In the early 1980s I had the good fortune to explore several local landmarks, like The Acacias, the Gillespie home and the Mira Mar Hotel. At that time, it was common to tour soon-to-be-demolished buildings and find the original design elements and materials still intact. Fast-forward 35 years, and finding a significant “all-original” landmark in downtown Sarasota today is as unlikely as discovering a Packard or Pierce Arrow automobile stashed in a barn in mint condition.
But rediscovering such a fine old jewel is possible, as demonstrated by a recent invitation from the Historical Society of Sarasota County to attend an afternoon tour just a few steps from Main Street. When we entered the long-dormant space, clutter and dust did their best to disguise one of Sarasota’s true survivors. Like a long-stored automobile, neglected architectural treasures are often appreciated most by those who have an eye for the original design and materials. On Palm Avenue, the dusty jewel we rediscovered was not a rare automobile, it was one of Sarasota’s finest hotels from the 1920s—the DeMarcay Hotel.
In the early 1920s, Sarasota was beginning to attract notice from Northern visitors. To meet the growing demand for tourist accommodations, Andrew McAnsh of Chicago constructed a Mission Revival-style apartment complex along Palm Avenue and a matching hotel, known as the Mira Mar. While Mediterranean-influenced architecture would become the norm in the mid-1920s, in 1923 this was one of the first structures in Sarasota with such exotic ornamentation. The Mira Mar Hotel was demolished in the 1980s and the matching apartments were remodeled.
Under separate ownership, the adjacent DeMarcay Hotel was built at the same time as the Mira Mar, by the same contractor, and to the same design as the Mira Mar. Now it’s the last surviving example of the original materials, textures and form of the entire Mira Mar complex. Details such as the original “dash” stucco (stucco with a pebbly texture) and cypress sidewalk canopy have, ironically, been saved by neglect.
Named for its original owners, Paul and Julia DeMarcay, the property originally included the popular DeMarcay Cafe on the ground floor. The hotel had an expansive view of the bay and easy access to Sarasota’s bustling Main Street. Evolving with Sarasota, by the mid-1930s, the hotel changed its name to the Palm Hotel, and one of the first-floor storefronts housed offices for Florida Power and Light.
As we entered the hotel, our initial reaction was to cringe at the condition and the clutter. But after a few minutes we realized the space was all original. Wide hallways provided a corridor for natural breezes. Old-growth bald-cypress doors, windows and ornamental trim revealed their natural beauty and durability. Vintage porcelain-enamel badges bore each room’s numbers. Bathrooms retained their fixtures. Everything we were looking at was exactly what had been constructed almost 100 years ago, showing signs of age, yet authentic and evocative. In one room, a cardstock sign listed hotel rules, including that doors must remain open if entertaining a guest of the opposite sex. Not only did we have the equivalent of an automotive barn find, we agreed; we had found the original driver’s manual.
Then we noticed what wasn’t there. There was no air conditioning system. And yet with windows open and the sea breeze blowing, we weren’t suffering from the late summer heat. The design began to make so much sense. It was like putting the top down and taking the old Duesenberg out for a drive along the shore, only in this case it was a DeMarcay, even rarer than a vintage Duesy.
We were there to see something before it was lost. G.K. Development of Barrington, Illinois, plans to construct a new residential condominium tower between the facades of the DeMarcay Hotel and the adjacent Roth Cigar Factory. Their marketing office was set to open last month. The interior space—the heart of the hotel—will be demolished to create apartments more suitable for today’s upscale downtown dwellers.
Knowing the fate of the space we were exploring sharpened our reflections on what it must have been like all those decades ago, to be a Northern visitor in this beguiling tropical town, unpacking a trunk full of lightweight frocks and dinner jackets, with a room facing a brilliant sunset over the blue-green bay, and the aroma of dinner being prepared downstairs in Julia’s DeMarcay Café drifting through the open windows.