A Sarasota Romance
Articles: Sarasota History
Nearly a century ago, two lovers built a grand castle on the island we know as Bird Key.
For most, the story of Bird Key extends back to the late 1950's, when Arthur V. Davis' Arvida Corporation bought the holdings of John Ringling and set upon the task of redefining Sarasota. Through a massive dredge-and-fill operation, the key was enlarged to accommodate 291 water-front and 220 off-water lots. Bird Key was transformed, and to this day continues to be a real estate agent's delight and remains one of Sarasota's premier addresses.
Sales began in 1960 with hoopla reminiscent of the land boom of the Roaring 20's. Lots were offered for between $9,000 and $32,000. Incentives for agents to sell, sell, sell, included a 27-foot Chris-Craft Constellation cabin cruiser and a new Lincoln Continental.
But there is another story about Bird Key that very few know. It's a romantic tale of hope and heartbreak, and it began 50 years before Arvida discovered Sarasota's development potential.
This story began on a sunny afternoon in 1910. Mrs. Davie Lindsay Worcester, who was visiting from Cincinnati and six friends took a launch to Bird Key, still a virginal paradise not connected to the mainland. The tiny island was only 14 acres in those days and barely broke the surface of the water. But it was stunningly beautiful, filled with palm trees, brightly colored seashells, and the myriad of birds that flocked there for food and rest.
Mrs. Worchester was a woman of means and a singularly gentle lady whose reputation was forged on acts of kindness. As one of her friends put it, she was "a woman of great heart [who] loved intensely all that was beautiful in nature and humanity." She served on so many charitable boards that her hometown considered her the "greatest woman philanthropist [they] had ever known."
She came to Sarasota after an illness, hoping to relax and recoup in the salubrious climate. The beauty of Bird Key on that day so many years ago awed her. She wrote her husband, Thomas, one of the most vivid descriptions of Sarasota's beauty ever penned.
Choosing her words as carefully as a painter chooses colors from a palette, she wrote: "The shore was laden with shells...so beautiful I could not pick them, dear, at first. I felt that my heart would burst on that shell-bestrewn shore. With thousands of palms soaring toward the clouds; at our feet the Gulf of Mexico washing up, restless, to our toe tips, and scattered, scattered everywhere... all beautiful toys, as it were; not given stingily or grudgingly but five, ten feet deep, perhaps; scattered like beautiful flowers so far as color and form was concerned, on that white sand, until you felt you could not tell the dear Father enough how grateful you were."
Thomas Worcester, described by a contemporary as "a courteous and pleasing gentleman...full of genuine romance" for his wife and anxious about her frail health, was moved by the description. They had been married for 36 years and he loved her dearly. In her letter she longed for him to share her joy and added, "This is what I want for my old age...Oh! Words cannot paint the scene, imagination cannot conceive of such grandeur."
In 1911, Thomas bought Bird Key from the state and set about fulfilling his wife's wish. Sand from the bay bottom was dredged to increase the key's size. Davie, thrilled that her dream was about to come true, designed much of the home that she named New Edzell, in honor of her family's ancestral estate in Scotland.
The Worcester's mansion took nearly three years to complete. At a cost of $100,000, it was lavishly furnished and outfitted with such amenities as electric lighting (practically a first in Sarasota), and acetylene gas. From the opposite shore it was said to glow with startling radiance; and as it was still not connected to the mainland their launch, Dido (Mrs. Worcester's pet name), ferried the Worcesters and their friends back and forth.
Sadly, on Oct. 14, 1912, before her home was totally completed, Davie Worcester, who had never fully regained her health, unexpectedly died on Bird Key. She was brought back to the mainland on the Dido, and taken to Cincinnati for a funeral service and then to Kentucky, where she was interred. Mr. Worcester, now a grieving husband, carried on with the project; and in 1914 New Edzell Castle was ready for a bitter-sweet housewarming. The Sarasota Sun reminded its readers that Davie was responsible for its design and called the mansion, "a Tribute to the Genius of a Talented American Woman."
At a time when Sarasota was barely more than a fishing village, the home was a showcase. When parties were given, the guest list and the evening's goings-on were glowingly described in the local paper. One such soiree, headlined "Musical Across the Bay," was praised in the flowery prose of the day: "The harmony and beautiful strains from their instruments pealed throughout the entire mansion grounds to the utmost pleasure of all the guests." When the evening was over and the guests were transported back to shore, the paper noted, "As the yacht slipped away into the moonlight waters of the bay the many lights on shore winked and winked again, ‘good night, come again.'"
John Ringling purchased Bird Key in the early 20's and connected it to the mainland. He hoped that New Edzell Castle would serve as the winter White House for President Warren G. Harding, helping to advertise his development, Ringling Isles, and boost sales there. He named the streets on adjoining Lido Key in honor of American presidents. Ringling was quoted in the Sarasota Herald that Harding, "displayed all the enthusiasm of a big boy over his contemplated vacation in Sarasota...He had his desk covered with photographs of the Zalophus (Ringling's yacht)...and he seemed to be looking forward to his sojourn on it as a haven of rest." But when Harding died before the plan could be realized; Ringling's sister, Ida Ringling North, moved in and lived at New Edzell until she passed away in 1950.
Unfortunately, New Edzell Castle did not figure into Arvida's plans for Bird Key. Among their selling points was a $250,000 Bahamian-style yacht club, which was built on the site of Mrs. Worcester's dream house. As has happened so often in Sarasota, there was little effort to save the home for its historic import, and it was razed. Today, not even an historic marker exists on Bird Key to remind us of Davie and Thomas Worcester and what was to have been their retirement paradise. When you pass Bird Key, give a thought to the Worcesters, whose appreciation for beauty and love for each other led them to settle there.
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At the beginning of the last century, Bird Key was a small island in Sarasota Bay, rising only a few feet about the surrounding shallow grass flats. In 1911, Thomas Martin Worcester of Cincinnati began to build on the key by dredging a channel through the grass flats to his dock and using the dredged material as fill to raise the level of the land. Worcester built the first expensive home on any island in the Sarasota Bay region. It was named New Edzell Castle after the ancestral home, Edzell Castle of his wife, Davie Lindsay Worcester, of Scotland.
The Ringling School of Art and Design began in 1931 as The School of Fine and Applied Art of the John and Ringling Art Museum. Growing out of conversations between John Ringling and the president of Southern College (now Florida Southern College in Lakeland), it was established as a branch of Southern College. Verman Kimbrough, faculty member and chairman of the Music Department at Southern, became the resident director.