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Bird Key: The Jewel in Sarasota Bay

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Mark D. Smith, former County Archivist
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center
Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - Bird Key: The Jewel in Sarasota Bay photo

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.

Thomas Worcester had purchased the 12 acre island in 1906, and they had come to winter in Sarasota several seasons before beginning construction. Davie Lidsay died in October 1912. Testimonials and memorials published after her death provide a romantic view of the woman who did not live to see the completion of her husband's "labor of love."

Friends in Kentucky and Ohio remembered her devotion to philanthropic endeavors such as the Ohio Humane Society, and the Home of the Friendless and Foundling. In a letter written from Sarasota, she described in detail the birds, fish and vegetation that could be seen on the approach to Bird Key. This was the ideal setting for her "palace."

New Edzell opened formally with a reception on February 17, 1914. After having watched from a distance the construction over nearly three years, the press marveled at the electric and gas lights that illuminated the building at night, the steam heat, and the hot and cold water in every room. After attending the reception, a Sarasota Times journalist wrote, "Combining the useful with the beautiful, as was the order of her life, stands a monument made with hands, set in one of nature's fairest temples, to the memory of a gifted and a good woman."

Thomas Worcester left Sarasota not long thereafter, and in the early 1920s, John Ringling purchased Bird Key, Otter Key, Wolf Key and several other unnamed mangrove islands. With these purchases, he became the owner of all the keys between the bay and the gulf immediately in front of the city of Sarasota. He planned to convert the Worcester home into a summer White House for President Warren Harding, but Harding's death in 1923 changed his plans. The Bird Key mansion then became the home of John Ringling's sister, Ida Ringling North, until her death in 1950. John Ringling began to develop the keys during the Florida Land Boom of the mid 1920s. Ringling Estates opened on St. Armands Key in February 1926 and a bridge connecting the keys to the mainland was also completed in 1926. However, by the end of the year, sales were falling and the boom was ending. Aside from the new Ringling Causeway going through it, Bird Key remained untouched after the Land Boom ended.

After the death of John Ringling in 1936, his estate was in probate for 10 years before clear title could be given to his holdings. By 1950, what emerged, as far as the keys were concerned, was a group of corporations that owned them, all headed by John Ringling's nephew, John Ringling North. In 1951, the Ringling Interests proposed to develop approximately 277 acres of land around Bird Key and to fill 37 acres on north Lido Key. The master plan for the development of Ringling Isles was prepared by noted architects Ralph and William Zimmerman in 1951 but was revised eight times before the city commission accepted it in 1952. But the debate did not stop there with the plans. The city required many changes to the plan and after six months of debate between the Ringling Interests and the City, the plan was approved in March 1953.

Although approved by the city, little was done with the development until 1959 when Arvida Realty, Inc. purchased the Ringling Interests' holdings on the key. Arivida planned to fill in Bird Key to allow for 511 lots, 291 water-fronts and 220 off-water sites. This would be the luxury place to live in Sarasota. One unique feature of the development would be an underground electric utility system, consisting of nearly 146 miles of electrical cable. By building standards in 1959, this utility system was ahead of its time. Arvida began to promote Bird Key heavily by the use of newspapers and the media. One example of these ads in the following that appeared on January 17, 1960, in the Herald-Tribune: "Who hasn't dreamed of living on a tropical island? Where the climate is always mild, where the beauty is everywhere, where silence is broken on by the rustling of the palms and the sound of the sea as it washes the shore. All of this is yours on beautiful Bird Key, set like a jewel in the waters of Sarasota Bay."

For over 50 years, Arvida Realty, Inc. has succeeded, with its Bird Key and Longboat Key developments, in making Sarasota the luxury place to live.


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