At the beginning of December 1963, the Big Chief Salvage Company arrived at a forlorn reminder of John Ringling’s Roaring ’20s dream, the nearly completed Sarasota Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Situated on the southern tip of Longboat Key, it was to have been the hallmark of his multimillion-dollar development program, stymied to a standstill by the real estate bust followed by the Great Depression, which put such grandiose projects on hold.
Until his death in 1936 Ringling, and afterward his executor, nephew John Ringling North, periodically announced plans to finish the lavish hotel.
It was once considered to be completed as a VA hospital.
This was a formidable building. Five stories tall, a veritable fortress with brick walls between 16 and 20 inches thick. Two hundred and fifty rooms would each have a waterfront view. A Donald Ross designed golf course was built adjacent to it.
But despite the hopes and promises, the grand building languished, a ghost-hotel to explore, and more than a few perished falling into the elevator shafts.
In 1959, the Arvida Corp. purchased John Ringling’s holdings from his estate for $13.5 million.
That company’s heralded arrival signaled that modern Sarasota was at hand as they began to develop Bird Key, St. Armands, Longboat Key and Lido Key.
At the end of January 1964, Big Chief finished its job, and rubble from the would-be hotel was used by the city as fill behind the Municipal Auditorium and City Island.
As John Ringling well knew, nothing proclaims to the rarified world of first-class travelers that a city has achieved top-drawer status than the construction of a Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Indeed, Sarasota’s most recent land boom and downtown resurgence can be traced to the Ritz-Carlton, which opened with grand fanfare at the end of November 2001 and went on to become one of the top-rated hotels in that chain of opulent hostelries.
Brought to town by former business associates and later courtroom adversaries Kevin Daves and C. Robert Buford, today’s Ritz recalls a very similar scenario that played out in the local courtroom and press eighty years ago.
Businessman Owen Burns, the area’s first major developer, and circus man and Sarasota developer, John Ringling, also had a falling out.
This dynamic duo had participated in many local ventures, driving Sarasota forward. As Ringling was away from town on circus business a great deal of time, Burns became his point man, a hands-on supervisor who could be trusted to complete their major projects.
Burns’ construction company built the Ringling mansion, Cà d’Zan and the first Ringling Causeway, and purchased for Ringling much of the property that would allow their projects on the keys.
Burns’ dredging company dredged and filled Golden Gate Point as the starting place for the first Ringling Bridge and filled in much of the area around the various keys for which the duo had such extravagant plans.
Concurrently, Burns’ own projects were underway, and they were many: the Burns Court bungalows, Washington Park subdivision, the building at Herald Square, the Belle Haven Apartments, the Burns office building and the grand El Vernona Hotel, the most significant hotel in Sarasota up to that time and for many years thereafter.
Burns was also the vice president and minor shareholder of Ringling Estates. Ringling was the president. Both men had high hopes for Sarasota, which had recently been discovered as a fashionable destination for wealthy snowbirds.
Initially, Ringling balked at the idea of constructing a hotel. At the beginning of the 1920s boom, Burns tried to convince him to garner concessions from the city and undertake a first-class hotel project which downtown sorely needed. Ringling demurred, and shortly thereafter, Andrew McAnsh constructed the Mira Mar Apartments and Hotel on Palm Avenue.
As the real estate market charged forward, Ringling’s vision for St. Armands, Lido and Longboat as a winter nesting place for high-brow tourists crystallized. Ringling determined that a Ritz-Carlton would ensure his success – and draw a steady stream of affluent visitors to his keys. As today’s version surely has.
Burns was already well into his El Vernona Hotel project when Ringling finally decided to move forward with the Ritz-Carlton. The timing for both gentlemen could not have been worse. On Sunday morning, March 14, 1926, the Sarasota Herald headlined “Start Work on Ritz-Carlton Hotel Monday,” reporting it would be the greatest hostelry in the state of Florida and was expected to be completed “very soon.”
Sarasota, it seemed, had truly arrived. As the Sarasota Herald put it, “SARASOTA’S GROWTH CANNOT BE STOPPED.” The party would be short-lived.
The Moorish looking El Vernona, named for Burns’s wife, was nearly completed, the Ringling Causeway opened, and thousands of people drove across to view St. Armands, Lido and Longboat Keys, with their wide, palm-lined streets, antique statuary and hallmark Harding Circle.
Daily concerts were given by the Czecho-Slovakian National Band, brought to town by Ringling to add excitement to the grand opening of the Ringling Causeway.
Priced at $3,000 ($47,400 in today’s money) and up, sales of homesites on Ringling Estates, “America’s Lido,” were brisk.
But appearances belied the fact that by the beginning of 1926 real estate sales were already slowing throughout Florida. When the hurricane roared through Miami that September with such force and devastation, property values began to plummet, and newcomers slowed to a trickle.
The Ritz-Carlton required $800,000 ($12,644,000 today) in capital, toward which Ringling put in $400,000 of his own fortune, and civic leader Ralph Caples was charged with raising the balance within the community.
As the luxury hotel began to rise, money began drying up, construction slowed and only Ringling’s funds kept the project moving forward.
The Sarasota Herald underscored how important a Ritz-Carlton would be to the continued good- fortune of Sarasota.
In an editorial on March 28,1926, the newspaper importuned citizens to back the hostelry. The paper noted Sarasota needed John Ringling more than he needed Sarasota, and went on, “Without the Ritz-Carlton hotel it is not probable that we shall ever attract the [upper classes] of people in any large numbers to Sarasota.”
At this juncture Ringling began dipping into the assets of Ringling Estates, of which Burns held a 25 percent interest. Burns sought an injunction to prevent Ringling from “manipulating the Sarasota Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and the John Ringling Estates, Inc. to require the one to stand for the obligation of the other.” Burns watched his money being frittered away in an ill-advised attempt to fulfill Ringling’s promise.
When Burns ceased to be vice-president of Ringling’s company in 1927, there were nearly $4 million in assets and very little debt. Burns’ suit claimed that Ringling was involved “in a studied scheme to cause John Ringling Estates to underwrite loans to the [Ritz-Carlton] hotel company” and ultimately confiscate Burns’ 25 percent stake.
It would be difficult to find two men more different than Ringling and Burns. Burns was reticent, a gentleman and a loving husband and father. He shunned the spotlight, and his business dealings were aboveboard. Ringling, was boisterous and colorful – a showman. He had no children, and his marriage to Mable, whom he truly loved, was helped along, according to his nephew Henry North, by “Aunt Mable’s loving acquiescence.” Often his business dealings were convoluted and iffy; he hid assets when it suited him and exaggerated them when necessary.
Burns moved here in 1910 and bought out the holdings of the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company, and his business interests concerned only Sarasota. Ringling, traveled throughout the country with the circus, dabbled in numerous far-flung ventures: oil, ranchland, railroads, a stake in Madison Square Garden. He had homes in New York and New Jersey.
The two were not friends. In letter and telegram exchanges, through which they conducted much of their business, it was always “Mr. Ringling” and “Mr. Burns,” never “John” and “Owen.”
They did not socialize. The courtroom drama involving Ringling and Burns came to a head at the end of 1930. By then, Sarasota had suffered through the real estate bust and was mired in the Great Depression.
The optimism of the preceding decade was lost, and foreclosures replaced grand openings as the news of the day.
In the end, the duo reached an agreement, and Burns’ charge of fraud against Ringling was dismissed. As set forth in the court’s final decree: “Neither [of] the defendants, John Ringling, John Ringling Estates, Inc., or the Sarasota Ritz-Carlton Hotel company are guilty of any … fraudulent or illegal acts as charged in the bill of complaint.”
It was a grave blow for Burns, who also suffered the loss of his El Vernona Hotel, which was sold at auction to the Prudence Company.
To heap insult on injury, the El Vernona would be purchased by John Ringling, who changed its name to the John Ringling Hotel.
Interestingly, the John Ringling Hotel became the John Ringling Towers, demolished in 1998 to make room for today’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Full circle.
Jeff LaHurd was raised in Sarasota and is an award-winning author/historian.