed Meadowsweet Pastures. The family pressed the Seaboard Air Line Railway to extend its line from Fruitville to the Palmer property south of the pioneer Venice community. They then convinced the Federal Postal Department to move the Venice post office to the new rail terminus. This left the original Venice community without a post office and without a name. The residents ultimately selected the name Nokomis. Bertha’s sons, Honore and Potter Jr., continued the family influence in the county after their mother’s death. They drained the sawgrass lands in Fruitville and established Palmer Farms and a growers’ cooperative. The Palmer Bank organized in 1929 and moved into a building on Main and Central at the core of downtown Sarasota where it remained until it was acquired by Southeast Bank in 1976.

The Ringlings

John and Charles Ringling, of the famous Ringling Bros. Circus, were major early builders and developers of Sarasota, promoting the merits of the area all over the world. Among the impressive reminders are the John and Mable Ringling home, the Ringling 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.

Municipal Auditorium

The Florida land bust came in the last months of 1926 when the previous 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, and the recent return of the Hazzard Fountain — a gift to the city by Mr. and Mrs. Robert P. Hazzard in December of 1940 — which had been missing in storage since the early 1970s — has generated recent excitement.

Sarasota County History Center
Located at 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, the agency engages in activities supporting the identification, evaluation, preservation, protection, development and interpretation of Sarasota County’s historic resources.

Sarasota Visitor’s Information Center

Located at 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 was 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.

While the two elementary schools continue to serve local students, the high school is being transitioned to a new life. After plans surfaced to demolish the old building, the community responded in support the keep the old place alive. Ultimately, in 2008, Sarasota County School Board turned over the historic Sarasota High School building to Ringling College of Art and Design which is now renovating the structure into the new Sarasota Museum of Art.

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 premiere of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” on January 31, 1952.

Neighbors of the opera house, in a designated Theater Arts District, are the Florida Studio Theatre and Theatre Works buildings — both worth a visit, not only for cultural contributions but for their historical significance. The Florida Studio Theater building is the original Women’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 Herald Square, built by Sarasota’s most prominent modern developer, Owen Burns.

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, schools — the Sarasota High School addition, Brookside Middle School, Venice High School, Brentwood and Alta Vista elementary schools — and commercial buildings such as the former Sarasota Herald-Tribune Building, to name a few. Unfortunately in recent years, some exemplary structures including many of the schools have fallen to demolition, including Riverview High School and the beautiful Summerhouse Restaurant on Siesta Key.

Design statements by Ralph Twitchell, Paul Rudolph and other members of the Sarasota School of Architecture made a mark on our landscape from 1941 to 1965. The most concentrated wealth of examples can be found in Lido Shores, developed on New Pass in the 1950s by Phillip Hiss. At the time it was a new, almost revolutionary, form of architecture.

Many houses built during this period have been removed, altered or compromised. However, surviving examples are now being meticulously restored by their owners. Anyone with a love for aesthetics, design and history will clearly appreciate their efforts. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a national spotlight on your home either: In 1995, John Howey published The Sarasota School of Architecture (MIT Press). That was followed in 2002 by Paul Rudolph: The Florida Houses, by Christopher Domin and Joseph King (Princeton Architectural Press). In an area known for the arts, a lucky (or astute) few find cultural comfort by dwelling in a modern masterpiece.

For more information:
Sarasota Architectural Foundation

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