Real History by Jeff LaHurd: Sarasota’s early housing developments

Jeff LaHurd
 |  Correspondent

McClellan Park: ‘Sarasota’s Garden Spot’

McClellan Park is an early forerunner of today’s modern housing developments. Platted by Katherine Elizabeth McClellan of Massachusetts and marketed by her and her sister, Daisietta “Miss Daisy” McClellan. The development occupied a 56-acre tract complete with bay views, a clubhouse, a private yacht basin and social amenities.

These daughters of a wealthy physician were world travelers before Katherine discovered Sarasota in 1903. Miss Daisy and their mother followed a few years later, searching, as had so many others, for the salubrious climate that Sarasota promised.

In those long-ago days, Sarasota Bay was in clear sight from everywhere in McClellan Park. Katherine, an accomplished photographer with an artist’s eye for beauty, put together a sales brochure showcasing the superlative water views. She christened their development “Sarasota’s Garden Spot” and, in March 1916, offered lots for $800 to $2,500, with such amenities as cement sidewalks, running water, and septic tanks. As their ad put it, “If you are a lover of beauty, don’t miss seeing McClellan Park.”

Editor Rose Wilson announced in The Sarasota Times that substantial improvements had been made to the property by the sisters — “a fine compliment to the ability of Miss McClelland and her sister, Miss Daisy” — and heralded their effort as “a distinct advantage to Sarasota which someone remarked would ‘be the beginning of a Palm Beach for the West Coast.’ ”

After a year of clearing and beautifying their property, the sisters planned a suitably grand opening celebration to kick off their sales campaign, including a tennis tournament, an afternoon tea, an evening reception and a dance ending at midnight with revelers singing “Auld Lang Syne.”

The next year, management of the development was taken over by Howard Elliott, who reduced the price of the property to “a range more in keeping with the World War I economic realities” — $450 to $900 per lot.

The sisters, who never married, pursued other interests, traveling abroad for a time and then returning to open a tearoom and gift shop in what would later become McClellan Park School.

Katherine became ill and died in 1934. “Miss Daisy,” as she was forever and affectionately known, died on February 16, 1952. She was eighty-four.

Cherokee Park: ‘Sarasota’s Most Desirable Community’

James C. Brown had grand plans for his Roaring ’20s subdivision, Cherokee Park. Born in Scotland, he owned the Eagle Silk Manufacturing Company in New Jersey before he came to Sarasota at the tail end of the Florida real estate boom.

Cherokee Lodge, Brown’s own home and the first residence to be built in Cherokee Park reflected his vision for his up-scale development. Designed by noted architect Thomas Reed Martin, the home reportedly cost $500,000 and was to have been the first of many residences of Italian, Spanish or Moorish design in “Sarasota’s Most Desirable Community.” It was often featured in brochures and newspaper reports showcasing Sarasota’s finer homes.

Brown platted Cherokee Park in October of 1925 and competed with a myriad of other housing projects vying for prospective customers with full-page advertisements promising both the good life and the money that could be made in local real estate.

Located on what had been an orange grove, the development was distinguished by wide entrance boulevards, a long stucco wall, and gate posts with decorative tile work that separated Cherokee Park from Osprey Avenue.

Brown’s deed restrictions were strict, requiring that homes have a construction value of at least $10,000 for bayfront lots ($148,539.88 in today’s dollars) and a minimum of $7,500 for interior lots. Homes were to be of masonry construction. Fencing and outbuildings were relegated to the rear of the lots. (Just to be doubly-safe, horses, cows, cattle, hogs and poultry were outlawed.)

A later advertisement summed up what had been Brown’s intention for Cherokee Park: “Cherokee Park Offers All That Is Beautiful, Dignified, Desirable, and Convenient for Homes At Prices Far Below Near Future Prices.”

Unfortunately, Brown had the whole area practically to himself. Perhaps because of his stringent restrictions, sales never really took off. Only one other home was built during the 1920s. Peyton Enniss and his wife, Sadie, owners of P.H. Enniss Realty built the second home in 1926 and by the end of that year, Sarasota’s real estate boom had crashed and the Great Depression followed. Prospective buyers of Sarasota property dried up and construction in Cherokee Park came to a standstill.

In their “Short History and Walking Tour of Cherokee Park,” Audrey and Louise Henderson relate a story told by noted attorney Clarence McKaig: On a Sunday in 1935, he and his wife were driving through Cherokee Park when they were stopped by James Brown who asked them if they liked the neighborhood. They did, but McKaig indicated they were financially unable to purchase property there. Brown offered a lot of their choice if they would build on it within a year. McKaig indicated that to stimulate sales, Brown also offered lots to Colonel Mayo and Benton Powell, president of the Palmer Bank.

Brown died unexpectedly in his Whitfield Estates home on October 8, 1939, without seeing his prophetic vision of what, today, is surely one of Sarasota’s most desirable communities.

City of Venice

Sarasota County’s largest development was much more than a subdivision, it was an entire city.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, organized in 1863 was a formidable, cash-flush organization that sponsored large corporate undertakings from its home base in Cleveland, Ohio. The group owned the Equitable building in New York, then the largest office building in the world. Their plans for Venice were grandiose.

Florida Governor John W. Martin came to Venice to greet the Brotherhood telling them, “It is particularly pleasing to me to bid the officers and personnel of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, that stalwart, brave, big-minded group of men welcome to the State of Florida.”

The Times-Union of Jacksonville reported 27,000 acres were purchased for their dream town, and called the transaction, “Undoubtedly freighted with potentialities as great as have attended any one transaction ever made in the State of Florida.”

The purchase price was put at $3,250,000 with $5,000,000 more slated for development. It was prophesized that 50,000 railmen with their families would move there upon retirement.

John Nolen & Associates of Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the country’s most respected city planners, was commissioned to lay out the community. Prentiss French, a noted landscape architect was hired to beautify the area.

An early promotional booklet promised that as Prentiss, a Harvard School of Landscape Architecture graduate had just returned from the study of landscaping in Mediterranean countries, “The best that Europe offers in the way of attractive settings for homes will thus be available to residents at Venice.”

Nolen said of the project, “Your city here marks the beginning of a new day in city planning, not only for Florida but for all the country.”

The project was heavily promoted within the Brotherhood’s organization and to the general public with brochures, booklets and newspaper advertisements.

In 1926, James E. Alden produced a pamphlet titled, “A New Life of Independence,” which extolled the good life that awaited. An illustration portrays a young couple, the woman frowning down at the list of bills, she and her husband have to contend with, presumably in their northern home: “The woman is thrifty but expenses are high where they live. They have to spend money just to keep their places in local social affairs. And this sort of outlay doesn’t bring anything at the end of the year.”

As per Nolen’s plan, within just two years Venice blossomed with 3 fine hotels (Hotel Venice, Hotel Parkview and Hotel San Marco), apartments, a bank, restaurants, parks, lovely homes and buildings which had to be architecturally approved.

Add to the mix, farms, paved streets, beaches, a golf course, civic center, railway station, the Albee Sanitarium and every other amenity of a successful city. Venice was incorporated in 1926.

The end came swiftly, leaving behind a nearly bankrupt Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and what amounted to a ghost town, filled with everything except people.

It was the Brotherhood’s sad fate to become involved in Florida real estate at the tail end of the boom. Their hard work and high hopes were all for naught for them, but Nolen’s beautifully designed town would be rediscovered and enjoyed by later generations.

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