Infrastructure and Urbanism in 1920s Sarasota, Florida

This post is based on research I did for "History of the American City" taught by Gwendolyn Wright this past fall.

As an undergraduate in architectural history I was encouraged to think critically about my home town as part of an exercise in historical writing.  This past semester, for a course focused on the history of American cities, I decided to take this further and research the history of the city as a whole.  I was surprised to find that Sarasota, Florida, has a much richer architectural history than I had understood from living there as a teenager.  Settled as a frontier outpost in the 19th century, it grew thanks to tourism, the circus, and real estate speculation, resulting in an incredible expansion in the 1920s that died with the Great Depression.  The city grew again after WWII, and in the 1950s was home to the Sarasota School of Architecture, a nationally-renowned architectural style and movement (not a physical school) that produced early attempts at climate-adapted modern housing.  Since then the city has grown without cease, but recently has attempted to start reining in its sprawl with New Urbanist-influenced planning codes.  In digging around the libraries here at Columbia, I found a 1925 city planning report with beautiful colored plans for the development of the city - and what I found about the history of this report kickstarted my entire research project.

image from Nolen's plan (public domain)
The 1920s was a huge real estate boom period for cities across Florida, and the small town of Sarasota was no exception.  Its businessmen and boosters touted it as the perfect vacation destination, although at the start of the decade it was mostly a fishing village with a population of about 3,000.  By the end of the decade (and the simultaneous end of the boom), Sarasota started to take on the shape of the city that it is today, thanks to major investments in transportation infrastructure.  The town had been designed in 1886 with streets parallel to the waterfront and then branching off into a grid behind, since it was initially accessible only by water.  It was eventually served by a railroad line, the Seaboard Air Line (SAL - see below image), in addition to roads leading north to Tampa and St. Petersburg and a relatively small marina for coastal water traffic, with a channel deepened in 1921 to seven feet to accommodate larger vessels.  The city of Sarasota was incorporated in 1913 and Sarasota County formed in 1921.  By 1930, Sarasota had a new highway, the Tamiami Trail, opened in 1928; a new rail line, the Atlantic Coast Line (ACL), opened in 1924, with a new depot in 1925; a newly developed waterfront; and three times as many residents.  That's a lot of big changes for one decade.

image from Wikipedia
To create a modern city from the original fishing and agricultural outpost, the newly-formed city's newly-formed Planning Commission hired famous city planner John Nolen of Massachusetts to design an extended city plan.  Nolen and his firm drew up the 1925 report that I found and drew new regional, zone, and city plans for the commission to implement.  He paid special attention to integrating all the new forms of transportation in the city that were either just opened or under construction, and recommended the creation of an airport on Lido Key.  Nolen was busy at the time with plans all over Florida and the US, producing thirty-five Florida city plans and dozens more around the country.  He also designed the plan for the new town of Venice, just south of Sarasota, and his plan can still be seen in that city's downtown street grid today.  In Sarasota, though, nothing came of Nolen's plan - it was never implemented.  Many of his plans never were.  The bust came too quickly after the boom, and the get-rich-quick attitude of real estate speculation made lengthy planning changes seem too difficult.  In the end, Nolen's plan remained nothing but an idea on paper, although it is still a very interesting record of how a 1920s planner envisioned the future of the city, the role to be played by infrastructure, and more, as I describe in my research paper.

image from Sarasota History Alive
In the present day, rail service has been replaced with AMTRAK bus service, the historic depot has been demolished, and some of the area’s railroad corridors have been converted to paved trails.  Railroads ceased to be an important transportation mode after the completion of the new interstate highways in the 1960s, including Interstate 75 east of the city, which now serves as the area’s eastern development edge.  The domination of car travel in Florida over other modes of transportation has meant that the street widenings Nolen proposed have mostly been implemented, although none of his aesthetically-motivated diagonal streets were built (see his regional plan at the planning report link above).  Water transportation now has a new network, following the creation of the Intracoastal Waterway in the 1930s to 1960s; in the case of Venice, the Intracoastal cut Nolen’s city in two pieces, separating the train station from the rest of the city.  Finally, with respect to air travel, Nolen’s proposed airfield on Lido Key was never built, or much of his other proposed waterfront infill projects, although different modifications to the coastline have been made over the years.  But it seems some city historians, at least, are interested in Nolen's recommendations even today.

I've had a lot of fun learning about the development of my city and beginning to understand its toponyms and  eccentricities.  I would encourage everyone to do the same, especially since it makes running errands around town more interesting!  If you would like to read my whole paper, with much more detail on the Nolen plan itself and its relationship to transportation networks, let me know and I'll send it along.

Major sources:
-- Karl H. Grismer, The Story of Sarasota (Tampa: Florida Grower Press, 1946) 
-- John Lore Hancock, “John Nolen and the American City Planning Movement” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1964)
-- Michael McDonough, “Selling Sarasota: Architecture and Propaganda in a 1920s Boom Town,” Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 23, Florida Theme Issue (1998) 
-- John Nolen, Report on Comprehensive Plan for Sarasota, Florida, Based on the Planning Survey and Existing Conditions Map Previously Prepared and Submitted (Cambridge: 1925), and other writings of John Nolen

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