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Ringling's Ritz-Carlton

Articles: Sarasota History

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

Sarasota History - Ringling's Ritz-Carlton photo

Today, Sarasota is home to many first-class hotels and resorts, but, before 1923, Sarasota had few hotels that one would have considered "luxury."

John Ringling, in an effort to make his islands more attractive, conceived the idea of building a super-deluxe hotel on the south end of Longboat Key. It would be the 'finest in the State of Florida' and be called the Ritz-Carlton.

Ringling, it was said, agreed to pay $5,000 a year for the use of the name Ritz-Carlton. The building would consist of more than 200 rooms, dock facilities, and a rail line that would bring passengers right to the hotel.

In February 1926, Ringling entered into a contract with builder Hegeman-Harris Company, Inc. of New York and the architectural firm of Warren and Wetmore, Inc., also of New York. According to the contract, the scheduled completion date for the Ritz-Carlton would be on or before December 15, 1926. John Ringling wanted the hotel built as fast as possible.

Work began March 15, 1926, and while it progressed, an 18-hole golf course paid for by local subscriptions, was built on adjoining land. Work proceeded quickly on the hotel during 1926; however, as the end of the year approached, the financial situation was changing in Sarasota. The Land Boom of the past two years was coming to a close and, with it, the money to continue buying and building.

Ringling eventually had to concentrate on other financial concerns, and so the Ritz-Carlton would have to wait. By November 1926, the first of the hotel's three units was nearly complete when Ringling gave the order to stop work.

Ringling continued to state that he would resume construction on the hotel, but with the boom's ending and the Great Depression, Ringling found himself short of cash. Some estimates state that as much as $650,000 was spent on the unfinished hotel.

John Ringling North, executor of John Ringling's estate after his death in 1936, announced in 1937 that the hotel would be completed. The Sarasota Herald reported in January 1937 that "Martin Sweeney, hotel magnate from New York, has expressed interest in finishing the project. The development will include two 18-hole golf courses, a modern airport and a small club adjoining with facilities for tarpon and other fishing. The completed hotel will have 235 rooms and will use the most modern and fireproof materials."

But the plans failed to materialize, and the hotel continued to sit. In 1959, the Arvida Corporation purchased the land from John Ringling North with plans to develop Bird Key and Longboat Key.

In 1962, Art Clark, local Realtor in Sarasota, submitted a report on the feasibility of finishing the Ritz-Carlton. He stated that with the development of St. Armands and Bird Key, the hotel could become a convention site, which the City of Sarasota needed badly. However, the Arvida Corporation had no interest in selling or in finishing the hotel.

By 1963, the old Ritz-Carlton was called a "fortress." Big Chief Salvage Company, the company hired to demolish the hotel, confirmed this when it started to tear it down. The brick walls were between 16 and 20 inches thick. The concrete, brick, tile and mortar had hardened for 40 years. The wrecking ball at the end of a 60-foot crane hardly made a dent in the walls.

Demolition started on December 2, 1963, and the framework of the old cupola was finally brought down on January 31, 1964. The City of Sarasota agreed to take the debris from the old hotel and used it for fill behind the Civic Center and City Island.

Today, Ringling's idea lives on as the land he once owned is now the Longboat Key Club resort.