Louise Would Be Pleased

It seems the more things change the more they stay the same; to wit, Sarasota’s enduring love of living in neighborhoods west of the Trail.  (West of Route 41—Tamiami Trail—that is, for those just becoming familiar with the city’s grid)

Neighborhoods including Oyster Bay, Cherokee Park, McClellan Park and Harbor Acres—in roughly the area west of Route 41, between Mound Street (to the north) and Field Road (to the south)—are considered by many to be mainland Sarasota’s gold standard, residentially speaking.  Walk-able, bike-able—and for many yacht-able and kayak-able—these long-established canal and waterfront neighborhoods are prized not just for their mature natural beauty but also for being in the middle of everything that makes the city tick—its best stores and boutiques, bars and nightclubs, restaurants and gourmet food markets; to say nothing of its top-rated schools and hospital (and surrounding doctors’ offices) and, of course its supremely gorgeous bay front.  Once considered remote from downtown Sarasota (these neighborhoods were, after all, its earliest suburbs) they found themselves in the thick of things once the city began to spread out.

Living West-of-Trail hasn’t always been the ideal it is today.  As automobiles became more available and easier to afford; and gas was cheap and plentiful, migrating to newer, more distant suburbs became the new normal. Suddenly it was a sign of upward mobility to live further away from town.  Just as suddenly, areas west of Tamiami Trail were considered passé.  Families, newly empowered to motor off in search of greener pastures, were demanding new homes on more spacious lots with plenty of room to grow and spread out—not to mention an attached garage (or two) to house their newest lifestyle accessory.

Developers of the day were more than happy to oblige, paving the way (literally) with the first generation of suburban master-planned communities.  Malls began to sprout up everywhere, both as a much-wanted convenience and new-fangled antidote to downtown blight and congestion.  Sarasota’s first malls, Southgate and Ringling Shopping Center, sprang up in the late 1950s causing retailers to pack up, leave downtown Sarasota and jump on the suburban bandwagon.  This sent downtown into a lengthy downward spiral—from which, of course, it has been brilliantly revived; and my how the pendulum has swung back in its favor.

As even the briefest excursion through any of these West-of-Trail communities reveals, the three-mile area between Field Road and Mound Street is anything but passé in the Sarasota of 2009.  In fact, these neighborhoods remain exactly as Miss Daisietta McClellan—who with her sister, Katherine, developed McClellan Park in 1916—envisioned them.  In their first ads for the new subdivision, they promised cement sidewalks and running water to anyone who purchased “a great big lot” for $800.  Miss Daisietta further vowed to create “a high class place of residence for a select and modern community” and “to change, without marring, the picture which nature has so well painted.”  They succeeded on both scores and McClellan Park—like Cherokee Park to its immediate south—have well stood the test of time.

In its earliest days, Cherokee Park was even more removed from downtown Sarasota; having previously been a citrus grove and private estate.  Off Osprey Avenue—north of Siesta Drive—it is prized today for being a rare oasis of quiet, wide streets amid a bustling city.  Renowned circus legend Emmett Kelly had much to be proud of; but he was proudest of the fact that the only home he ever owned—or ever needed—was in Cherokee Park.  He died there in 1979.

Though Cherokee Park dates back to the 1920’s, most of its homes were built during the post-World War II real estate boom.  Styles vary considerably—from stately to contemporary—but most reflect traditional or Spanish styles and nearly all have been thoughtfully remodeled in keeping with the neighborhood’s charming and historic ambiance.

Oyster Bay—off Camino Real, slightly south of Siesta Drive—backs-up to one of Sarasota’s oldest private clubs, The Field Club.  For 30 years the winter residence of Stanley and Sara Field—of Chicago’s Marshall Field Department Store—the estate overlooks Little Sarasota Bay and took two years to complete.  Now a private yacht and tennis club, its 18th-century Spanish villa-style exterior remains largely unchanged and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. It’s worth noting that prior to becoming Marshall Field, the Chicago retail landmark was a store called P. Palmer & Co—after its owner, Chicago real estate tycoon Potter Palmer—whose wife Bertha figured very prominently in the early development of Sarasota.  The well-traveled doyenne of Chicago Society, Bertha Honore Palmer pronounced Sarasota Bay to be more spectacular than Italy’s Bay of Naples.  Indeed, majestic views of the bay are the golden thread that unites these four stunning neighborhoods.

Which brings us to Harbor Acres, the stunning bay front neighborhood closest to downtown Sarasota.  Originally dubbed Cummer Park—after its developer Albert Edwin Cummer—Harbor Acres still benefits from the caring zeal of his wife Louise, who was described in the Sarasota Herald as “one of the most ardent protectors of the bay front who was always interested in beautifying the city.”  With Marie Selby Botanical Gardens framing it from the north and Harbor Acres from the south, one is hard pressed to think of a lovelier stretch of bay front.

The impressive homes in Harbor Acres belong to many of Sarasota’s most prominent and involved citizens. Its winding streets and waterfront vistas remain true to Mrs. Cummer’s vision of uncompromised natural beauty. Come to think of it, all of these historic West-of-Trail neighborhoods remain true to the ideal of developing property without compromising nature’s handiwork.  Louise would be pleased.

  • User Gravatar Wayne Derr
    April 30th, 2009

    I enjoyed reading your blog “Louise Would Be Pleased”.
    When I got to the last section on Harbor Acres, I got had a little problem buying the closing statement “Come to think of it, all of these historic West-of-Trail neighborhoods remain true to the ideal of developing property WITHOUT COMPROMISING NATURE’S HANDIWORK.” I guess you aren’t aware that Harbor Acres was a dredge-and-fill project. Not really nature’s handiwork….Thought you’d like to know.
    Wayne Derr
    Sarasota resident since 1950

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