Bubil: 1920s boom is no walk in the park


The Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation’s Historic Homes Tour is from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. today in downtown’s Laurel Park neighborhood.

The alliance is celebrating its 30th year and 25th annual tour, but by returning to Laurel Park, it also is observing the 90th anniversary of the great Florida Land Boom, which peaked in 1925.

It was a time when Florida as we know it “came of age,” said historian Gary Mormino.

Much of Laurel Park was developed that year by Owen Burns, credited by the alliance’s Ron McCarty as one of the most important developers in Sarasota’s history.

“Owen Burns owned all of that property and subdivided and developed it,” McCarty said. “The tour is a wonderful tribute to someone who is such an incredible aspect to our history.”

Last year’s tour concentrated on Laurel Park’s fine Mediterranean Revival houses. This year, the focus is on the neighborhood’s wooden houses and multifamily and commercial buildings.

“That area was the working class of Sarasota” in the 1920s, McCarty said. “Artisans and carpenters — people who were expanding the community — lived there. The boom expanded the city to what we see today.

“Laurel Park is much more concentrated with historic buildings than most districts,” McCarty said.

The past decade’s real estate boom is overshadowed by the 1920s event, a boom that was so frenzied that it brought the Great Depression to Florida three years ahead of the rest of the nation.

Some tidbits (originally published here in 2008) to think about if you walk through Laurel Park today:
• Florida hosted 2.5 million “tin-can tourists” in 1925.
• Florida grew by 300,000 new residents in 1923-25, and 500,000 for the decade, to 1,468,000 people. Sarasota had 2,100 residents in 1920; the county had 12,000 in 1930, most of them in Sarasota.
• Miami’s streets were clogged by 25,000 “binder boys,” the freelance sales force that sold lots to “snowbirds” for 10 percent down, the balance due in 30 days. The binders were sold and resold a profit — until no more buyers could be found. “There were investors in Florida all over the country; even if they weren’t here, they were investing like mad down here with surrogates (binder boys), and doing this by telephone and telegraph,” says Dr. James Denham, director of Florida Southern College’s Center for Florida Studies. “They were doing Florida real estate just like they were buying stocks on Wall Street, not knowing what they were buying.”
• As the boom was turning to bust, lawmakers concerned about Florida’s image reduced the binders’ term to 10 days. And real estate could no longer be hawked on the street and in the train stations; it had to be sold from offices. So shopkeepers rented out desks to the binder boys (also known as the “knickerbocker army” because of their manner of dress).
• Swollen with real estate advertising, Miami newspapers reached 500-plus pages in 1925.
• Developers such as John Collins and Carl Fisher (Miami Beach), George Merrick (Coral Gables), Doc Davis (Tampa’s Davis Islands) and Addison Mizner (Boca Raton) became celebrities. They were hailed as geniuses, as business became the country’s new religion.
• Most of the buyers were speculators who had no intention of living in those new developments. Those 50-foot slices of paradise were simply commodities to be bought and sold for profit. Greed ruled.
• Real estate promoters became bankers and bankers became promoters, wrote historian Raymond Vickers. The Miami City Council was made up of five bankers.
• Florida Comptroller Ernest Amos was indicted, twice, for his dealings with bankers. But because bank examination records were held in secret, he was not convicted. Still, one critic wrote at the time, “We need more bankers in Raiford (site of the state prison) and more leadership in Tallahassee.”
• Real estate and tourism actually rebounded in 1927 and ’28, but then came the Great Depression. Said Florida Southern’s Denham, “Most textbooks fail to adequately cover the Florida boom as the first domino in the whole crash of the (national) economy. There’s a direct link between what happened here and Wall Street. The only difference is our crash came in ’26 and ’27.”
• In 1926, with real estate values collapsing, U.S. Highway 1 turned black with Ford automobiles heading north.

Historic Homes Tour tickets, $20, can be purchased today at the Woman’s Exchange, 539 S. Orange Ave., Sarasota. Parking also is available there.

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 28, 2015
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