At the beginning of December 1963, Big Chief Salvage arrives in a desperate reminder of John Ringling’s dream of the twenties, the nearly completed Sarasota Ritz-Carlton.
Located on the south end of Longboat Key, it was meant to be the hallmark of a multi-million dollar development program, hampered by the real estate crash that followed the Great Depression, which halted such mega projects.
Until his death in 1936, his executor, his nephew John Ringling North, periodically announced plans to finish the luxury hotel.
It was once considered complete as a VA hospital.
This was an enormous building. Five stories high, it is a veritable fortress with brick walls 16 to 20 inches thick. Two hundred and fifty rooms, each overlooking the waterfront. A Donald Ross-designed golf course is built next to it.
But despite hopes and promises, the massive building faded, became a ghost hotel to be explored, and more than a few perished in elevator shafts.
In 1959, Arvida Corp. purchased John Ringling’s estate from his estate for $13.5 million.
The arrival of that advertiser indicated that modern Sarasota was on hand when they began developing Bird Key and St. Armands, Longboat Key, and Lido Key.
At the end of January 1964, the Big Chief finished his job, and the city used the rubble from the potential hotel as filling behind Town Hall and City Island.
As John Ringling all too well knows, nothing announces to the rare world of first-class travelers that the city has achieved its top flight status than the construction of the Ritz-Carlton.
In fact, Sarasota’s latest land boom and downtown revival can be traced back to The Ritz-Carlton, which opened with great fanfare at the end of November 2001 and has become one of the top-rated hotels in that chain of luxury hostels.
Today’s Ritz recalls a very similar scenario that took place in the courtroom and the local press eighty years ago, where it was brought into town by former co-workers and later courtroom opponents Kevin Davis and C. Robert Buford.
Entrepreneur Owen Burns, the area’s first major developer, and circus man and Sarasota developer, John Ringling, also broke out.
This dynamic duo has been involved in many local projects, propelling Sarasota forward. Because Ringling had been out of town in the circus business for so long, Burns became their chief man, and a practical supervisor who could be trusted to complete their major projects.
Burns Construction built Ringling Mansion, Cà d’Zan and the first Ringling Causeway, and purchased for Ringling a lot of property that would allow their projects to be on the keys.
Burns’ dredging company dredged and filled Golden Gate Point as the staging ground for the first Ringling Bridge and filled in much of the area around the various switches that the duo had extravagant plans for.
At the same time, Burns’ private projects were underway, and they were many: Burns Court Cottages, the Washington Park subdivision, the building in Herald Square, the Bell Haven apartments, the Burns office building, and the grand El Verona Hotel, the most important hotel in Sarasota up to that time and for many years Then.
Burns was also Vice President and Small Shareholder of Ringling Estates. Ringling was the boss. Both men had high hopes for Sarasota, which was recently discovered as a fashionable destination for rich snowbirds.
At first, Ringling rejected the idea of building a hotel. At the beginning of the boom period in the 1920s, Burns tried to persuade him to take concessions from the city and undertake a much-needed first-class hotel project downtown. Ringling objected, and shortly thereafter, Andrew McCanch built the Mira Mar Apartments and Hotel on Palm Avenue.
As the real estate market progressed, Ringling’s vision of St. Armands, Lido and Longboat as a winter’s place for high-altitude tourists crystallized. Ringling decided the Ritz-Carlton would ensure its success – and attract a steady stream of wealthy visitors to its keys. As in today’s version for sure.
Burns had already started on the El Vernona Hotel project when Ringling finally decided to move forward with the Ritz-Carlton. The timing for both gentlemen could not be worse. On the morning of Sunday, March 14, 1926, the Sarasota Herald titled “Get Started at the Ritz-Carlton Monday,” and stated that it would be the greatest inn in Florida and it was expected to be completed “very soon.”
It looks like Sarasota has already arrived. As the Sarasota Herald said, “Sarasota’s growth cannot be stopped.” The party will be short lived.
The Moorish-looking El Vernona, named after Burns’ wife, was nearly completed, the Ringling Causeway was opened, and thousands of people traveled across the road to see St. Harding Circle.
The Czech Slovak National Ensemble held daily concerts, which Ringling brought to town to add excitement to the grand opening of the Ringling Bridge.
At $3,000 ($47,400 in today’s money) and up, home sales in Ringling Estates, “America’s Lido,” were fast.
But appearances belied the fact that by the beginning of 1926 real estate sales were already slowing throughout Florida. When a hurricane hit Miami in September with such force and devastation, property values began to fall, and newcomers slowed considerably.
The Ritz-Carlton has requested $800,000 ($12,644,000 today) in capital, where Ringling has put in $400,000 of his own fortune, and civic leader Ralph Capless is tasked with raising the balance within the community.
As the luxury hotel began to rise, funds began to dry up, construction slowed, and only Ringling’s money kept the project moving.
The Sarasota Herald has emphasized just how important the Ritz-Carlton is to the continued wealth of Sarasota.
In an editorial on March 28, 1926, the newspaper attached citizens to support the hostel. The newspaper pointed out that Sarasota needed John Ringling more than Sarasota, and went on, “Without the Ritz-Carlton, we are never likely to attract [upper classes] of people in great numbers to Sarasota.”
At this juncture, Ringling began indulging in the assets of Ringling Estates, of which Burns owns a 25 percent stake. Burns sought an injunction to prevent Ringling from “manipulating the Sarasota Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and John Ringling Estates, Inc. into requiring one to uphold the other’s obligation.” Burns watched his money fizzle out in an ill-advised attempt to make good on Ringling’s promise.
When Burns retired as Ringling’s vice president in 1927, he had nearly $4 million in assets and very little debt. Burns’ suit alleged that Ringling was involved in “a deliberate scheme to have John Ringling Estates guarantee loans to [Ritz-Carlton] Hotels” and eventually forfeited Burns’ 25 percent stake.
It would be hard to find two men more different than Ringling and Burns. Burns was a reserved, gentleman and loving father and husband. He avoided the spotlight, and his business dealings were on board. Ringling, he was loud and colorful – a showman. He had no children, and his marriage to Mabel, whom he really loved, helped him, according to his nephew Henry North, “loving deference to Auntie.” His business dealings were often complicated and inappropriate; He hid assets when it suits him and exaggerated them when necessary.
Burns moved here in 1910 and purchased property from the Florida Mortgage and Investment Corporation, his business interests being solely in Sarasota. Ringling traveled around the country with the circus, got involved in many far-flung projects: oil, farms, railroads, and a stake in Madison Square Garden. He had homes in New York and New Jersey.
The two weren’t friends. In the exchange of letters and telegrams, by which they conducted much of their business, were always “Mr. Ringling” and “Mr. Burns,” never “John” and “Owen”.
They were not social. The courtroom drama involving Ringling and Burns reached its climax at the end of the 1930’s. By then, Sarasota had suffered a real estate collapse and plunged into the Great Depression.
The optimism of the previous decade has been lost, and foreclosures have replaced major openings as today’s news.
In the end, the duo reached an agreement, and Burns’ fraud charge against Ringling was dismissed. As stipulated in the final court decision: “No [of] Defendants, John Ringling, or John Ringling Estates, Inc. , or the Sarasota Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company are guilty of any… fraudulent or unlawful acts as charged in the complaint invoice. “
It was a severe blow to Burns, who also suffered the loss of the El Vernona Hotel, which was sold at auction to the Prudence Company.
To pile the insult on the injury, El Vernona was purchased by John Ringling, who changed his name to the John Ringling Hotel.
Interestingly enough, the John Ringling Hotel became the John Ringling Towers, which was demolished in 1998 to make way for today’s Ritz-Carlton. full circle.
Jeff LaHord grew up in Sarasota and is an award-winning author/historian.
Adsgeni code is : 748912