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Gulf Beach Motel

Buildings: Sarasota History

Source: City of Sarasota public records
Credit: Sarasota History Alive
Location: 930 Ben Franklin Drive, Sarasota, FL

Sarasota History - Gulf Beach Motel photo

The Gulf Beach Motel Historic District is a collection of post World War II historic resources on Lido Key that were completed in late 1949 or 1950. Includedwithin the boundaries of the district are what were originally three building structures, a historically associated swimming pool, historic shuffleboard courts, and the hotel's original detached street signal. Although a tiki hut that closely resembles one of two original tiki huts that stood on the site is located where one of the original huts stood, its original buildings materials have been completely replaced.

Additionally, two non-historic brick barbecue grills, contemporary metal fencing around the swimming pool, and a concrete block retaining wall on the west end of the property are also located within the district boundaries but are also considered non-contributing historic resources.

The district is historically significant as it represents a geographically defined entity whose individual structural components collectively convey a sense of time and place in history, that being the Post World War II era, a period that is associated with a tremendous wave of new development and tourism. They are a concentration and linkage of buildings and structures that are united historically and aesthetically by plan and physical development.

The historic resources within the district collectively provide us with an excellent example of the components that made up an early motel constructed as a result of the desire, ability, and the beginning of the widespread decision of the American public to greatly expand the use of the automobiles. They eagerly ventured forth on modern, and often newly constructed, improved roads and highways for leisure activities and vacations.

The tremendous post World War II tourism boom and the great number of tourists who came to Sarasota for the first time during that period was what truly and permanently established Sarasota as a popular and enduring vacation and resort destination that continues to date. These post-World War II historic resources embody part of the 1950s culture through the concept of providing an ideal atmosphere for the 1950s family or tourist who wanted to get away from suburbia for a while and explore the country. Following the war, people became much more home oriented and sedentary and thus they soon eagerly embraced the idea of movement and exploration. Lodging was an especially important element of the emerging roadside culture following the war, since it required a place to stay for the motorists.

Historic Context

In late 1923, circus magnate, John Ringling and his associate, Owen Burns, began dredging on several mangrove islands off the coast of the mainland of Sarasota, Florida to build them up and create solid land. This work greatly altered the appearance of these islands which included Cedar Point, St. Armands Key, and Lido Key. Landscaping, sewers and water mains were installed and roads were built to accommodate Ringling and Burns grandiose development plans for the islands. Part of this development also included the construction of a bathing pavilion on Lido Key by Ringling and his friends and associates, Owen Burns, and Samuel W. Gumpertz.

In 1925, work on a bridge to connect Sarasota to St. Armands and Lido Keys began. The bridge was completed in 1926. Development on the islands was widely promoted throughout the state and subsequently brought a number of people to Sarasota for their initial visit. Sadly, with the failure of the Florida Land Boom only a few years later, Ringling and Burn's development plans were never fully realized until after World War II.

Subsequent to the real estate bust that took place in Sarasota and throughout the state by late 1927, living costs in resort cities in Florida dropped to a more realistic level and a great number of tourists returned in 1928 and 1929 but the stock market crash of October, 1929, ended a short-lived renewed bright outlook for tourism in the state. This resulted, in combination with the state of the economy, in a loss of jobs and an increase in unemployment in Sarasota. Several public works projects did spur some economic development and the creation of jobs during this dismal period.

In 1932, some federal funds for projects became available but it was not until 1935, that the city was bestowed with its first Works Project Administration- the drainage of the golf course, which provided jobs for some. Several other projects were also forthcoming from the same funding. In 1937, a WPA project set the construction of Bayfront Park and the Municipal Auditorium in motion. One of the most outstanding other WPA projects that took place was the construction of the Lido Beach Casino. Supported by the local Chamber of Commerce, the casino was built on land obtained from John Ringling's estate in a settlement of outstanding property taxes. On December 27, 1940, the facility was formally opened.

Florida was one of the most directly affected states by the war. The state primarily provided economic support to the war through agricultural production but over a quarter of a million Floridian's volunteered or were drafted into the military lending another major contribution to the war effort. Dozens of military bases were established or expanded into the state. The year round good climate in Florida and its open flat terrain provided an ideal location for these training schools. Thousands of World War II servicemen, who were stationed at the Sarasota and Venice air bases during the war, popularized and frequented Sarasota businesses and the Lido Casino.

The war effort resulted in a population increase that bolstered Sarasota's economy in the late Depression years. Housing availability dwindled and restaurants thrived. Florida's tourism industry was initially hurt by restrictions on travel, particularly during the early years of the war. Floridian's joined both volunteer and mandatory efforts to conserve limiting what could be bought. In early 1942 rubber became the first item to be rationed. Gasoline soon followed. In 1943, gasoline rationing became even more severe, with all forms of pleasure driving becoming illegal. Later in the war, with fewer restrictions, in place some tourist trade returned with Florida promoting itself as a "vacatic" getaway for hard working, and now highly paid, civilian workers.

In 1945, the western world was generally emerging from a long, dark tunnel of economic depression and world-wide war. In the United States and Florida, the light at the end of that tunnel illuminated the deficiencies and shortages left after years focused solely on survival. Thus, with the conclusion of war, the country and state rushed to satisfy the needs and wants of a population overwhelmed and exhilarated by returning servicemen and a newly invigorated economy. The post-war years saw common citizens experience economic prosperity not previously known. Auto tourism increased dramatically, since more people had access to cars and leisure activities. This, in turn, sparked a renewal and explosive expansion of trends begun in the boom of the 1920s. Some of the most notable and important of these patterns, with respect to the built environment, were suburban expansion, transportation improvements and accessibility, and a renewed interest in Modernist ideas about architecture. These three national trends created the three local contexts of community planning, transportation, and architecture, in which, Sarasota's post-war Modernist architecture would develop.

There were few places for motorists to stay overnight in the early era of auto travel. In the early 1920s, auto camping was the most common way that the average motorists were able to get rest. Travelers carried tents and camping equipment so that they could stop where it was convenient. To solve the problem of tourists camping anywhere, towns set up free municipal campgrounds. Several such campgrounds existed in Sarasota, including an early one at Main Street and Pine Street and another at Osprey Avenue, south of Morrill.

Once World War II ended, Sarasota seriously began to burst with new economic vitality that was also seen throughout the nation in the throes of victory and the welcomed return of servicemen to their homes, families, and communities. Many servicemen who served in Florida returned to the state to live. Florida's population grew 46% during the decade of the 1940s and after the war, Sarasota's population swelled by nearly 85 percent, a housing shortage began in earnest and Sarasota's tourist industry saw its largest boom since the 1920s. During the 1920s, occupancy rates of lodging facilities reached 85%. The Depression, however, caused nearly 80% of those facilities to go into foreclosure. By the 1940s, the industry began to recover. World War II created unprecedented demand and occupancy rates reached 90%.

When the United States entered World War II, car production was severely curtailed as materials and energy were applied to the war effort, but after the war, production revived and car ownership skyrocketed. People were eager to get behind the wheel and go. Nationalism and patriotism fueled this desire. The kind of freedom they looked for, they found in the destination, rather than the journey. They wanted to go anywhere, everywhere, somewhere, nowhere. To the drive-in, the drive-thru, or the drive-up. Across the nation and in Florida, motor vehicle registrations rose from 30 million to 60 million by 1955. During the war, although auto production was severely decreased, all patriotic Americans remained eager to drive. Everyone awaited the close of the war to get in a car and go some place. Highways became multi-lane and divided. Airports either grew or were built.

Nationally and locally, the groundwork for this post-war auto boom was laid in the first two decades of the twentieth century, when vehicle registrations rose. It was during the 1920s that automobile interests became a major lobbying force at all levels of government, and new construction and planning.

Garages had already been included in house plans since between the wars and by the late 1930s the garage had become an essential part of the residence. This trend accelerated in the post-war years. The carport began to be popular as a cheap alternative to the cost of the construction of a garage on the home site. Other forms of architecture also developed specifically to cater to the car and driver. Some were alterations of earlier building types while some were altogether new. Motels and motor courts, descendants of the tourist camp, began to appear, usually incorporating parking directly in front of every unit.

When the war ended, the price of gasoline fell and the affordability of cars increased. By the late 1940s, more than 86% of travelers were behind the wheels of their cars. With more and more car owners being able to afford the time and expense of traveling further distances, it was necessary to expand highways and streets and to construct the facilities to accommodate the modern driver and tourist. Auto travel was replacing rail transportation. Rail dependent lodging suffered. Since more people could afford cars, more people were going and thus more accommodations were necessary. Roadside cabins changed into what became known as motor courts or motels which sprang up along nearly every highway and in every resort town.

The term "motel" combines the words "motorist" and "hotel". Motels offered what the traveling public wanted. Clean rooms, parking next to the room, and convenient or well-located affordable lodging for the family on vacation.

From 1939 to 1960, over 35,000 motels were built in the United States. Such motels were usually functional, single-story buildings with connecting rooms or clusters of cottages and lots of open space to park a guest's automobile. Swimming pools were almost always constructed for the enjoyment of guests, the majority of which did not often have as easy access to swimming pools as exists today. Street signage was a signature part of the entire motel concept. The ability to catch the attention of a potential guest was critical and competition for the most eye-catching sign was common. Many motels often also included other recreational opportunities such as shuffleboard courts and playgrounds for the children of guests who often had spent long hours riding in the back seat of the family automobile.

Motel construction in Sarasota during the post World War II years mimicked that in other resort areas of the country. The term "motel" was first coined in 1926 to specifically denote an establishment where guests could park their cars just outside their rooms. By 1948, there were 26,000 motels in the United States. That number would double by 1960. In 1952, the first Holiday Inn opened in Memphis, Tennessee, as what would be the beginning of the first hotel chain and the beginnings of the end to the popularity of what were previously independent motel operations or often mom and pop run facilities and the character and flavor that was associated with a passing of a nostalgic much slower and less intrusive way of life and leisure. .

In 1972, it was said that "an old hotel was closing somewhere in America every thirty hours. And somewhere else in America, a plastic and glass Shangri La was rising to take its place."

Historic Information

On April 13, 1950, Tire Gemzell and his friend and business associate, Arne Petterson, filed a Florida Limited Partnership, Gulf Beach Hotel, Ltd., as part of their initial activity in their plans for the development of the site. The initial actual monetary contribution was $110,000.

Ture Gemzell, one of the original partners who developed the property and served as the contractor for the construction of the hotel, was born on January 23, 1911 in Wiesbaden, German. As a young man, he moved to Stockholm, Sweden where he attended Chalmers University of Technology in Goteborg, Sweden and received a degree in civil engineering. Upon graduation, he designed a number of buildings and bridges in Sweden. He also constructed and owned a hotel in that country. After the death of his first wife, he married Edna Poole.

The couple came to Florida as visitors and in 1950, Ture decided to form a partnership with his friend Arne Petterson to acquire property in Sarasota in order to construct and own motel structures for investment purposes. The Gemzell's came to Sarasota permanently in 1951 from Stockholm, Sweden. Petterson remained in Sweden, except for an occasional trip to Florida to see his investment properties. Additionally, in financial partnership with Arne Petterson, Gemzell, also built the Twin Motel on North Tamiami Trail in Sarasota in 1950. By 1953, Gemzill had also built another Lido Beach motel which he owned, the Beach & Sun Motel. Although he did briefly handle the management of his motels, Gemzell hired on-site managers for the day-to day operations of the facilities.

It appears that the Gulf Beach Motel was completed in late 1949 or early 1950. According to Don Smalley, a licensed engineer, former member of the City of Sarasota Historic Preservation Board, and a resident of Sarasota since 1949, the Gulf Beach Motel was the first motel to be completed on Lido Key. At the time the motel was completed, Smally owned an apartment building opposite the site on Ben Franklin Drive. The 1951 Sarasota City Directory indicates that the motel was identified as Gulf Beach Hotel Court with Clarence Chamberlain as manager. Stanley Thompson was managing the motel by 1953. During the ensuing years, the motel continued to thrive and many guests returned year after year to stay. A variety of activities were held for the enjoyment of guests including St. Patrick Day parties and shuffleboard tournaments.

In 1977, two years before his death, Gemzell sold the Gulf Beach Motel to Sarasota Marketing Association, whose chief officers were Larry Brenovitz and Herb Hyman, representing Leader Federal of Lexington, Massachusetts which also owned the Azure Tides and Three Crowns motels on Lido Beach. The organization purchased the property with the intent of converting the motel units into condominiums. They undertook the addition of kitchenettes to each unit and began marketing the units for sale. According to Lois Ausherman, an employee of the motel since 1953, a number of long-time visitors to the motel were interested in purchasing units but were not given the opportunity to do so.

Upon the sale of the units, as condominium units, a condominium association was formed, and an ongoing rental program was established and has since been maintained by the unit owners with the assistance of on-site office management and staffing, allowing the units to continue to be available for rental by tourists and visitors when not in use by the individual owners themselves.

Although some modifications to the original building structures have taken, place, the contributing resources individually and collectively retain their original location, association, setting, and feeling and collectively continue to provide an excellent example of the site, layout, scale and character of the many small lodging facilities that once lined the Gulf of Mexico on Lido Beach and Sarasota's outlying islands, following World War II with approximately a dozen just on Lido Key alone.

Over the past 20 years, virtually all of those lodging facilities dating have been demolished or so radically modernized as to no longer be recognizable as period structures. The majority have actually been demolished for the use of their sites and the construction of much larger and more modern residential or resort facilities.

The Gulf Beach Motel was locally designated by the City of Sarasota in 2003.