Scenes from an Interview: Jeffrey LaHurd

Gus Mollasis interviews Jeffrey LaHurd

Sarasota – A story he lives and loves to tell

He loves and knows his history, especially Sarasota history, a place he has lovingly called home since 1950. He’s written numerous books, given countless lectures, and has done films about Sarasota’s colorful past and the pioneers who had the vision and courage to put Sarasota on the map. Today, 67 years after arriving here, he is Sarasota’s foremost expert on its past. In sharing stories and memories of this cherished place, Jeffrey LaHurd feels he’s had a magical life. In many ways, he feels as if the recounting of memories is his calling so that Sarasotans will never forget how it all started and that they understand Sarasota and its incredible history.

His history lesson comes not only with nostalgia, but also with a warning. There is a deep feeling that when you talk with this man about our history, you can tell that he cares not only about Sarasota, but its future as well. There is something that tugs at your heartstrings as he talks of a landmark that has vanished. There is a sadness in his voice that pleads ever so politely for those willing to listen, to pause, to think, and handle their next project with extra care, and before making history, think about the history that can still be saved. An historic street, or building, a park, a storefront, keep something from our past so others will know what it looked like back then.

As I parked, he met me in front of his house. I asked him about the flowerpot adorning his property. ‘That’s from the Lido Casino. I got it after they tore it down.’ I got a chill, and while I knew I was inadequately prepared for my Sarasota history lesson, I couldn’t wait to sit down with its history teacher and take a look at some scenes from an interview of his life so entwined with our past.

When you hear of an historical building that has been or may be demolished, how does that make you feel?
I think it’s another treasure lost. Certain buildings are iconic. Certain buildings give towns and cities their signature. For example, the Sarasota Opera House has been there since 1926 and it’s still in use today. They should have saved the John Ringling Hotel, but demolished the John Ringling Towers. I was on the John Ringling Center foundation board, which tried to protect it. We could have had that and the Ritz Carlton. It could have still worked – there was ample acreage to do both. That’s a regret, that we weren’t able to save it.

What is your fondest memory and the picture of what Sarasota looked like when you arrived here in 1950?
I would characterize like a Saturday Evening Post cover. Relaxed. Everybody knew everybody. It took 15 minutes to get from point A to point B no matter where you were heading. My whole family ended up moving here – 20 cousins, aunts and uncles and my grandparents. It was really idyllic. I think my earliest memories are of the Lido Casino. Crescent Beach, too. They had a one-lane swivel bridge going to Siesta until the mid 1960s. Can you imagine that? A one-lane swivel bridge.

How did you become interested and involved in keeping Sarasota’s history?
I always loved Sarasota and knew it was an idyllic place. Even when I was a kid I loved it here.
How did you discover it for the first time?
My aunt came down for her health probably around 1949. At that time, a lot of people came to Sarasota for health-related issues. My father then followed, as well as the rest of the family.

What is the one building that you wish you could have saved?
I would have saved the Lido Casino because that undoubtedly was salvageable. The citizens of Sarasota voted on a $250,000 bond issue to rehabilitate it, and then time went by and they finally just demolished it and put the pavilion there.

What is the building that you hope Sarasota fights to keep no matter what?
The most obvious building is the Sarasota Opera House. It was the Edwards Theater and then the Florida Theater. It really points up the wisdom of saving yesterday for today. Because what would be there if we didn’t have that building? Another one of these skyscrapers.

Place us at the Lido Casino back in the day and describe what people would have experienced there.
It was so varied. It had a little round wading pool for children and an AAU swimming pool with a high dive and low dive for anybody else. They had a nightclub. A conference room, a nice restaurant with a bar and a band. The whole package was there.

What is the one thing that you would like to tell every developer who wants to build here?
I don’t’ have anything against growth or development. I love Sarasota. I have something against overdevelopment and overgrowth. To me, Sarasota today is like stuffing ten pounds of potatoes in a five-pound sack – everywhere you look. And frankly, some of these building are ugly. They should have been planned better. The city’s fathers and mothers – the leaders. They had a great thing. This was a singular place and they should have kept it that way. They didn’t need to overdevelop it to attract people here. When you go to Savannah, that’s like something out of the fifties. These are people who protected what they had and we just gave it up.

What do you hope Sarasota looks like 100 years from now?
My Sarasota is practically gone. They could change the Downtown Historic District to just Downtown. Given that, it’s going to completely different than it is today. I worry about the original building of the Ringling Art School, the Bay Haven Hotel where they held their original classes. Is that going to get torn down? They are doing some great buildings on the Ringling Art School campus. Some beautiful buildings, but I worry about that original building.

While a lot of your Sarasota is gone, are there some favorite neighborhoods that represent Sarasota of days gone by?
Burns Court. I love it there. McClellan Park. Cherokee Park. Whitfield Estates, which I love. I love those old neighborhoods with the sidewalks and where other people know each other.

Finish the following sentences:
Knowing our history is important because…
It’s so colorful and unusual. We were the circus city and were advertised around the world as being the circus city.

The hardest thing about documenting history is…
Getting correct information. A lot of people have memories of Sarasota and often their memories prove untrue. I go to the old Sarasota Times newspapers and old Sarasota Heralds to get information, and a lot of times I get information from people who lived here, and sometimes it just doesn’t jive with the way it was.

John Ringling was…
A great man. A hard-nosed businessman with multiple interests. He felt that what was was good for Ringling was good for Sarasota. When the real estate crash hit in 1926, he brought the circus here to generate some enthusiasm. He was one of the most important figures in Sarasota’s history.

Mable Ringling was…
A beautiful woman. The circus Queen. Became an art collector along with her husband and had a big say in the design of Ca d’ Zan. She was significant.

Owen Burns was…
Along with John Ringling, he was a major player. He was here before Ringling got here and they paired up together. Burns built Burns Court and Herald Square. The Ringling Towers he built as the El Vernona. He built the old Belle Haven office building that’s still there, and the Ringling causeway, and his building company built Ca d’Zan. An absolute visionary.

John Hamilton Gillespie was…
The one who basically saved the Scottish ideal of community. The Scots were sold this notion that Sarasota was a little Scotland just awaiting their arrival. When they got here, it was nothing but wilderness. They were just out of luck. A short time later, The Florida Mortgage Company sent John Hamilton to revive the effort, so he put into place the infrastructure, which should have been here before the colony arrived. He laid the foundation to the community.

Bertha Palmer…
Means a lot and arrived just before Owen Burns did. She shined the international spotlight on Sarasota, because she was a woman of the world and everything that she did was picked up in the national and international press. She came here with her entourage and proclaimed that ‘Sarasota’s Bay was more beautiful than the bay of Naples.’ That cast an international spotlight here and she bought tens of thousands of acres here. A major player and true pioneer.

Ken Thompson…
The most significant player in the modern era. He was hired to be the city manager in 1950 and served longer (38 years) than any other city manager in the United States. It was his vision and guidance that led Sarasota through the post-World War II boom. The poster boy for what a city manager should be. Not that our current city manager is not a good city manager, he is, it’s just that he has to answer to five different people.

Sarasota was a beautiful place because…
It was cultural and had beaches. In the mid 50s, you still only had 25-30 thousand people here. A genuinely relaxed atmosphere.

Tell me a something about a pioneer who doesn’t get the credit they deserve for building this town.
Owen Burns. Sarasota came together in about a four to five year time in the mid 1920s, at which time the banks, the housing developments, hotels, the bridges, and outer islands were all being put together. That was all happening in a handful of years. By 1926 the boom was over. Money was flowing in and at the time there was a headline in the Herald that read, ‘Sarasota’s growth cannot be stopped.’ Ringling gets most of the credit for that, but Owen Burns was really one of the driving forces.

Who was the most interesting person you ever met in Sarasota?
I would say it was Ken Thompson. I was fortunate enough to meet him and ended up writing a biography of Ken Thompson. When I did the booklet on the Lido Casino, I talked to Ken, who was the city manager when it went down, and he took full responsibility for that.

Do you long for the pioneers of yesteryear and their vision?
Yes. They were handed a blank canvas yet they had this vision to put up what they did, many of those places being the ones we talked about.

Staying with your painting metaphor, are we adding too much to their original painting?
Absolutely. Without a doubt. We can see by some of the projects that claim to give a view, yet block a view.

Going back to that old headline – ‘Sarasota’s Growth Can’t Be Stopped,’ do you wish you could put the brakes on some growth and development?
For my purposes, I feel the brakes should have been put on a long time ago. I did this book Sarasota, Then and Now in 1991 and I was bemoaning what Sarasota had lost even then. It’s just proliferated. Some buildings are just beautifully designed and I have nothing against them. I love the Sarasota School of Architecture and modernistic buildings like The Jewel.

When do you create?
I’m an early riser. Four thirty or five in the morning. If I sleep past then, I feel like I’ve wasted the day.

What fascinates you about history?
The biographies of people. What I keep in mind when I’m doing biographies is that you actually die twice. You die the first time when you pass away. The second time you die is the last time someone mentions your name. So I feel really good that I brought people back to life in a way.

Is there a mantra that you live by regarding history?
Try to get it right. I really do try to get it right, but I know myself that at times I’ve gotten it wrong, because I took the wrong information, or there was a typo, or whatever. It hurts. I can go over my books 50 times and not see anything. Give it to somebody else to edit and they don’t see anything. And then pull it off the shelf – BAM – it hits you, and you say, ‘How did I miss that?’

Describe the satisfaction that writing a book on someone’s life gives you.
It will always be there. There it is. And the reason I like to give the lectures is because of the PowerPoint presentations which allow me to interject a lot of humor in them. This whole thing has been very gratifying and humbling for me. Somebody will come up to me, and say, ‘you’ve brought back such great memories. My father did this back then and we used to have a store there.’ It’s just really heartfelt and I love that.

Please share why it’s so important to save one of those special buildings or places we have left?
Certain towns are known for certain things. You can go to Paris today, or 50 years from now, or 50 years ago and it’s the same place. They have certain building requirements. And they draw people. History is in fact one of the biggest draws for tourism. So if we had a place like the John Ringling Towers or Hotel left, it would be a big attraction. It could have been synergistic to the Ritz Carlton and they could have played off of each other. So what is the community noted for? It’s noted for its beauty, but it’s getting to be noted for its overdevelopment.

Is there still charm here?
I still think there is. Certainly it’s not like it used to be. But if you’re downtown, you get that feeling of charm when you walk down Main Street and see those smaller two-story buildings. And I love the Mira Mar apartments on Palm. They went up in 1923 in 60 days and are still there. Behind it was the hotel where now sits the ugliest parking garage. To paraphrase the song, ‘They paved paradise and put up a parking garage.’

Even with all the new development, how do you still see the history here?
When I drive around, I flash back to what used to be there. You’ll see the Zenith Building and I see Badger Drug Store. You’ll see Clasico and I see the Hotel Sarasota. I do that a lot. I go to the beach every morning and I always flash back to the Lido Casino.

You really have loved being the man who tells our history.
What better thing for a person like me who grew up, worked here and retired here, then to able to write about this place that I love so much. I have a history degree from the University of South Florida and a Master’s Degree in Rehabilitation Counseling and worked in the criminal justice system for 32 years. Doing Sarasota history is what kept me sane. (Laughs) I knew and worked with Michael Saunders in the juvenile system, and she came up to me one day in 1971 or thereabouts and said, ‘Jeff, I’m thinking of going into real estate.’ I said, ‘Michael, you’re going to give up a $6,500 a year job to go into real estate. You got to be crazy.’

Describe your perfect day in Sarasota.
Get up early. Jog Lido beach and then walk back and collect seas shells. Have lunch with my wife, Jennifer. We’ve been married for 37 years and love each other more today than we did 37 years ago.

What do you hope people remember about you, after you’re history?
As the person who carried on the documentation of Sarasota.

Tell me about the flowerpot from the Lido Casino that sits in front of your house.
I did some research for a booklet on the Lido Casino and I saw this when I was talking to the guy that demolished the building. And I bought it from him more than 25 years ago. When you look at this pot, you can see how substantial the casino was when it was built. I have a neighbor right across the street who hit the pot with his car in reverse and it didn’t even move it. So anyway, I tell my wife when I die, I want my ashes spread in that flowerpot and in essence over the Lido Casino.