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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.