Want to own a bunch of Sarasota bayfront with a side of local history? Right now, it’s the highest price tag for a residential listing in Sarasota County, but if you consider the scope of what you’re getting, it could be a bang for your buck. It’s big–roughly 7 1/2 acres. Priced at $22 million, it comes to roughly $67.50 a square foot. For context, a single-family home next door on a little less than half an acre is on the market for $5.45 million.

The total property, located in Indian Beach-Sapphire Shores in north Sarasota, includes five parcels: 4619, 4511, 4521, 4600 and 4645 Bay Shore Road. The largest of the parcels, 4645 Bay Shore, can be split into four, one-acre properties on the bay, or the buyer can keep it all together to create a family compound. Under current zoning standards, the minimum lot area is 21,780 square feet. That means the purchase could yield a total of 15 single family homes.

Except for a smaller home on the east side of Bay Shore Road, the property curves along Indian Beach-Sapphire shores and includes more than 700 feet on Sarasota Bay. This neighborhood is one of the oldest in Sarasota and in the '20s, was written up in promotional materials as having some of the "prettiest located lots to be found on the entire bay, nearby the palatial homes of wealthy northern tourists who spend their winters here." Those wealthy northern tourists, by the way, included the Ringling Brothers, Col. C.M. Thompson of Buffalo Bill's Wild West and D.L. Wooster, a manufacturer from Cincinnati.  

The large property includes two historic homes. The Earle house at 4521 Bay Shore Road was built by George Earle in the 1927 as a winter retreat and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It had been rented out until last month.

The Etowah Hagan-Jackson house, built in 1925, is named after the river in north Georgia, where one of the original owners, Lee Hagan, hailed from. Hagan built the Mediterranean revival home as a winter getaway, and it was part of the first tract of land investors purchased in Sarasota. He sold it to Felix Jackson, who remained a long-time owner. 

This house was featured in Sarasota Magazine when it was a Jewel’s on the Bay Designer Showhouse in 2019. It is listed on the Florida Master Site File, a state-level historic registry, and demolition would require approval by the Historic Preservation Board of Sarasota. 

But John Cuneo Jr. didn't live in either of the historic homes, choosing instead to stay in the seven-bedroom, six-bathroom home on the largest parcel at 4645 Ainsley Place, built in 1935.

Cuneo, a Chicago native, had an exotic and somewhat controversial past that involved the circus. His father owned Cuneo Press, one of the largest commercial printing plants in the country, that used to print the Ringling Bros. programs.  

In the 1950s, Cuneo married German-born Herta Klauser who performed, along with her family, in a famous trained bear act for the Ringling Brothers Circus at a Chicago fair. In 1957, Cuneo started the Hawthorn Corporation and boarded and leased exotic animals to other circuses. Cuneo’s animals toured the nation and the world, and he became one of the largest providers of circus animals in the nation, a dubious recognition since he also became the first person in the country to have an elephant confiscated due to neglect. (Eventually, 16 of his elephants were seized by the USDA under the Animal Welfare Act, and he was ordered to pay a civil penalty of $200,000.)

At one point, Cuneo's Sarasota neighbors were concerned that he planned to move tigers to their neighborhood after he applied for permits to install an 8-foot-high wall–the Florida required minimum height to keep them. Ultimately, animals were never kept on the land. 

But Cuneo and Herta were also philanthropic, involved with the Board of Loyola University in Chicago, chairing many fundraisers and contributing to the Medical School Program with the donation of a Medical Teaching Building on the Loyola Campus.

After his parents died, the Cuneo Foundation, the family foundation of John Cuneo Jr. and his wife Herta, donated his childhood Italianate mansion to Loyola University Chicago in 2009. The $50 million gift, the largest in Loyola's history, included the home’s extensive collection of art and furnishings. The Cuneo Foundation also gifted high school and college students with need-based scholarships. 

In Sarasota, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art has a conservation laboratory named after the couple. After Herta died in 2017, her estate made a $10 million dollar gift to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall the next year. John Cuneo passed away in 2019 at 88 years old. The entire parcel in north Sarasota is being sold under the Cuneo Trust.

Michael Saunders & Company realtor Kim Ogilvie, who represents the sellers, says in the 38 years she been in real estate in Sarasota she hasn’t seen an opportunity like this one. "When you walk the property it really is a garden of Eden. It's a lot of royal palms, mature oaks and dense vegetation, mixed with meticulously kept landscaping," she says. A developer is looking at building houses on the waterfront parcels and turning one of the historic homes into a clubhouse. The 1935 house across the street at 4600 Bay Shore Road could be ideal to house property caretakers. Another potential buyer is eyeing it as a family estate.