From the archives: The John Ringling Towers -- let it go


Publication Date: October 11, 1997  

Sarasotans with an eye for architecture would be wise to take a few minutes in the very near future to visit the John Ringling Towers. The building with as many lives a cat is at the end of its ninth, so you'd better pay your last respects while you can.
No doubt for years you have driven past the boxy old building just north of Gulf Stream Avenue on U.S. 41 and ignored it, to put it nicely. Perhaps you have averted your eyes from what has become an ugly ruin.

A postcard featuring the John Ringling Towers in better days, when it was the El Vernona in 1926.

A postcard featuring the John Ringling Towers in better days, when it was the El Vernona in 1926.

You won't have to turn away much longer. Despite what developer C. Robert Buford says about giving the structure a chance to survive, the place has run out of chances. It looks as if the Towers and the close-by Bickel House will be knocked down, to be replaced by a luxury Ritz Carlton hotel that could usher in a new era of prosperity.

Don't be deceived by the fresh coat of paint. This is an old friend that has been dressed up for its funeral by the well-intentioned John Ringling Centre Foundation, which huffed and puffed but hasn't been able to save the house from being blown down.

Hats off to the foundation for trying against dramatic odds to save a historic, if aesthetically unappealing, building. But the Towers is a lemon, and the foundation just couldn't find a way to make it into lemonade.

Now I like history as much as the next guy, and I love historic buildings, even structures whose history is all of 71 years. But is the Towers worth saving?

The community has responded, and the answer is no.

It has been given every chance. This is not like the Lido Casino, which was destroyed in the late '60s in short order. No, we have debated and fund-raised for years, and we still can't save it.

If the Towers, built in 1926, were a house, it would have been restored years ago, like so many of the Spanish-style homes built during that boom year.

But as a commercial structure, it has to pay its own way. With a house, the owner can take his lumps. He can improve it without regard for cash flow, because a house is not a business. It creates no revenue. If the location is good, he likely will make a profit -- when he sells. But a commercial structure has to support itself without first being sold, and the Ringling Towers apparently can't do that, not with the high cost of restoration.

The building was demolished in June 1998.

The building was demolished in June 1998.

Its location is not even that good. The once-elegant entrance was crowded decades ago when U.S. 41 was widened almost to its doorstep. If you look at the luxury hotels built in Florida early this century, The Breakers in Palm Beach and The Vinoy in St. Petersburg among them, you will see that they are built back from the street, with grand entrances through garden-like settings. That's the plan for the Ritz Carlton. But it's impossible with the Ringling Towers.

The place is not even on the bay; just a portion of the vacant land to the west is on a boat basin. And the bay views are partially blocked by nearby condos.
While most every opening in the Towers is boarded up with weathered plywood, one of the old doors remains. You can barely make out the faded lettering: ELEPHANT LOUNGE.

Yes, that's what we have on the North Trail. A white elephant painted peach.

It's time to let it go.

Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: February 22, 2015
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