Ghost Hotel: The Unfinished Ringling Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota

Many people think of the Florida Land Boom and the bust that followed in the 1920s as something that happened mostly on the Atlantic coast. Tales of land being sold “by the gallon” on the edges of the Everglades or lots changing hands three times in a single day tend to be associated with Miami or Palm Beach more often than they are with Tampa or Fort Myers.  The story of the unfinished John Ringling Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Sarasota’s Longboat Key is a reminder that the Florida land bubble had a much wider reach.

The cupola of the unfinished Ringling Ritz-Carlton Hotel is shown here (1959).

The cupola of the unfinished Ringling Ritz-Carlton Hotel is shown here (1959).

By the 1920s, Sarasota had become a major center of resort development on the Gulf Coast of Florida. New railroads, paved roads, and automobiles made it easier than ever for visitors to reach the southern tip of the peninsula from anywhere in the United States, and promoters beckoned them southward with promises of luxurious vacations, greater health, and easy living.  For investors, they promised unrivaled profits.

Bird's-eye view of a new tree-lined road heading toward the beach at Venice in Sarasota County. During the heady years of the Florida land boom, new developments popped up all along the Gulf Coast (1926).

Bird’s-eye view of a new tree-lined road heading toward the beach at Venice in Sarasota County. During the heady years of the Florida land boom, new developments popped up all along the Gulf Coast (1926).

John Ringling, who along with his brothers had made a fortune in the traveling circus industry, became a resident of Sarasota in 1912, and very soon he became closely involved with developing the resort city and the barrier islands just offshore. Along with developer Owen Burns, Ringling ventured into the hotel business, buying up the southern tip of Longboat Key with plans to erect a hotel to become part of the Ritz-Carlton franchise.

John Ringling is pictured in the center of this poster advertising the family's circus business (1897).

John Ringling is pictured in the center of this poster advertising the family’s circus business (1897).

Construction began in 1926 with great interest from locals and Florida enthusiasts farther north, but trouble was in the offing from the start. The feverish boom in land speculation and development that had fueled South Florida for years was beginning to wane. Sarasota continued as a resort city, but a large new hotel such as Burns and Ringling’s Ritz-Carlton proved too tall an order to fulfill. Construction stalled on the project, and the arrival of the Great Depression signaled its final doom. Ringling promised to finish it, but was never able to do so. Following a dispute with his business partner Burns, he settled for purchasing Burns’ lavish El Vernona Hotel in Sarasota and renaming it the John Ringling Hotel.

The El Vernona Hotel before it became the John Ringling Hotel following a dispute between John Ringling and his business partner Owen Burns (circa 1925).

The El Vernona Hotel before it became the John Ringling Hotel following a dispute between John Ringling and his business partner Owen Burns (circa 1925).

A postcard view of the John Ringling Hotel (circa 1953).

A postcard view of the John Ringling Hotel (circa 1953).

Meanwhile, the imposing skeleton of the hotel at the tip of Longboat Key continued to deteriorate under the hot Sarasota sun. Before long, trees and shrubs began reclaiming the site of the building, while bats and owls made their homes in its unfinished rooms. Vandals and curious trespassers prowled around the property at night, and at least one person died after falling from one of the upper floors.

An aerial view of the unfinished Ritz-Carlton Hotel at the southern end of Longboat Key (1952).

An aerial view of the unfinished Ritz-Carlton Hotel at the southern end of Longboat Key (1952).

The unfinished Ringling Ritz-Carlton Hotel fades slowly into the landscape (1959).

The unfinished Ringling Ritz-Carlton Hotel fades slowly into the landscape (1959).

The property eventually entered the holdings of the Arvida Corporation, which began making plans for building the Longboat Key Club that exists there today. Having no use for the crumbling hotel building, the company decided to tear it down in 1964. Joseph Steinmetz, a world-renowned commercial photographer whose work documented a wide variety of scenes from American life at all social levels, captured several shots of the hotel as it was being destroyed.

The unfinished Ringling Ritz-Carlton Hotel falls victim to the wrecking ball after years of neglect (1964).

The unfinished Ringling Ritz-Carlton Hotel falls victim to the wrecking ball after years of neglect (1964).

Clouds of dust fill the air as the cupola of the unfinished Ringling Ritz-Carlton Hotel collapses during demolition (1964).

Clouds of dust fill the air as the cupola of the unfinished Ringling Ritz-Carlton Hotel collapses during demolition (1964).

The legacy of John Ringling remains strong in Sarasota, which features the John Ringling Causeway linking Lido Key with the mainland, as well as the imposing John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

A view of the gardens and courtyard of the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota (1961).

A view of the gardens and courtyard of the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota (1961).

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9 thoughts on “Ghost Hotel: The Unfinished Ringling Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota

  1. As always, I appreciate getting to learn a little more about the incredible history of our great state! It’s crazy to think of this ghost hotel looming in the landscape for years abandoned. It is very much a haunting image, and one that holds a certain sadness for what could have been.

  2. My husband grew up there. He knew the guy who fell off the old Ritz Carlton. The guys played there all the time. Thsnks for the story.

  3. I recently moved to Florida and have often wondered where my grandfather lost all of his money. Foolishly I neglected to ask when my aunt was still alive. The story goes that John “Henry” Meyer, who owned a meat packing business in Brooklyn NY, came to Florida to invest in the land boom. I don’t think this was until the late 30s or maybe even early 40s. Any information about the land booms and busts of that time is greatly appreciated.

    • Hi Suzanne,

      The “main” Florida Land Boom ended around 1926, owing to the destructive forces of shady selling practices, railroad labor issues, and a devastating hurricane in South Florida. By the 1930s, construction and land sales in Florida had slowed to a crawl. A wide variety of books are available for researching this topic – we recommend starting with Paradise for Sale by Nick Wynne. It’s a very approachable read, and will give a good general overview of Florida’s boom-and-bust tendencies.

  4. I love this stuff, moved here from ct in 8th grade in 1967, could swear some of my class had lunch there, they still had trapezes hanging from the dining room ceilings. Dose anyone remember that, or should I just blame it on the sixties or a crazy dream? It was so fascinating.

    • Cheryl, You must have had a crazy dream about your classmates having lunch at the hotel in 1967 as it was torn down in 1964. Having visited and partied at the hotel numerous days and nights, I can assure you that there were no trapezes hanging from the dining room ceilings. I was there the night our classmate fell down an open elevator shaft to his death. What a tragedy!

  5. Cheryl, You are correct just in the wrong hotel. The John Ringling Hotel just over the bridge on the mainland had the trapezes in the dining room. My parents vacationed on Long Boat Key and we stayed at the John Ringling Hotel several times. In the late 80’s early 90’s my wife and I bought a time share on Long Boat and I would go over to the boarded up hotel and enter the hotel through a kitchen window and explore. The Trapezes were gone but you could still see the swivels on the ceilings where they used to be. I was sad to see the old hotel torn down because many tried to save it as a historical place. If you get a chance read about the hotels history, many famous people vacationed there.

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