Prestigious neighborhoods in Sarasota usually follow a pattern: gated, manicured, new. They tend to be a little removed from the action, and they can be spookily quiet, with hermetically sealed houses and nary a human being in sight. The real world doesn’t intrude much, and that’s the way the residents want it.
And then there’s the museum area. It breaks all the rules. Here, people are actually outdoors, walking their dogs, bicycling. A certain raffish character is part of the appeal. For people who crave diversity and a sense of history, whether from aesthetic or moral concerns, this is the place. When I try to explain it to people from out of town, I compare it to Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Like its New York counterpart, the Ringling Museum area is a little shabby around the edges. There are some spectacular places on the water—sort of like Riverside Drive in New York—but the bulk of the housing is rather modest. The economy revolves around higher education (think Columbia University), and the inhabitants run a highly developed neighborhood association that can make or break a local politician.
The museum area certainly has the best location in town. In fact, you could argue it’s the best location in the entire area, so nice that people have been living here for 5,000 years. Its bayfront setting, backed by enormous century-old oaks, is matched by the great fishing—and not all that long ago, great hunting, too.
Exactly what fits into the “museum area” is subject to interpretation, and realtors often stretch the truth and include most of northern Sarasota. But it is traditionally regarded as a combination of Indian Beach and Sapphire Shores.
Indian Beach begins at Whitaker Bayou. It is most famous for its trees. When I asked residents what they liked about it, they all—and I mean every single one—began with “the trees!” They are giant oaks, five and six stories high, dripping with Spanish moss. They cover the neighborhood like a canopy and produce a dappled lighting effect that reminds you of old-time American life. The housing stock is perfect for such an atmosphere. It’s classic “old Florida”—cottages, bungalows and occasional two-story Colonial with a smattering of 1950s’ ranches.
As you head north you come to Sapphire Shores, which abuts the museum on the south. Here there’s brighter sunlight and bigger, more suburban homes, including a collection of 20 or so Spanish homes, some mansions, actually, that date back to the 1920s. They were all part of the building boom that occurred when Cà d Zan and the Ringling Museum were built, and many were designed by the same architects and used spare parts left over from the Ringling mansion.
Once you get to the museum itself, the neighborhood ends. To the north is a confusing part of town that contains New College of Florida, then the Crosley Estate and the University of South Florida’s Sarasota-Manatee campus, and across U.S. 41, the airport. I always find it amazing that from the northern edge of the museum area you can actually walk to the airport. You could pull your roller a mile or so, right up to the ticket counter.
Unfortunately, just to the east lies the North Trail, which clings to the museum area like a dysfunctional white trash relative. Sometimes it seems like the hookers have been walking up and down those sidewalks for 5,000 years. There’s always some community drive to clean things up and it never happens, although Ringling College of Art and Design, which keeps expanding its campus along the trail, has certainly made a difference for the better.
But the Trail, with its seedy motels and “for lease” buildings and shirtless rednecks grilling hot dogs in front of $29-a-night motel rooms, seems to be the deal breaker. Many people take one look and say, “absolutely not.” A true Upper West Sider/museum area person, on the other hand, takes one look and says, “Turn here, I’m a block down on the left.”
The museum area’s history is long and colorful. The Native Americans left behind many traces, mostly in the form of “middens”—small rises in the land composed of shells and other refuse. There are so many that much of the land has a 10- or 11-foot elevation, and if you dig into it, you will find layer after layer of prehistoric garbage, thankfully transformed over the years into picturesque archaeology.
Of the area’s most interesting chapter, there is hardly a trace. The government built Fort Armistead there in the 1840s, and it played an important part in the Seminole wars. It was a big place—500 soldiers, a cemetery, a dock—but today it has totally vanished. Another brush with history occurred in 1865, when Confederate vice president Judah Benjamin made his escape to the Bahamas and then Great Britain, with the Yankees in hot pursuit. This took place at Whitaker Bayou, the southern border of the museum area.
In the early 1900s the neighborhood was developed into its modern incarnation. Homes were built for Northern sportsmen who would come down to fish during the winter. The place got its first name— “the Connecticut colony.” When John Ringling came in the 1920s, it was only natural that he should settle here. It was the nicest, prettiest, best-located place in town.
The 1920s are still apparent all over the place, most visibly in the old Spanish mansions of Sapphire Shores. But so is each decade of the 20th century. Modest cottages and bungalows predominated up until World War II, as the neighborhood scaled back its expectations. After the war, the ubiquitous Florida ranch came into being, and the museum area got its share. By the 1980s there wasn’t much empty land, and though the museum area was still “cool,” it was a little shabby. You needed a touch of eccentricity to live there.
Then, in 1987, a wealthy Egyptian dentist from Pittsburgh named Samir Gayed built a house on Bay Shore Road, on a big waterfront lot 2 1/2 acres in size. The lot contained an abandoned Sears-Roebuck house that had been on the market for four years. The style of the Gayed home was Moorish, and the scale immense. Sarasota gasped, then decided it liked this new opulence. The museum area was suddenly hot again.
Other large homes were built, and when Roy and Susan Palmer, one of the wealthiest and most influential couples in town, built theirs in the late 1990s, it became, like Jay Gatsby’s mansion, the place where the drama of the boom years was played out.
Who lives in the museum area? The question is, who doesn’t? You’ve got retired couples, art students living in crash pads, college teachers, dilettante artists, real artists, old families fallen on hard times, and some of the richest and most socially prominent people in town.
But when I start to analyze the people I know who live there, I do see a pattern emerge. It is a haven for a certain type of couple, not a power couple, exactly (though some are), but rather a youngish if no longer young pair where one or both of them have a high-profile job—often the wife’s is more high-profile than the husband’s. Living well is important to these couples, and their homes are highly individualistic. There’s at least one dog around, usually a Lab. And politics and/or public service often figure into the mix, usually—but certainly not always—Democratic.
Dick and Caren Lobo typify this museum area phenomenon. He had a long career in New York with NBC, and when they moved to Sarasota in the mid-1990s they had their hearts set on an old Spanish house on the water. When the perfect one wasn’t available, they set about creating one. They purchased a rundown cottage on Bay Shore Road and hired architect Alan Anderson to remodel and expand. Today the Lobo home is a low-key showplace that has hosted Michelle Obama and boasts what may be the loveliest view in Sarasota.
“The sunsets are spectacular,” says Caren, echoing the sentiments of other residents, many of whom gather at the little beach at the end of Indian Beach Drive or the park in Sapphire Shores for what has become an evening ritual. “I love seeing Longboat across the water. And the bridge is lovely—even if I did oppose it when it was being built.”
For some newcomers, the reaction to the museum area is visceral. “It’s embarrassing,” says Peggy Moorman, “but honestly, it was like falling in love.”
Peggy, a teacher from Manhattan, was in Sarasota to pick up her daughter, who was visiting a friend at New College, when she wandered into the neighborhood in her rental car. “I felt like I was in paradise. It was all so familiar. And everybody on the street looked like me,” she says.
When her car got a flat tire on 40th Street, she waited for AAA and studied the house that fate had stranded her in front of. It was perfect—a little white cottage that reminded her of the neighborhood where she grew up in Arlington, Va. Enormous trees framed the house, and an old-fashioned cistern stood to one side. In the back was a large garage, perfect for a painting studio. Peggy’s retirement plans—she had been thinking of Vermont—started to take another direction. The house came on the market, and today Peggy is busy fixing it up. The plan is to rent it to her daughter’s New College friends, then take it over full time in a couple of years, when, after 33 years, she bids Manhattan good-bye.
The museum area still has its problems. There’s that North Trail, which most residents good-naturedly accept. “I never feel unsafe,” says one. “But I also have a big dog.” Nearby shopping is not good, and the restaurant situation is even worse. Still, no other place in town so perfectly captures the past, the old Florida feeling that is so quickly vanishing.
“It was a magical place to grow up,” says former mayor Kelly Kirschner, whose father, Kerry (a former mayor himself), and mother, Jane (now Tuccillo), bought a big old Spanish house on the bay back in the early 1980s. The Kirschner boys and their sister, Katie, had a Huck Finn kind of childhood, building rafts of Styrofoam and bamboo and spending lazy afternoons after school floating in the bay and fishing. “It was so fertile for creativity. No video games, just nature,” Kelly says. Plus a little mischief. Kelly still remembers the scolding he got when the boys bragged to their father about how they climbed over the fence at Jungle Gardens, a tourist attraction that’s been in the neighborhood since 1940, and jumped into the alligator pit.
That feeling of nostalgia, of playing outdoors, of dogs running around and constant summer under giant trees—that has always been what the museum area is all about. Add to that the pretty houses everywhere you look (some of which you can actually afford) and the friendly, slightly arty, socially concerned residents (granted, some of whom are kind of crazy). Then throw in a humbling flaw (the North Trail). For many people—and they know who they are—it’s just the perfect combination.
And after 100-plus years, it still remains the place to live. Oh, there are many other places to live now. Siesta Key. Longboat. Harbor Acres. But when someone decided to build an opulent French mansion that ended up being the largest and most eye-popping homes in town, what location did they chose? The heart of the museum area. And yes, it fits right in. Not for its socio-economic implications, but because the house—like the neighborhood itself—is one of a kind.
Homes Sweet Home
We asked renowned architect Frank Folsom Smith, who’s lived in the museum neighborhood more than 25 years, to pick his five favorite houses there.
1] 4948 Bay Shore Road: Tropical modern. “A recent contemporary that’s been added on to several times during the past 10 years. A beautiful composition that’s continually improving.”
2] 4522 Bay Shore Road: 1920s Florida cottage. “I’m glad somebody cared enough to save this old place. I’ll miss it when it goes.”
3] 4449 Bay Shore Road: Brand-new Beaux Arts Revival. “It makes a grand statement and it’s very well done. Completely over the top. It’ll be a landmark in the neighborhood until it washes away in the next millennium.”
4] 2445 Alameda Ave.: 1925 American foursquare. “A sensitive restoration and addition. Great attention to detail with the grounds and driveway. Super job all around.”
5] 2704 Bay Shore Road: Classic 1920s Mediterranean Revival. “The grande dame that anchors the neighborhood. Well-proportioned and beautifully maintained.”
Highlights and hotspots in the neighborhood.
One of the best in the Southeast. Shows range from classics to cutting-edge. Birthplace of several Broadway musicals.
The reason it all exists. World-famous art collection, historic Ringling mansion, the circus galleries. Have lunch at Treviso, a great little restaurant in the visitor’s center.
Bay Shore Road
Drive past the waterfront mansions, some of the most opulent in town.
Classic ’60s cocktail lounge, untouched by time. Try the Mai Tais and Zombies.
Legend says John Ringling built these two little houses for his favorite midgets. Not really true, but charming nevertheless.
Turks Cap Place
A hidden, narrow lane and a shabby chic piece of nostalgia. Cute cottages, a little overgrown. Sarasota in the good old days.
This little enclave started life as a Mennonite neighborhood. The church is still there.
Famous comedians (Caroline Rhea, Mitch Fatel) perform in a strip mall. Or learn stand-up techniques yourself at the comedy classes.
Prestigious art school. Famous for its computer animation program and visiting artists (Werner Herzog, Martha Stewart.)
North Trail Motels
Some are completely respectable. Others, not so much.
Old-time mom-and-pop theme park. Alligators, flamingoes, tropical flora and fauna. Kids and parents love it.
Dive bar with great karaoke.
Nationally recognized for quality and low cost. Arty, intellectual student body—and faculty.
Indian Beach Drive and Bay Shore Road
Bike over and join the locals as they watch the sunset on the bay. Bring Fido.