The Magnificent, Mysterious Sanderling Club: Origin and Early Development

By Philip M. Farrell, MD, PhD

After the uncertainties and stresses during World War II, especially limitations in travel with gasoline shortages and food rationing, Americans were eager to embrace tourism and enjoy particularly the Sunshine State. Real estate was bargain priced throughout Florida but enticing developments were scarce although there was plenty of beachfront property available. For a variety of reasons such as the desire for exclusivity, clubs became attractive to developers and affluent snowbirds. Two distinctly different clubs with complex histories were established on Siesta Key— the Sanderling Club and the Gulf & Bay Club. Although the latter was indeed transformed into a condominium during 1979, the Sanderling Club has continued as an exclusive, unique development of discrete neighborhoods that faithfully preserve Old Florida while encouraging a combination of privacy and community living— a culture that has endured along with the tropical paradise the developer envisioned.

Visionary Developer Elbridge Boyd Arrives to Plan and Preserve

Elbridge and Helen Boyd around the time the Sanderling property was developed. He became so prominent that people would call him the “Mayor” of Siesta Key.

During the 1940s, many areas of Siesta Key were still jungles, especially south of the Point of Rocks where the land was largely uninhabited. Fortunately, an extraordinary developer devoted to ecology, Elbridge S. Boyd, recognized a special opportunity there and instilled his vision into an enduring project. He was inspired as a developer by his parents as they became involved in the reconstruction of Atlanta from its Sherman-led Civil War destruction. Elbridge’s deep appreciation of Florida’s tropical treasures was also gained as a boy while wintering in Clearwater. Later, after service in the World War I, he married Helen Anderson, started his career, and during 1939 moved to Siesta Key to recuperate from one of his many respiratory illnesses. While renting a small home in the quiet environment of Point of Rocks, Mr. Boyd explored the potential of the Key’s shoreline properties and discovered the jungle land that eventually became Sanderling. The next year, Elbridge and Helen decided to settle on Shell Road where they created fabulous gardens of flowering foliage and continued exploring land to develop on the Key. His first development was the nearby Fiddler Bayou. By 1946, Elbridge was positioned to develop a large tract of south Siesta Key by forming Siesta Properties, Inc.

The Organization of the Club Homesites

Sanderling Club cabanas adjacent to the Clubhouse and currently leasing at $2600 per year with a waiting list of at least 10 years.

The property that eventually became the Sanderling Club was ideal for a large development with two miles of Gulf frontage beach and an interior featuring the Heron Lagoon— a flowing waterway entrapped by the 1921 hurricane that created Midnight Pass. Taking advantage of the property’s natural divisions and dredging some lagoon-connected canals, Mr. Boyd and his small crew organized the property into four units. The first comprised beachfront lots up to two acres with at least 150 feet of frontage that were priced generally at less than $10,000 each. The second and third units were designated as Waterway Lots along Heron Lagoon and sold for $8,000. Early residents recall that oysters, blue crabs, mussels and an occasional alligator inhabited the lagoon, along with large tarpon— descendants of the survivors from the 1921 storm. The fourth unit on the east side of Midnight Pass Road included a boat basin dredged from marshy land. Lot sales stimulated largely by the early owners to attract their friends led to a total of sixty-seven cottages being built between 1946 and 1958.

Shortcomings and Controversies Emerge

As the number of property owners increased, the need for a homeowners’ association became obvious. In the early 1950s, the Siesta Club became the governing body and included an admissions committee to ensure exclusivity. However, an unfortunate inequity became apparent that needed resolution to encourage continued growth. Siesta Club members who owned houses on the Gulf enjoyed a private beach that sloped gently to the water from their backyards, but property owners on the waterways and eastside lacked access except for a small number of residents who had purchased cabanas at the adjacent Turtle Beach Cabana Club— another Boyd development that served an exclusive group who refused to expand the membership. Consequently, the only alternative for the waterway and eastside occupants was to start another, completely separate cabana club on Siesta Properties land acquired in 1952 from Mr. Boyd, who was eager to address the shortcoming. This led to formation of Sanderling Beach, Inc. — an entirely separate corporation with a brilliant group of directors and officers dedicated to resolve the inequity.

The Role of Paul Rudolph

Paul Rudolph’s award-winning design for Sanderling Beach, Inc. Note that the plywood rooves were meant to resemble waves in the Gulf, but the swimming pool was never built.

The newly purchased Sanderling property provided an excellent setting along a gorgeous beachfront where the waterway and eastside owners could access the Gulf. Next, a pivotal decision was reached launch an ambitious beachside development project by hiring 34-year old architect Paul Rudolph to design the sorely needed facilities. The commission included cabanas, a clubhouse, swimming pool (which was ultimately deleted), and tennis courts, in addition to parking spaces. Using high-strength plywood, a product of World War II, the builders bent the rooves to resemble waves— one of Rudolph’s many architectural innovations. The delicately designed, integrated facilities also proved to be as functional as attractive, offering residents a combination of places to gather socially as well as relax in privacy. The final results were incredibly successful. The Rudolph design helped him win the grand prize at the 1958 Brussels World Fair competition and establish an internationally recognized career, as well as become Yale’s Chairman of Architecture. Later, in 1994, residents of Sanderling Club successfully nominated the Rudolph Clubhouse and Cabanas to the National Register of Historic Places for their “exceptional importance,” thus gaining FEMA exemptions for rehabilitations.

The magnificent Sanderling Clubhouse with its glass “walls” characteristic of the Sarasota School of Architecture and an appearance that combines a brilliant white façade with the blue backdrop of the sky or Gulf.

Formation of the Sanderling Club

Although The Siesta Club and Sanderling Beach Inc. were equally important, the name Sanderling began to overshadow The Siesta Club. During 1974, a special meeting of both organizations was called, and a merger resulted in the creation of the Sanderling Club. During the subsequent five decades, a spirit of cooperation has prevailed as multi-million dollar homes have been built to replace many of the original cottages, the demographics of the residents evolved, and the social life become so active that a “Sanderling Family,” rather than “Club,” now assembles regularly at the centerpiece Rudolph Clubhouse. Undoubtedly, Elbridge Boyd would be proud that the jungle he found about 75 years ago has become one of Florida’s best preserved, exclusive tropical paradises.

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.