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Local History


Sarasota is a city located in Sarasota County on the central west coast of Florida, USA. Its official limits include Sarasota Bay and several barrier islands between the bay and the Gulf of Mexico. These islands (known as keys) include Siesta Key, Lido Key, and Longboat Key and are famous worldwide for the quality of their beaches. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Sarasota had a population of 54,349 in 2004.[1]. Sarasota is a Principal City of the Sarasota-Bradenton-Venice, Florida Metropolitan Statistical Area, and is the county seat for Sarasota County.


Fifteen thousand years ago, when humans first settled in Florida, the Gulf of Mexico was one hundred miles further to the west. (The accompanying graphic depicts the ancient shoreline in light blue.) In this era, hunting and gathering was the primary means of subsistence. This could only take place in areas where water sources existed for hunter and prey alike. Deep springs and catchment basins, such as Warm Mineral Springs, were close enough to the Sarasota area to provide camp sites, but too far away for permanent settlements. As the Pleistocene glaciers began to melt, a more temperate climate began advanced southward. Sea levels began rising; they ultimately rose another 350 feet, resulting in the Florida shoreline of today.

Archaeological research in Sarasota documents more than ten thousand years of seasonal occupation by native peoples. For five thousand years while the current sea level existed, harvesting the bounty of Sarasota Bay was the primary source of protein. Europeans first explored the area in the early 1500s. The first recorded contact was in 1513, when a Spanish expedition landed at Charlotte Harbor, just to the south. When the natives encountered the Spaniards, they insulted them in Spanish before a preemptive attack. Apparently, some natives had made previous contact with the Spaniards—enough to learn a few words, and a lack of trust.

Pioneer families

European settlers arrived in significant numbers in the late 1840s. The area already had a name—'Zara Zote'—on maps dating back to the early 1700s. The initial settlers were attracted by the climate and Sarasota Bay, the region's greatest natural asset.

William Whitaker, born in Savannah, Georgia in 1821, is the first documented pioneer of European descent to permanently settle in what is now the city of Sarasota. Before his arrival, both Cuban and American fishermen had built fish camps or ranchos along Sarasota Bay, but these were not used throughout the year. After a period of time spent along the Manatee River at the village of Manatee, Whitaker built upon Yellow Bluffs, just north of the present day Eleventh Street. He sold dried fish and roe to Cuban traders working the coast and, eventually, began a cattle business in 1847.

In 1851, Whitaker married Mary Jane Wyatt, a member of a pioneer family that had settled the village of Manatee, and they raised eleven children on Yellow Bluffs despite the hardships faced by solitary pioneers. This included a raid that destroyed their home by a formerly friendly Seminole chief, Holata Micco, dubbed Billy Bowlegs, after whom Bowlees Creek may have been named. The Whitakers rebuilt and prospered. Their homestead site has not been preserved.

In 1867, the Webb family from Utica, New York, came to Florida looking for a place to settle. After arriving in Key West, the pioneer family met a Spanish trader, who told them about a high bluff of land on Sarasota Bay that would make a good location for a homestead. The site was further south from Whitaker's settlement, in an area near what is now the city of Osprey. When the Webbs arrived in the area looking for the bluff, they described it to Bill Whitaker, and he led them right to it. After settling, they named their homestead "Spanish Point," in honor of the trader.

The Webbs had to travel quite a distance for their mail for nearly twenty years. In 1884, John Webb finally petitioned for a separate postal address for Spanish Point. They chose Osprey as their postal address, since federal regulations required the use of only one word for the new address. A separate town eventually grew around that postal address. Although there is no similar documentation regarding the name of Sarasota, that federal one word rule for postal designations may be the reason that what for so long was two words—Zara Zota or Sara Sota—became Sarasota.

The modern age develops

Bertha Honoré Palmer was the region's largest landholder, rancher, and developer at the turn of the twentieth century. She made her winter residence on the land which the Webb family had homesteaded. She quickly established Sarasota as a fashionable location for winter retreats and tourists. In her early publicity, Palmer compared the beauty of Sarasota Bay to the Bay of Naples, and also touted its sports fishing. As the century advanced, the bay continued to attract visitors, until over-fishing depleted its marine life.

Palmer retained most of the Webb’s original structures and greatly expanded the settlement. The pioneer site has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places as Historic Spanish Point and is open to the public for a fee.

The two McClellan sisters were also significant women developers during this time period. They created the McClellan Park subdivision which bears their name.

The beauty of the region also attracted many of the Ringling brothers who'd created their wealth as circus magnates at the turn of the century. Ringling Brothers Circus had not yet consolidated as a single entity.

John and Mable Ringling developed their estate on property that had been part of the Shell Beach subdivision platted by Mary Louise and Charles N. Thompson in 1895. The Thompson home was the first residence on the property. Mable and John spent their winter stays in that house from 1911. Along with being a land developer, Thompson was a manager with another circus, who had interested several members of the Ringling family in Sarasota as a winter retreat as well as for investments in land.

First, the Alf T. Ringling family settled in the Whitfield Estates area with extensive land holdings. The families of Charles and John followed, living farther to the south. Soon, children and members of the extended family increased the presence of the Ringling family in Sarasota. Ringling Brothers Circus established its winter home in Sarasota during 1919 following the death of Alf T., Charles Ringling assuming many of his duties. Charles Thompson had joined the staff of the Ringling Brothers circus when it began to purchase smaller or failing circuses, and operate them separately. In 1919 these holdings were consolidated into one huge circus—billed as "the greatest show on Earth". There were now only two of the original five founding brothers alive, but members of their families continued to participate in the business or serve on the board of directors. Performers and staff members began to settle in Sarasota and the legacy of the Ringling Circus would be interwoven, forever, with the community.

Sarasota was ready for the boom that began following the end of World War One. It now had people flooding into it—for jobs, for investment, and for the chic social milieu burgeoning in discovery of new destinations and lifestyles.

Sarasota was incorporated as a town in 1902 with John Hamilton Gillespie as mayor. It was replatted in 1912 and incorporated as a city in 1913.

 Shell Beach jewels on Sarasota Bay

Later, on adjacent parcels of Shell Beach where Ellen and Ralph Caples built their winter retreat, Mable and John Ringling built their compound that would soon include the museum, and Edith and Charles Ringling built a compound that included a home for their daughter, Hester Ringling Landcaster Sandford. The next large Shell Beach parcel, immediately to the north, passed between Ellen Caples, Mable and John Ringling and a few others several times without development until 1947 as the Uplands. Some other historic names associated with that parcel are, Bertha Potter Palmer, her sons Lockwood and Honore, and A. B. Edwards, whose names are featured as familiar street names. The tract abutting that parcel was replatted in 1925 as Seagate, where Gwendolyn and Powel Crosley built their winter retreat in 1929. All of these historic homes and the museum have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The now-historic neighborhood of Indian Beach Sapphire Shores grew immediately to the south of the area where these grand homes were built on the bay. Sapphire Shores provided homes to the professionals and retirees who wished to be, or were, closely associated with these wealthiest residents of the community. Indian Beach, which had been a separate community at one time, even contained pioneer homes that persisted among the fashionable new homes built in the boom era of the 1920s.

 Charles Ringling as developer

Charles Ringling invested in land, developed property and founded a bank; he also participated in Sarasota's civic life, and gave advice to other entrepreneurs starting new businesses in Sarasota. He donated land for the newly-formed county to build its government offices and courthouse. Ringling Boulevard was named for him: a winding road leading east from Tamiami Trail toward the winter circus headquarters and crosses Washington Boulevard where Charles Ringling built the Sarasota Terrace Hotel, a high-rise in the Chicago style of architecture, opposite the site he would donate for the county seat.

Charles Ringling and his wife Edith began building their bayfront mansion in the early 1920s. Charles Ringling died in 1926, just after it was completed. For decades Edith Ringling remained there and continued her role in the circus and her cultural activities in the community, as did Hester and her sons, who were active in Sarasota's theatrical and musical venues. What came to be known internationally as the Edith Ringling Estate is now the home of New College of Florida.

 John Ringling in partnership with Owen Burns

John Ringling invested heavily in the barrier islands, known as keys, which separate the shallow bay from the Gulf of Mexico. He worked in partnership with Owen Burns to develop the keys through a corporation named, Ringling Isles Estates. To facilitate development of these holdings a bridge was built to the islands by his partner, Owen Burns, and eventually donated to the city for the government to maintain. They named that route, John Ringling Boulevard. Dredge and fill created even more dry land to develop. Winter residents, called snowbirds, flocked to purchase the seasonal homes marketed to the well to do.

 Leading edge of the crash

The roaring twenties ended early for Sarasota. Florida was the first area in the United States affected by the financial problems that eventually led to the Great Depression. 1926 was the beginning of that collapse of speculation in Florida, much earlier than most parts of the country. John Ringling initially profited from the problems of others. After having put his partner, Owen Burns, into bankruptcy by raiding the treasury of their corporation for use on another project that was failing, he purchased the landmark, El Vernona Hotel, at a fraction of its worth from Burns, who had named it after his wife. Eventually however, John Ringling too, lost most of his fortune. Shortly after the June 1929 death of his wife, Mable, his reversal began. He purchased several other circuses with hopes of combining them with the existing circus and selling shares on the stock exchange, just before the market crashed. He continued to invest in expensive artwork, but grand projects, such as a Ritz hotel on one of the barrier islands, were left unfinished. Plans for an art school as an adjunct to the museum were abandoned, although he lent his name to another art school being established by others in Sarasota. The board of the circus removed John Ringling and placed another director, Samuel Gumpertz, in charge of that corporation. By the time of his death in 1936, John Ringling also was close to bankruptcy. His estate was saved only because he had willed it, together with his art collection, to the State; his nephew, John Ringling North, struggled for years to keep that legacy intact.

 Sarasota emerges as a cultural center

Sarasota is the home of Florida West Coast Symphony, founded by Ruth Cotton Butler in 1949, and its Sarasota Music Festival which draws students, musicians, professors, and lovers of chamber music from around the world for a three-week event; Sarasota Ballet; Sarasota Opera; Florida Studio Theater, The Sarasota Players; and other musical, dance, artistic, and theatrical venues.

In 1926 A. B. Edwards built a theater that could be adapted for either vaudeville performances or movie screenings. In the early 1950s an entire historic Italian theater, the Asolo, was purchased for the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art—to be rebuilt for performances of plays and opera—by A. Everett "Chick" Austin, the first director of the museum. The theater was built in 1798 and disassembled during the 1930s. Adolph Loewi, a Venetian collector and dealer, purchased the theater and stored it in his personal collection until the purchase and shipment to Sarasota for the museum. Later the theater was used for a burgeoning foreign film club that eventually expanded and built its own theater at Burns Court near downtown Sarasota. In the 1960s the Van Wezels made it possible for the city government to build a performing arts hall on the bay front. The auditorium—the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall—was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin team under the direction of his wife, Olga (Olgivanna) Lazovich Hinzenburg, who selected its purple color. Later, Stuart Barger designed and oversaw the construction of another Asolo. It is a multi-theater complex, farther east on the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art property, built around a rococo, historic Scottish theater, that was shipped overseas also. The new complex provides venues and facilities for students of Florida State University's theater arts and film program.

The city has annually hosted the Sarasota Film Festival since 1998. The festival attracts independent films from around the world, and has become one of Florida's largest film festivals.[citation needed]

The community also is the home of the Sarasota School of Architecture, a variant of mid-century modernist architecture incorporating elements of both the Bauhaus and Wright's "organic" architecture. The style developed as an adaptation to the area's sub-tropical climate, using newly emerging materials manufactured or implemented following World War II. Philip Hiss was the driving force of this movement.

March 2007, Riverview High School
March 2007, Riverview High School

Fellow architects in the adaptive designs were Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell. The second generation of the school includes Gene Leedy, Jack West, Victor Lundy, Mark Hampton, James Holiday, Ralph Zimmerman, as well as several who still practice in the community, William Zimmerman; Carl Abbott, Edward J. "Tim" Seibert, and Frank Folsom Smith.

Rudolph's Florida houses attracted attention in the architectural community, and he started receiving commissions for larger works such as the Jewett Art Center at Wellesley College.

He took over the school of architecture at Yale in 1958, shortly after designing the school's building, and stayed for six years until he returned to private practice.

Sarasota is home to Mote Marine Laboratory, a marine rescue, research, and aquarium; Marie Selby Botanical Gardens; G-Wiz Museum, a science museum; Sarasota Jungle Gardens, which carries on early tourist attraction traditions; as well as many historic sites and neighborhoods.

Colleges in Sarasota include New College of Florida, a public liberal arts college; Keiser College of Sarasota, a private college; Ringling College of Art and Design, a school of visual arts and design; and a satellite campus of Eckerd College (based in St. Petersburg, Florida), University of South Florida (based in Tampa, Florida), and Florida State University College of Medicine (based in Tallahassee, Florida). Community colleges include Sarasota County Technical Institute and Manatee Community College.


According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 25.9 mi² (67.2 km²). 14.9 mi² ( 38.6 km²) of it is land and 11.0 mi² (28.6 km²) of it is water. The total area is 42.58% water.


As of the censusGR2 of 2000, there were 52,715 people, 23,427 households, and 12,064 families residing in the city. The population density was 3,539.8/mi² (1,366.9/km²). There were 26,898 housing units at an average density of 1,806.2/mi² (697.5/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 76.91% White, 16.02% African American, 0.35% Native American, 1.02% Asian, 0.05% Pacific Islander, 3.74% from other races, and 1.91% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 11.92% of the population.

There were 23,427 households out of which 19.7% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 35.3% were married couples living together, 12.3% had a female head of household with no husband present, and 48.5% were non-families. 38.3% of all households were made up of individuals and 16.3% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.12 and the average family size was 2.81.

In the city the population was spread out with 18.4% under the age of 18, 9.2% from 18 to 24, 27.9% from 25 to 44, 22.5% from 45 to 64, and 22.0% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 41 years. For every 100 females there were 94.6 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 92.8 males.

The median income for a household in the city was $34,077, and the median income for a family was $40,398. Males had a median income of $26,604 versus $23,510 for females. The per capita income for the city was $23,197. About 12.4% of families and 16.7% of the population were below the poverty line, including 28.5% of those under age 18 and 7.7% of those age 65 or over.

 Historic sites in Sarasota

See also: List of historic sites in Sarasota, Florida

By the end of the 20th century, many of Sarasota's more modest historical structures had been lost to the wrecking ball. Condominium development erased all evidence of the Whitaker settlement along the bay. To the east of Tamiami Trail, however, their family cemetery remains on property owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, adjacent to the city-owned Pioneer Park. Recently, two historic buildings, the Crocker Church and the Bidwell-Wood House (the oldest structure in the city), became city property. These structures were relocated to this park, despite protests from residents who objected to the loss of park area.

In the late 1970s, Sarasota County purchased the then-defunct Terrace Hotel, and repurposed it as a county government office building. That structure and the adjacent courthouse are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Most of the luxurious historic residences from the 1920s boom period along the northern shore of Sarasota Bay have survived. This string of homes, built on large parcels of elevated land along the widest point of the bay, is anchored by the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art at its center. Many significant structures from the comparatively recent "Sarasota School of Architecture" period from the mid-twentieth century did not survive.

March 2007 photograph of Riverview High School, a Paul Rudolph design built in 1958
March 2007 photograph of Riverview High School, a Paul Rudolph design built in 1958

In 2006, the Sarasota County School Board slated one of Paul Rudolph's largest Sarasota projects, Riverview High School, for demolition. The board arrived at the decision despite protests by many members of the community, including architects, historic preservationists, and urban planners. Others supported demolition, feeling the structure was no longer functional. The issue remains divisive.

Though the community of Sarasota is divided on the worth of Rudolph's structure, the international arts community isn't, according to new urbanist planner Andres Duany[citation needed]. At a public meeting in January 2007 in Sarasota, Duany stated that Sarasota would lose its stature as an arts center if it allowed the demolition. The historic building is the main structure in the school complex and includes a planetarium. Plans exist to place Riverview High School on the National Trust for Historic Preservation list of the most endangered historic structures in the United States, America's Most Endangered Places.

Three months after this meeting, following a March 2007 charrette led by the Trust for Historic Preservation, a proposal was advanced to preserve Rudolph's buildings. The school board stated that it would allow a year to consider implementation. As of Sept. 2007, the structure's fate has not been decided.


The city is home to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport (also known by its IATA designation, SRQ) which serves both Manatee and Sarasota counties. That designation was adopted by SRQ Magazine, SRQ Dance Studios, and by SRQ Racing, a local automotive community, and is sometimes used by people who identify with the city and area.



See also: List of TV stations in Florida

Sarasota is part of the Nielsen-designated Tampa-St. Petersburg-Sarasota television market, which is the 13th largest TV market in the United States.[4] The local television stations are ABC affiliate WWSB and SNN 6, a continuous local cable news operation run by Comcast and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. WWSB is the only network station with studios in Sarasota. Other network programming is offered by Fort Myers and Tampa television stations.


See also: List of radio stations in Florida

Arbitron has identified the Sarasota-Bradenton radio market as the 73rd largest market in the country,[5], and the fifth largest in the state of Florida. There are eight radio stations in the city: WSMR (89.1FM/College), WSLR (96.5FM/Variety-Talk), WKZM (104.3FM/Religious), WCTQ (106.5FM/Country), WLSS (930AM/Talk), WSRQ (1220AM/Talk), WTMY (1280AM/Talk-Business-Health), and WSDV (1450AM-Standards).


The Sarasota Herald-Tribune is the city's daily newspaper; the Bradenton Herald from neighboring Bradenton is also distributed in the area. Additional local publications include Pelican Press, 'Sarasota' Magazine, the Longboat Observer and Sarasota Downtown and Beyond.


The warm climate helped the Sarasota area become a popular golf destination. The Sara Bay course in the Whitfield area was designed by golf architect Donald Ross. Many courses dot the area, including the one originally laid out for the hotel John Ringling planned on the southern tip of Longboat Key.

Sarasota also is home to Ed Smith Stadium, where the Cincinnati Reds, Cincinnati's major league baseball MLB team, trains in spring for the upcoming season, and is home to the minor league Sarasota Reds. Before 1997, the city had a long association with the Chicago White Sox; both through spring training and through Sarasota's minor-league team, which was once known as the Sarasota White Sox. This predates the construction of Ed Smith Stadium in 1989.

The area YMCA is the largest and best-funded in Florida.[citation needed] Within the YMCA's three branches is one of the state's more proficient swim teams, the Sarasota YMCA Sharks which has won numerous state titles.[citation needed] Swim teams from around the nation come every summer to practice at the facilities and compete against the Sharks.

Sarasota is also the site of the annual UPA ultimate frisbee national tournament.

 Current Overview

Sarasota County has grown from a population of around 150,000 in 1980 to over 365,000 residents in 2006. The area has added around 10,000 new residents a year. Migration to Sarasota used to be primarily from the midwest, but now its new residents come mostly from the northeast.
Real estate prices accelerated six years ago and led the nation in appreciation. Investors flooded the market and drove the market up along with newcomers. The market cooled down 18 months ago as investors tried to dump their properties.



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