Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Ringling's Isles

In 1924, Ohio landscape architect John J. Watson (1876-1950) was hired by circus tycoon John Ringling (1866-1936) to design "Ringling Isles" on four western Florida keys: St. Armand's, Coon, Lido, and Otter. Harding Circle, at the center of St. Armand's Key, was to be the jewel in the crown of this enormous venture consisting of resorts, a casino, and a subdivision of fine residences. When Ringling purchased St. Armand's Key in 1923 it had been uninhabited; Watson's plan bifurcated the oval-shaped key with two main arteries, Boulevard of the Presidents and Ringling Boulevard, converging on a circular park called Harding Place.

In its first year, Ringling Isles was accessible only by boat from the mainland. By 1925, Ringling had subsidized a causeway leading from Sarasota, and it became the primary artery to his developments. Although he was unsuccessful in convincing President Warren Harding to establish a Winter White House in New Edzell Castle on Bird Key (Harding died before the structure was completed), Ringling and investor Owen Burns were able to sell over $1 million worth of property shortly after the Isles opened and in advance of the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

On January 16, 2001, Harding Circle (now called St. Armand's Circle) was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Above: John J. Watson, General Plan of Ringling Isles, Sarasota, FL. November 1924. Photograph of plan mounted to canvas. William S. Wiedorn Collection, Box 5. Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries. Wiedorn, known for his landscape work in New Orleans City Park, was in independent practice as an associate with John J. Watson from 1924-1927.

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