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Burns' Mark was Apparent Around Town

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Ann A. Shank, former County Historian
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - Burns' Mark was Apparent Around Town photo

Drawn by the excellent fishing opportunities, Owen Burns came from Chicago to vacation in Sarasota in the spring of 1910. Attracted by real estate development possibilities, he stayed and helped turn Sarasota from a small fishing village into a vibrant city.

It wasn't long before Burns had purchased all the land holdings of John Hamilton Gillespie, Sarasota's first town mayor. This move made Burns a major landholder and provided him with a golf course and a variety of undeveloped and built properties. To handle these, he formed the Burns Realty Company. One early purchase was the Halton Hotel (formerly a sanitarium run by Dr. Jack Halton), which faced the bay on the site of the present One Sarasota Tower. There, Burns established the home to which he brought his bride, Vernona Freeman, in 1912, and where they raised a family of five children.

As part of the town council's efforts to clean up the bayfront in 1911, Burns' construction equipment built seawalls along Gulfstream Avenue and filled in behind them. His dredge, Sand Pecker, then filled in the irregular outline of Cedar Point, a mixture of low land and shallow water that extended west of Burn's home, to create Sunset Park. Burns presided over the Board of Trade, which he had helped organize, in 1911, and was elected commodore of the Sarasota Yacht Club, which he had helped reorganize that same year. As one of the founders of Citizens Bank, Burns also served as its first president. It was Sarasota's first local bank; the earlier one was a branch of the First National Bank of Manatee.

The decade of the 1920s was a feverish one for Sarasota and Owen Burns. In the summer of 1920, Burns and other "progressives" began the push to divide Manatee County. Their efforts resulted in the birth of Sarasota County on July 1, 1921. Within a few years, Burn's development activities placed him in the midst of Sarasota's real estate "boom". He moved his office from Main Street to a new Dwight James Baum designed office building (later the Karl Bickel House) on Broadway (now North Tamiami Trail). From there, he operated his realty company, building supply company and landscape nursery. Burns Court is the largest development that bears his name, but a number of homes in Washington Park along Oak Street and the triangular building in the "Y" of Pineapple and Orange Avenue (Herald Square) are also the products of his enterprise. He built the El Vernona Hotel just to the north of his office building and named it after his wife.

As busy as he was with personal projects, Burns also worked with John Ringling in the John Ringling Estates Corporation, of which Burns was the Vice President and Secretary. Burns became the Sarasota anchor for the Lido, St. Armands and Longboat Key enterprises that bore Ringling's name, and he conducted much of the company's business long-distance when John Ringling the circus magnate traveled with the circus. Burns' construction companies erected Ca'd'Zan and the Ringling Causeway, and laid out the Ringling Isles subdivision on St. Armands and Lido Keys.

After the "boom" collapsed, so did many of Burns' development activities. The El Vernona eventually failed. Mortgage brokers foreclosed on other business properties that Burns had mortgaged to support the El Vernona. During the 1930s, Burns turned to a previous unexplored interest in jelly-making and formed the Tree Ripe Citrus Products Company. He produced citrus and guava products in the former Sarasota Times building on what is now First Street until his death in 1937.

Owen Burns was an entrepreneur who shunned publicity. Many results of his business activities remain in Sarasota, but their connection to Burns is often unknown. In its efforts to recognize outstanding Floridians who have been associated with the development of Florida's cities, the Florida Department of State recently identified Owen Burns as a "Great Floridian 2000" with a plaque stating that recognition.

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