Hidden behind a thick bank of trees and down a long windy gravel drive off busy U.S. 41 is a surprising treasure. It’s the 72-acre estate of the late Elling O. Eide. Few locals—even long timers—have heard of Eide or his preserve and stunning research library on Little Sarasota Bay, just across from Sarasota Square Mall. That was probably fine with him. Eide, who died in 2012, was reclusive, eccentric and an enormous and important collector of books on Chinese and Asian history and culture, as well as art. He also had a deep interest in nature and rare plants and no need for the spotlight. (He did battle Sarasota County to rezone a portion of his property—but that’s another story).
Eide also had a grand dream. He wanted to dedicate his secluded estate on the bay as a beautiful, tranquil place for visiting scholars who shared his passion for Asian culture and history. Sarasota architect Guy Peterson, who had been talking to Eide about his vision since 2008, designed a 17,000-square-foot, three-story building as Eide’s residence and library to house Eide’s 60,000-book collection and artwork. Sadly, Eide died before he saw any of part of his vision completed, and Peterson redesigned the project as a private scholarly center. It opened in 2016. Since then, scholars from all over the country and world have stayed on the property to study, write and attend conferences.
And now The Elling Eide Center, which was closed to the public until a year ago, has opened for tours of the grounds and research library. The $5 ticket price is a bargain.
But first, a little background: Eide’s grandfather, Dr. Oliver Mitchell Sr., bought the property, 100 acres at the time, in 1935. In 1936, Eide’s mother, Grace Bush Eide, and father, Iver Eide, both doctors, moved to the large, undeveloped property with their young son. Eide described his upbringing as “Bohemian,” and today it sounds like an idyllic playground for a boy. He fished and scavenged for oysters, scallops and clams and played with the family’s assorted animals, from a horse to a gopher tortoise.
The isolation didn’t seem to hurt him. Eide graduated class president at Sarasota High School and was voted “most likely to succeed.” He headed to Harvard (with his pet gopher tortoise, Winchester), where he graduated in 1957 summa cum laude with a degree in Far Eastern Language. After a master’s degree at Harvard a year later, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, was stationed in Japan and returned to Harvard in 1961 as a junior fellow. He later lived in Taiwan and became an assistant professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Illinois. In 1971, he returned home to take care of his aging parents and never went back to teaching.
During the decades before he died, Eide continued his study of the Far East, gaining a reputation as a serious scholar and expert, and amassed his impressive collection of books—now considered one of the largest private collections of Chinese studies in the Western Hemisphere. He also added to the collection of plants—450 species in all—that his parents and grandfather had started. That the center—a nonprofit run by a board led by his cousin, Harold Mitchell—continues is due to Eide’s sale of 30 acres for $30 million to developers in 2005, who so far, have not announced any plans for the property.
The tour of the center and grounds is not anything like a visit to Selby Botanical Gardens, with its manicured walkways, visitor-friendly greenhouse and gift store. This estate still looks like natural Florida—albeit with lots of rare plants from around the world. The pathways are gravel or nonexistent. The 90-minute tour, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, begins at 10 a.m. and is led by Norman Burr, who is a good fit for the nature side of the estate. A geophysicist and a botanist, Burr knows the plants, the science and their evolution, starting with the geological history of Florida’s formation that takes visitors back to the ancient supercontinent Gondwanaland. Burr is a fun, expert guide, and I’d go back several times to learn more about the ecology of the property.
Burr points out dozens of plants that Eide and his family collected from around the world: the thorny Wait-a-While palm from Australia, whose fronds are used to make rattan; the eggfruit tree from Mexico with a fruit that tastes like pumpkin pie; the miracle fruit tree from Africa, whose fruit turns anything sour to sweet; an Indian Bodhi tree or sacred fig, the same species Buddha sat under when he attained enlightenment; the chaste tree from Eurasia, whose fruits are an anaphrodisiac used to decrease—yes, decrease—libido in frisky women during festival time; the ylang ylang tree from Asia whose flowers are used to create the perfume in Chanel No. 5; and the jackfruit, an evergreen tree from tropical Asia that is prized for a fruit that tastes like pulled pork.
The last 30 minutes of the tour take visitors into the research library. Peterson won an architectural award for the modern, light-filled structure, which was designed to showcase Eide’s art collection as well as his vast collection of scholarly work. One of the more notable pieces is a large Persian ceiling panel above a dining room table, but there are also tapestries, screens, scrolls, pottery and other decorative arts on display.
Why is the center now open to the public? The obvious answer is that for the Elling Eide Center to survive and grow, it will need more than its endowment, and Mitchell says the center is entering a new chapter, hosting exhibits and programs to welcome the larger community. He sees a model for the center in Dumbarton Oaks, outside Washington D.C. Once a private home, it is now a nonprofit research institute and garden open to the public.
Dr. Matthew Wells, the director of research at The Elling Eide Center, who is also responsible for programming, says there has been a “town and gown divide” between the center and the community. “We want to build bridges with academic culture and the public. We want to show off what we have,” he says. So far, there have been about a half dozen events open to the public, and not all of them focus on Asia. A lecture earlier this month brought in two professors to discuss access to shore fishing along Tampa Bay.
Eide may have been reclusive, but he has created a place of historic, environmental and academic interest that has become a world-renowned resource for scholars. It is astonishing to think that one man amassed such a huge and impressive collection in his lifetime and that 72 acres of natural beauty and rare plants exist on the bay. You can book your tour now at ellingoeide.org/arboretum-tour. Tours are $5 and run Tuesday and Thursdays, 10 a.m. to noon. Wear sunscreen and comfy shoes.