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From a hotel and bathhouse to mansions

By Philip M. Farrell, MD, PhD

Siesta Key Beach resorts developed over a century as a sequence of attractive communities after the Bay Island Hotel proved successful lodging/recreational facilities were feasible along the Gulf and its tidal inlets. Opened in 1912, it also demonstrated the value of upscale accommodations, great food, and attractive, tropical landscaping.

Unfortunately, the real estate bust of the 1920s and Great Depression delayed further resort development. The economic situation, however, created opportunities as audacious developers and architects began a decades-long passion for progress throughout the island. In fact, Siesta Key achieved national prominence for innovative architecture long before being recognized for featuring America’s Best Beach. This overview and three articles that will follow in successive months will describe the evolution the Key’s unique development.

The Bay Island Hotel Sets the Stage

The Bay Island Hotel on Big Sarasota Pass with its beautiful landscaping. (Photograph is from An Illustrated History of Siesta Key: The Story of America’s Best Beach)

The northeast tip of Siesta Key, destined to become an island through Mayor Harry Higel’s dredging project, was an early attraction for developers. During 1906, E.M. Arbogast visited Sarasota from West Virginia and ferried over on Captain Roberts’ boat to explore opportunities for real estate development projects.  Soon thereafter, he not only bought prime acreage but also invested $25,000 in constructing, furnishing, and landscaping ten acres with shrubbery to blend in with the natural beauty of moss-grown oaks and stately palms on the island.

The Bay Island Hotel thus opened in 1912 with rooms for $2.50 per night. It was described as follows: “The hotel is three stories and has 65 rooms. The first floor holds the offices and the dining room.  Private bathrooms are provided on the second floor and every room provides views of the Bay and Gulf… None of the pleasant home comfort has been sacrificed for the more modernistic decorations while at the same time every modern facility has been preserved.” 

The utilities were perfect for the time and boats were always available for guests to enjoy the fantastic fishing.  Featuring Florida cuisine, the menu consisted of local oysters, stone crabs, clams, and a variety of fish with fresh fruits and vegetables.  Its extraordinary amenities, clever marketing as a “home-hotel,” and superb management first by J.H. Faubel and later by Edward St. Phillips ensured 40 years of success.

A Spectacular Bathhouse on Crescent Beach becomes a Magnet

The Archibald Bathhouse built in 1919 where Siesta/Crescent Beach crowds gathered in a circle for pleasure (Photograph courtesy of IG Archibald’s granddaughter, Peggy Westerfield, and digitally enhanced thanks to Larry Kelleher, Sarasota County Historical Resources)

After the Higel (North) Bridge opened in 1917, Crescent Beach became readily accessible for Sarasota residents and tourists alike. Cars driven onto the beach also served as cumbersome changing facilities— especially for the ladies.

At the dawn of the Roaring 20s, Ira Archibald solved that problem by building a large gender-segregated bathhouse. Soon, it was a magnet and stimulated construction of several smaller bathhouses. The Archibald family lived across the street. In fact, most Siesta Key properties then were typically purchased as beach-to-bay parcels. Homes tended to be on the bayside and a private bath house would be built across the public road, which is now Midnight Pass Road.

In 1925, the Gulf View Inn, a short-term lodging facility was also built on the beach to attract real estate buyers to the nearby 800-lot “Spanish streets” subdivision.  Unfortunately, however, the Great Depression struck and land values plummeted. 

A Pioneer Architect Arrives and Finds Unique Opportunities

Plummeting land values, in retrospect, created a welcome opportunity for entrepreneurs.

During the winter of 1935, a rare species of architect— a woman— bought 55 acres of northwestern Siesta Key land that was destined to become renown for innovative architecture.

Taking a break from her expanding architectural business in Kansas City, Mary Rockwell Hook drove down from the cold North to relax on the Ringling Isles and enjoy Lido Beach. After a delightful stay, while seeing her son off on a northward-bound train, Mary encountered a realtor who sold her at a bargain price the unsuccessfully developed acreage she eventually named Sandy Hook. Soon thereafter, it featured the famous Whispering Sands Inn with 1,000 feet of beach frontage and lush tropical vegetation. It embodied the theme woven through the Key’s development by emphasizing a connection with nature and combining luxurious lodging with the natural beauty of the island.

Later, thanks to Mary, the adjacent 30 acres of Sandy Hook became a kind of incubator for the design of unique modern homes where innovative architects like Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell established an open-plan style that eventually would become known as the Sarasota School of Architecture.

Exclusive Clubs Evolve: Sanderling and the Gulf & Bay Club

The Gulf View Inn during the 1940s when Crescent beach erosion threatened to engulf the building despite numerous groins and a seawall. (Photograph is from An Illustrated History of Siesta Key: The Story of America’s Best Beach)

After World War II, increasingly affluent Americans were poised to enjoy the Sunshine State and take advantage of pristine real estate. Undeveloped or partially developed Siesta Key property was still being sold at bargain prices. In addition to beach cottage motels that ultimately gave way to condominiums, several enclaves developed on Siesta Key that provided not only privacy but also exclusivity.

Most noteworthy are the Sanderling Club, which is now approaching its 75th year, and the Gulf & Bay Club which was established by Standard and Poor’s founder Paul T. Babson and Edward St. Phillips— former manager of the Bay Island Hotel.

Fast Forward to Luxurious Accommodations

The magnificent “Ask Gary” mansion at the south end of Crescent Beach near Point of Rocks. (Photograph is from An Illustrated History of Siesta Key: The Story of America’s Best Beach)

Once the shores of Siesta Key were heavily developed with condominiums, the current trend toward large, distinctively designed mansions and luxury condos emerged and attracted prosperous people of the 21st century enjoying America’s Best Beach. The architectural styles of these sumptuous environments varied, but many have combined features of Sarasota Modernism with natural tropical landscaping. A good example is Caso del Cielo designed by Carl Abbott for the Gregg Family near the middle of Crescent Beach but now replaced by a luxury condominium project. Another style is the prominent home just north of Point of Rocks, the “Ask Gary” mansion, which was built to reproduce the Vanderbilt’s Marble House in Newport, RI. Several luxury condos— effectively shared mansions— have also appeared in recent years. Clearly, Siesta Key architecture has progressed from the early bathhouse days to an island with luxurious, innovative homes.

You can read more about this topic and others in An Illustrated History of Siesta Key: The Story of America’s Best Beach, which is sold at both Davidson Drugs stores, Captain Curt’s gift shop, and Crescent Beach Grocery.