SARASOTA -- St. Armand's Key in Sarasota is known for its swanky shops and five star cuisine. But in the 19th century, the island was overrun with mangroves and mosquitoes. The story of St. Armand's is one of transition, from one time to another, yet it can be told through the statues that decorate the grounds. Today, the gateway to the key is guarded by two statues that represent two historical figures by the same name. Both serve as links to the island's origins.
There are 33 statues that line the walkways of St. Armand’s Circle, roughly a third of those part of John Ringling’s personal collection. The circus tycoon had big plans for the plot of land that would become the bustling nucleus of the barrier islands surrounding Sarasota. (Rumor has it that he won the islands in a poker game).
It was 1923, an era of prosperous growth before proposals of commercial developers across the state were devastated by The Great Depression.
Ringling envisioned the island of St. Armand’s as an exclusive shopping center surrounded by high-income homes. He oversaw the placement of each of his prized statues on marble pedestals strategically positioned around the grounds.
Some people say the island origins can be told through the sculptures.
Today a low curving wall at the intersection of Ringling Causeway and Washington Drive serves as an entrance to the key.
It frames a statue of a Roman general whose authority commands visitors to follow his gaze and enter the exclusive shopping center. Just beyond the first, another statue depicts the same general with his helmet removed, holding pomegranates and grapes.
The statues may very well represent the two men for which the circle was named. While St. Armand’s was purposefully named after Charles St. Amand, the first homesteader, it can be assumed that it was indirectly named after the French town of St. Amand, which was once the site of a monastery founded in medieval times by a reclusive monk.
If the first statue represents the elder St. Amand who battled the evil by channeling religion, the other most certainly evokes efforts of the second St. Amand who fled his European homeland in 1893 for the chance to fish, farm and homestead in the Florida wilds.
A misspelling of his name on the land deed listed the pioneer as "St. Armand."
St. Amand purchased the island, then called Deer Key, along with two other keys for the whopping sum of $21.71. He cleared a portion of the combined 131 acres and began farming his land, which produced a bountiful harvest. However, there were no bridges or channels at that time, so St. Amand had to lug his produce down hundreds of feet of dock and row it to Sarasota City Pier to sell.
Yet, the operation was short lived because in 1894, he sold the land to a man named Angus McInnes for a profitable $1500, then leased five acres and a road to the bay for $1.
Other notable sculptures are located on the next median. They include Discobolus (the man throwing a discus), Venus, the Borghese warrior, and the cherubs. Looking into the Circle is a marble sculpture of a figure of Michelangelo, holding a hammer and a chisel. On the opposite side of the Circle is the corresponding figure of Christopher Columbus, holding a globe, anchor and charts. Some say Columbus represents the circle as a port, rich in the goods of world commerce.
The statues were only a small piece of larger vision, in which Ringling hoped to build a winter retreat for his friend, then President Warren G. Harding. But, the key could only be reached by boat so Ringling purchased a paddle wheel steamboat called “The Success”. Canals were dredged, sea walls were built and roads installed. Circus elephants were used to haul timber for a causeway to the mainland and the million-dollar development was dubbed the most exciting in Florida.
On Feb. 7, 1926, a grand parade crossed the causeway, with a band, and wild animals and jubilation in tow. The procession headed to the center of the circle, and a sales office that Ringling had built, the sole building located among the statues.
Unfortunately, the Depression set in and the later only the sale office remained, housing hobos and miscreants hit hard by the economic collapse. It wasn’t until 1940 when businesses started appearing and Ringling’s original hopes for the island started to take shape, growing on its own.
Today, while it might not have become exactly what Ringling hoped it would be, St. Armand’s is a shopping and dining mecca for Sarasota County and its many visitors, which would likely have made Ringling smile.
As for the statues, they are the sole reminder of a plan of a great man and a visionary that didn’t quite come to pass and in 2007, when 21 more statues were added, they acted as a symbol of continuing the plans laid out by Ringling a generation ago.
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