When winter grips the Northeast and Midwest, snowbirds head south to escape the freezing temperatures and snow. A popular destination of the 1940s was Sarasota on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Let’s take a postcard visit to Sarasota and imagine how pleasant an exchange of cold northern gusts for the warm breezes of the gulf would be.
If you were looking for a hotel, the John Ringling Hotel was the premier hotel in Sarasota. It opened on New Year’s Eve in 1926. Built by developer Owen Burns, he named it the El Vernona Hotel after his wife. The hotel overlooked the Gulf of Mexico, and was advertised as the “Aristocrat of Beauty,” the Vernona was considered one of the finest examples of Spanish architecture in Florida.
John Ringling purchased the hotel after the 1929 stock market crash and renamed it for himself. During Ringling’s ownership, the hotel featured circus acts in its dining room. The John Ringling Hotel was demolished in 1998 after years of decline and a Ritz-Carlton now sits on the site.
If the John Ringling Hotel was out of your price range, Sarasota’s Trailer City provided an affordable lodging option. Billed as the world’s largest trailer park, it attracted over 3,500 “tin can tourists” who enjoyed the balmy climate and a wide range of activities including band concerts, dances, and sporting activities. It was a short walk or bicycle ride to the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. The baseball diamond in the center of the postcard was the spring training headquarters of the Boston Red Sox. The site of the trailer city is now a public park.
Construction of the Sarasota County Court House began in 1926. It is an excellent example of the Spanish/Mediterranean Revival architectural style that was popular in Florida during the real estate boom of the 1920s. The complex consisted of two rectangular buildings connected to the central tower by a colonnade. A stairway provided access to the top of the tower. In addition to housing courts and county administrative offices, the jail was also part of the complex. The courthouse provides a beautiful backdrop for wedding photos compared to most courthouses.
Going against the grain of Sarasota’s predominant Spanish style of architecture, Sarasota’s Municipal Auditorium on Sarasota Bay is of Moderne and Art Deco design. Built in 1938, the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration provided the construction funding to alleviate unemployment and provide economic stimulus. The auditorium has a barrel-vault roof, and the eastern end features a glass block wall that provides natural light. A hardwood maple floor provides excellent acoustics. An electrically illuminated fountain donated by R. P. [Robert Parks] Hazzard in 1940 was the crown jewel of the project.
The auditorium hosts concerts, banquets, dances, and conventions. Outdoors next to the auditorium there are facilities for tennis, lawn bowling, and shuffleboard. It also housed an indoor recreation facility. During World War II, the auditorium housed the Army–Navy Club for servicemen stationed nearby. In 1997, the facility was extensively renovated and is still in operation today.
Lukewood Park, a gift from Luke Wood, provides a quiet retreat for Sarasotans. Mr. Wood moved to Sarasota from New England at the turn of the century and his gift consisted of twelve acres adjacent to the downtown. The Sarasota Garden Club developed an arboretum in the park in the 1930s by planting over a thousand trees and bushes. Also a lagoon and reflecting pool were constructed. The lush vegetation creates a bird sanctuary, but in the 1950s, the park was bisected by a highway and lost many of its original features including a memorial to Mable Burton Ringling, the first president of the Garden Club.
Scenic John Ringling Boulevard carries beach goers to Lido Beach and its casino. Beautifully landscaped with swaying palm trees, the boulevard must have impressed snowbirds escaping the north. The Art Deco casino offered beachgoers a ballroom, bandstand, cabanas, swimming pool, and 1,300 feet of white sand beachfront. Another WPA project, the casino was demolished in 1964.
The Italianate John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art opened in 1932 with an impressive collection of European art from the 16th– through the 20th century as well as collections of Roman, Greek, and Cypriot antiquities. John Ringling was one of the most prolific art purchasers in the early 20th century. His wife, Mable, shared his passion.
The Ringlings hired architect, John H. Phillips, to design and build a museum to house their collections adjacent to their Sarasota mansion. [Phillips came to the Ringling’s attention through his work on the Metropolitan Museum of Art and New York City’s Grand Central Station.] Phillips designed a u-shaped museum with twenty-one galleries to exhibit their impressive collections of paintings, tapestries, religious artifacts, furniture, and sculptures. The pink museum building’s colonnaded loggias surround a central courtyard housing seventy-six bronze and stone replicas of famous Classical, Renaissance, and Baroque sculptures. A seventeen-foot-tall replica of Michelangelo’s sculpture of David is the centerpiece of the sculpture garden.
Today the museum is owned by the state of Florida and operated by Florida State University.