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Old Sun City: Act II: Heralds of the Dawn

Real estate star is almost born in delirious 1920s

Herbert Van Sweringen set out to win respect and fortune with Sun City.

Published January 19, 2007


Second in a series of stories about the old Sun City development.


The day the Sun City motion picture studio was dedicated and 1,500 speculators poured into the new silver-screen development on the Little Manatee River, a newspaperman walked into the Tampa Terrace hotel 25 miles to the north.

Staying there that night in 1925 was Robert L. Morris, an adventurer from New Orleans with experience chasing gold, diamonds and oil.

He came to Tampa to explore the latest treasure: Florida land.

The reporter asked him what he thought so far of the land boom. "When people get this fever, it takes years to shake it off, if ever," Morris said. "I see no end to it."

But no one knew for sure how long Florida's intoxicating growth would last.

Not even the president of Sun City Holding Co., who had more than $1-million riding on his project near present-day Ruskin, could predict how long the surge would last.

At best, when Herbert C. Van Sweringen stepped on stage inside the movie studio that Thursday in October 1925, he knew the outlook.

The film industry was on its way up. In 1924, $700-million was invested in motion picture production.

And the mad dash for Florida property was intense, with developers draining, blasting and dredging - erecting hundreds of subdivisions in a place where the population was growing four times faster than any other state.

The public was buying. Miami had 2,000 real estate offices and 25,000 agents slinging property. The Miami Daily News topped 500 pages in the summer of 1925 because of real estate ads.

One man's dream

But Van Sweringen was merely banking on his own dream development paying off.

Few people in the crowd knew how much he had riding on Sun City. Few of them knew anything at all about the man.

Van Sweringen was born in 1869 to a Civil War veteran and oil field engineer. Though not poor, his father couldn't afford a college education for his children, so Herbert learned about hard work at an early age.

He finished eighth grade and, at age 16, left Oil City, Pa., to make his living in Cleveland. His two younger brothers followed.

Oris and Mantis Van Sweringen began dabbling in real estate in 1900. In 1905, they bought land about 6 miles from downtown Cleveland and began building a neighborhood. Never had any man developed such a large piece of property with such a rigid master plan. They called it Shaker Heights.

They set aside land for private schools and left intact ponds and wooded parks - amenities to lure Cleveland's elite to the new development. It worked.

Herbert was a tagalong who often leaned on his brothers for financial support. He lived so far in their shadows that some even called him "the forgotten brother." Their relationship was never good. Herbert worked with Oris and Mantis early on and built small homes in Shaker Heights, but they parted ways.

The brothers brought a rail line to their new subdivision and were on their way to being billionaires.

The papers covered the reclusive siblings' every move, but Herbert was nowhere to be found.

Off to Florida

In 1924, with his brothers' money, Van Sweringen left his wife and children in Cleveland and ventured to Florida. There, he invested, like so many others, in a dream built on sand.

And why not?

S. Davies Warfield, head of the Seaboard Air Line Railway, predicted that Miami's population would leap from 75,000 to a million in 10 years. D.P. Davis bought two mangrove clumps in Tampa Bay and sold $3-million of property on the first day it was offered.

So much Florida trading was done that an anecdote entered the lexicon. A native said to a visitor, "Want to buy a lot?" and the visitor at once replied, "Sold."

The line between genius and madman was never so thin.

Van Sweringen's plan was grandiose. He would build a city from scratch. He would lure buyers from the throngs of delirious speculators entering Florida daily.

If he succeeded, he would win the respect and honor everyone reserved for his brothers.

If he failed, well, he'd fail with their money, an embarrassment.

Dreams for sale

On that day in late 1925, Van Sweringen took the stage and kept his message positive.

Our development work will constantly show increased activity, he told those who had come by boat from St. Petersburg and by car from Tampa and points east. We will continue to build a moving picture city of gigantic proportions and one of the most beautiful in the country, providing all the comforts of the ideal home life and with environments that will excite the active interest of noted producers throughout the nation.

The newspaper reporters were confident that the backers were serious. They saw for themselves the cameramen and producers and the power of Van Sweringen's money. And even if 320-pound comedian Billy Moon wasn't well known, he was a West Coast actor standing on soil on the banks of Tampa Bay.

"Florida-made motion pictures were in production today following dedication of the Sun City Motion Picture studio yesterday," the Tampa Daily Times wrote the next day. "Mayor Perry G. Wall, on behalf of Tampa, welcomed the first professional motion picture company to the west coast as permanent headquarters."

The good press sparked immediate investments. Van Sweringen opened sales offices in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando, Bartow, Lakeland, Bradenton, Sarasota and Plant City. He enticed visitors to Sun City with free weekday picnic lunches, followed by shade-tree sales pitches about buying property.

His plan was working.

Two hundred 60-by-40-foot lots were sold for $1,500 each, then resold for more - sometimes for double. Tourists and gawkers drove in from Northern states and set up tents on the property. The nearby post office changed its name from Ross, which had been an adjacent farming community, to Sun City.

Land sales hit $2-million and Van Sweringen's plan was falling into place. But across Florida, unseen forces were at work. And in the Atlantic, near the West Indies, a warm wind was picking up.

What happened next would shock the world and break a man.

Next week: The real estate bubble bursts.

This story includes information from materials in the Special Collections department at the Tampa Library at the University of South Florida; Rinaldi's Official Guide of South Florida, 1925; various newspaper articles and real estate advertisements from the Tampa Daily Times, St. Petersburg Times, Tampa Morning Tribune, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine and the Bradenton Herald; Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen; public documents; and interviews with descendants of H.C. Van Sweringen.


Visit to read the first part of the Old Sun City series.




[Last modified January 18, 2007, 07:47:57]

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