Tuesday, April 23, 2019


“Mayday, mayday, mayday, Coast Guard. Mayday, mayday, mayday. Get all emergency equipment out to the Skyway Bridge. A vessel just hit the Skyway Bridge. The Skyway Bridge is down,” the pilot was heard shouting. “Get all emergency equipment out to the Skyway Bridge. The Skyway Bridge is down. This is a mayday.”

In previous blogs, I have recounted my memories and stories about bridges in and around Sarasota, but this one is very different. 39 years ago on May 9th, 1980, tragedy struck our tropical paradise. The Sunshine Skyway bridge, which connects Sarasota and Bradenton to Tampa and St. Petersburg, was struck by a freighter. Six cars, a truck, and a bus plunged 150 feet into Tampa Bay, killing 35 people. Wesley MacIntire was in the truck when it fell onto the deck of the freighter and then into the water. He survived.

Those of us who lived here vividly remember that day. My wife Liz was a dental hygienist and her patient who had just arrived had simply heard on the radio that a boat hit the bridge. She remembers not being terribly upset, thinking it was probably a pleasure boat striking a piling and she hoped the people on the boat were OK. When she got home a turned on the local news, she was shocked. I was a building contractor at that time and my memories were equally shocked by this tragedy. The old Skyway Bridge was a familiar sight when I went fishing as a teenager and drove back and forth to St. Petersburg with my friends for a night on the town. I remembered that there was originally one two-lane span and the second span was added later to carry more traffic. 

How could something this horrible happen? Capt. John Lerro was the harbor pilot that fateful day, trying to guide the freighter, the Summit Venture, a ship two football fields long, into the 58.4-mile channel that leads to the Port of Tampa. It is a long and treacherous channel thanks to the shallow depth of the bay and Florida’s unpredictable weather. The freighter was already dealing with fog when it was hit by 60 mph, tropical-storm force winds and blinding rain. The radar went down, too, when Lerro had to decide when to turn the Summit Venture between two of the Skyway’s main piers as the storm hid the ship’s bow from its pilot. On the bridge, Lerro considered his options. Visibility was terrible. There was also a ship leaving the bay approaching. Unable to track the approaching ship Pure Oil, the pilot judged it too risky to turn out of the shipping channel — what if he turned into the path of the oncoming ship? If he tried to bring the Summit Venture to a halt, the winds could cause the freighter to lose control and fling it into the bridge. The best course, Lerro decided, was to get the Summit Venture safely between the bridge’s pillars. But he misjudged the winds, unaware that a squall had changed the direction of the wind, pushing the freighter out of the channel and off-course. The vessel was also empty, riding high on the waves. A minute before impact, the skies cleared just enough for Lerro to see the Sunshine Skyway before him. Despite a flurry of last-second maneuvers, it was too late. At 7:33 a.m., the bow of the Summit Venture struck bridge pier 2S. The pier came down, and so did Interstate 275 above it during rush hour. Lerro radioed the Coast Guard for help. A Greyhound bus, seven cars and MacIntire’s 1974 blue Ford pickup hurtled into the stormy abyss. Thirty-five people died; MacIntire was the only survivor. Richard Hornbuckle's car rested where it skidded to a stop just 14 inches from the edge. Inimaginable. 

The Florida Department of Transportation began construction on a safer Sunshine Skyway Bridge only days later. At a cost of $244 million, the bridge opened in 1987, making it a very rapid construction project considering the size of the structure. Since then, the bridge has been lauded for its design, which includes some very unique elements, most focused on the central span of the bridge. The cables descending from the two towers of this span are set in the middle of the bridge, with 40-foot roadways on each side. By placing the cables here, instead of on the edges of the bridge, the designers ensured that motorists would always have an unimpeded view of the bay. As a final touch, the cable cases were all painted bright yellow, representing rays of sunshine in the Sunshine State. More than 300 precast concrete segments were linked together with high-strength steel cables to form the roadway. Protecting the new bridge from ships was a big priority, so they installed large concrete islands, called 'dolphins', around each of the bridge's six piers to absorb unwanted impact.

Here are some other interesting facts about the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge:
  • The dolphins around each pier were designed to withstand the impact of an 87,000-ton ship.
  • Twenty-one steel cables support the roadway. The cables are sheathed in steel pipes, nine inches in diameter. The pipes were painted a brilliant yellow to reflect its location: the Sunshine State.
  • Forty-foot-wide roadways run on either side of the cables. This design allows drivers to have unobstructed views of the water.
  • Tampa is a busy shipping port. To ensure that navigation would not be blocked, engineers designed the bridge to soar 190 feet above the water.
In 2005, an act of the Florida Legislature officially named the current bridge the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge, after the former Governor of Florida and then U.S. Senator who presided over its design and most of its construction. The Sunshine Skyway, surely one of the most beautiful bridges in existence, has garnered more than its share of praise. The graceful span and shining yellow cables are well lit at night, and can be seen for miles day or night. It can best be viewed from the East Beach area of Fort Desoto Park. Due to its beauty the span has been the scene of several auto commercials. It is also worth noting that a special on the Travel Channel rated our Sunshine Skyway third best of their Top Ten Bridges. (See the Travel Channel link below)

The next time you drive across the Sunshine Skyway, perhaps you will recall some of it’s disastrous history…or hopefully you will just enjoy the stunning view. Or perhaps you will fish off of the old portion of the bridge that was saved and became The Skyway Fishing State Park. When the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge was built over Tampa Bay, connecting St. Petersburg with Sarasota, the old bridge was turned into the world's longest fishing pier. Either way, the bridge is yet another reason Bradenton, Sarasota and St. Petersburg are such a unique place to live or visit. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Orange Juice Anyone?

As Realtors in Sarasota, my wife Liz and I drive around Sarasota a lot showing property for RE/MAX Alliance Group. One of the neighborhoods that we sell and list that always holds fond memories, especially for Liz, is Southgate. Liz, her mom and her sister lived there for over 30 years on a little one block street near Shade Avenue and Webber Street. At the time her mom purchased the home in the early 1960’s, the neighborhood was fairly new and she paid about $16,000 for the house. She loved the location – it was close to schools and shopping and was a safe neighborhood where the kids could ride their bikes to almost everywhere they wanted to go. The other great thing about the house was the row of orange trees in the backyard.The reason most of those home had a row of orange trees goes to the history of Southgate.

According to a Sarasota Herald Tribune, in the mid-1950s, Sarasota developers Rolland King and Frank Smith purchased 1,240 acres of citrus groves that had originally been planted by Bertha Honore Potter, the Chicago socialite who purchased 80,000 acres of land in Sarasota County beginning with her arrival in 1910. When King and Smith began developing South Gate, the groves were being worked by Minute Maid. Some of the original citrus trees are still growing in the back yards of some South Gate homes today.

In the mid-1950s, there were few construction companies that could undertake such a large-scale project. The same was true for the real estate industry. Many small firms had a hand in building and selling South Gate. Deciding who would build where was simple. Every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, Smith and King would entice real estate agents with free orange juice and coffee. They would sell plots of land while sitting around the large conference table. Groundbreaking occurred in 1955 for the first South Gate homes near Siesta Drive and School Avenue. By 1956, the pair, who had drawn blueprints for the first phase by hand, had already sold 1,250 lots. Over the next 15 years, South Gate added more than 2,000 homes.

The first three model homes opened in March 1955. The first home sold was at 2207 Siesta Drive. The Southgate Post Office opened March 30, 1957. The South Gate Shopping Center became Westfield SouthGate then Westfield Siesta Key, opened that year, as did some of the shops in the Southgate Village along Siesta Drive east of the Post Office.

Homes in Southgate now sell anywhere from $265,000 to upward of $700,000 along Phillippi Creek. Although the homes plotted along streets named after different varieties of oranges may seem ordinary today, the development changed Sarasota, bringing in more developers with grand-scale plans. It was the precursor to places like Lakewood Ranch and Palmer Ranch. And to this day, Liz laughs about all the frozen orange juice that her mom made from the oranges she picked - it literally filled the freezer and all of it from the trees in her backyard!

If you are looking for a great neighborhood to buy a home in Sarasota, Southgate is certainly one of them! Give me a call and I'll join you over a glass of orange juice to talk about it!

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

It's a Jungle Out There Tarzan!

Sources and Credits: Sarasota History Alive, Wikipedia, The Story of Sarasota

My dad built homes in Sarasota in the 1950’s-60’s and the first home he built that I remember was on Bayshore Road near Jungle Gardens.  I recall loving that neighborhood, mostly because of Jungle Gardens. Our little house (pictured at the left) was practically across the street from it and my boyhood friends and I often snuck in the back gate and had many adventures amongst the gardens and wildlife. We didn't know enough to be afraid of the alligators nor did we have much appreciation of all the exotic tropical plants and trees. We were just being Tarzan! And little did I know back then that the area has been used by people since prehistoric times! 

According to research conducted by the Sarasota County Historical Commission for the Indian Beach Historical Marker, the area has been used by people for at least 5,000 years! And this Florida attraction has current roots that run deep. To step into Sarasota Jungle Gardens is to take a step back into time…more than 80 years back in time. 

The concept for Sarasota Jungle Gardens first came in the early 1930s when a local newspaperman named David Lindsay purchased 10 acres of land just west of U.S. 41 with grand plans to develop the virgin subtropical jungle into a botanical garden. Along with partners Pearson Conrad and H.R. Taylor, Jungle Gardens opened on New Year's Eve 1939. According to Karl Grismer in "The Story of Sarasota," the developers added thousands of plants to those already found growing in their natural state. At first called "The Sarasota Jungle," the attraction opened early due to public demand. The December 31, 1939 Sarasota Herald Tribune reported that "The garden, containing more than 3,000 varieties of plants from all parts of the world is being thrown open today only because of many requests from people who would like for their holiday guests to see Sarasota's newest and most beautiful attraction." On the following day, the Herald reported in a follow-up story that "hundreds of visitors thronged at the Sarasota Jungle, luxuriant garden spot on the Indian Beach Road at Myrtle Avenue yesterday to view Sarasota's newest attraction."

My wife also has a connection to Jungle Gardens… a humorous one. Her dad, artist John Hardy, was studying at Ringling College of Art at the time and as a ‘starving artist, also worked for David Lindsay at the Sarasota Herald Tribune as Art Director. (Her mom was Mr. Lindsay’s Executive Secretary). As a third job, John was hired by Mr. Lindsay to work at Jungle Gardens for grounds maintenance, which really meant walking around with a machete cutting weeds. One day, one of the peacocks decided to attack him and he smacked it with the side of his machete and down it went. (Peacocks can be up to 5 feet tall!). He was pretty sure he had killed it and when he found out from they guy working with him that it was Mr. Lindsay’s favorite bird, he was sure he would lose two much needed jobs. But thankfully, the bird was fine…he eventually got up and probably had a little headache, but her Dad kept his job at the Gardens and at the Herald Tribune. Mr. Lindsay never knew about ‘the attack’!

Over the years, the South Florida attraction changed hands several times. In 1971, Sarasota Jungle Gardens was purchased by Arthur C. Allyn. His daughter, Dorothy Tinney, and her family operate the Gardens today. Sarasota Jungle Gardens boasts more than 100 birds and animals, and features bird and reptile shows four times daily as well as a Tiki Garden, Shell Museum, Gift Shop and CafĂ©. Promotional literature boasts that it is the only Florida attraction which allows its Flamingo's to roam freely. Sarasota's Indian Beach neighborhood, with its featured attraction, Sarasota Jungle Gardens, has been a pleasant place to visit since prehistoric times, and remains so today. So when I visit that part of Sarasota showing property, I give a fond nod to our little house on Bayshore Road and to Sarasota Jungle Gardens…thanks for the boyhood memories! 

Monday, January 14, 2019

Out with Old...in with the New!

Happy New Year! 

The New Year is often a natural time for reflection. One way or another, January is the time for assessment and sorting things out in several ways and with good intentions. Out with the old, in with the new. The phrase literally means to MOVE FORWARD...The phrase suggests that in order to move forward, one must purge, remove or let go of one thing, with the expectation of gaining something else. Not necessarily. When it comes to memories, I prefer to hold on to mine as I embrace all the new stuff around me. This can refer to physical objects. It can also apply to relationships, mindsets…and even the town where you grew up.

If you've spent any time with me, there is a possibility that I have said things such as, "I remember when none of these buildings were here”, or “this used to be a dirt road.” It can be interesting to hear stories about how my hometown used to look, and how things used to be, and I like to believe that the pictures I paint in my head of Sarasota back in my childhood, and then share with you, are accurate. I think that this is probably something most people go through who have lived in the same town for a lifetime. Sometimes you have to let go of the old while keeping the memories and embrace the new. Change can be good. And Sarasota certainly has changed! From the Sarasota Herald Tribune: "Dozens of projects, some cresting to the maximum 18 stories, are permanently changing the appearance of the city in a post-recession surge of building sparked by pent-up demand and unbridled confidence in the future". And then there is Lakewood Ranch and the many developments east of Sarasota that I couldn't have even imagined when I was a youngster in Sarasota. 

Many of my days selling Real Estate are spent driving around Sarasota, my hometown. Driving past an area that used to be a baseball field when I was a kid or noticing trees have been cleared off in cow pastures or orange groves and new homes are going up still surprises me sometimes. New roads have been built and old homes torn down, buildings have been revamped or are occupied by new businesses, people have moved, construction is going crazy and new paint is drying everywhere. As I reflect on all of this, I am struck that back in the day, Sarasota was paradise and today…it still is!  Every time I drive across the Ringling Causeway from St. Armand's I am stunned by the city view and how beautiful (and different from the old days) it is! To paraphrase the famous Sarasota author, John D. MacDonald: A person living in Sarasota for a long time, looks around and sees a larger, busier place that is all grown up from their first memories; The person just arriving from the urban northeast sees a brand new paradise of warm weather, sandy white beaches and beautiful sunsets. I don't take living in this paradise for granted - ever! So if you are looking to buy a home and share my paradise, call me! You will love it here!