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Changing winds toppled castles in the air

A fierce 1926 hurricane left south Florida in tatters and flattened dreams of a real estate boom in Old Sun City.

By BEN MONTGOMERY
Published January 26, 2007


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Third in a series of stories looking at the promise - and failure - of the Sun City development in the 1920s.

 

When he looked on the 500 acres he named Sun City, H.C. Van Sweringen saw promise as 1925 came to a close.

Rose bushes grew along the main street leading to a state-of-the-art movie studio. Tourists camped on the edge of town. Property changed hands and beautiful houses would soon spring from the earth, followed by a city hall, school, hotel, theater and church.

The land would soon be Florida's version of Hollywood, he was sure. And Van Sweringen, the Cleveland developer who longed to cash in on the Florida land boom, would be rich.

Why not?

So intoxicating was the land grab in those days that the mayors of the cities around Miami pronounced the last day of 1925 and the first two days of 1926 The Fiesta of the American Tropics, where "Radiant Terpsichore and her Sparkling Devotees shall follow with Graceful Tread the measure of the Dance."

But while politicians throughout South Florida reveled in the unbridled development that winter, something strange happened. The seasonal visitors didn't show up.

The price of land had climbed so dramatically since September that new buyers couldn't afford it anymore. And old Floridians - unable to resist cashing in on such high prices - were putting their land up for sale, flooding the market with inventory.

Speculators bail out

The cities felt the bust first. Most had borrowed so heavily for new public utilities that when the market slowed, the debt was staggering. St. Petersburg was the most indebted town, per resident, in the United States.

Speculators who bought contracts on property for a 10-percent down payment were suddenly eager to get rid of their stake. And just as it became clear that prices were deflating, a hurricane hit South Florida.

It made landfall on Sept. 18, 1926, tossed ships onto Miami's streets and tore through thousands of homes. Four hundred were dead, 6,300 injured and 50,000 were homeless.

The real-estate offices on Flagler Street in Miami closed one by one. Davis Islands in Tampa, still unfinished, fell into bankruptcy.

At Sun City, the 500-acre motion picture development near present-day Ruskin that H.C. Van Sweringen swore would never fail, property stopped selling.

On the same grounds where $2-million in land sales had been brisk since the opening, tourists packed their tents and left for their homes in the Midwest. The handful of actors and producers left town after making two short films.

The place that just months before hosted 1,500 eager buyers was a ghost town.

Dead subdivisions

Henry S. Villard wrote in The Nation what was true about many parts of Florida.

"Dead subdivisions line the highway, their pompous names half-obliterated on crumbling stucco gates. Lonely white-way lights stand guard over miles of cement sidewalks, where grass and palmetto take the place of homes that were to be."

The Sun City Holding Co. fell deeply into debt, and H.C. Van Sweringen could find no way to survive.

His brothers, now facing their own issues as heads of a $3-billion railroad and real-estate empire in Cleveland, would lend him no more.

In 1928, 31 Florida banks tanked. The following year, 57 went under. H.C. Van Sweringen joined thousands of other Florida landholders who couldn't repay their loans.

Van Sweringen had tested the line between genius and fool, and it was clear on which side he now stood. He defaulted on a $50,000 mortgage and filed for bankruptcy. The Sun City Holding Co. was dismantled.

Van Sweringen returned, broken, to his family in Cleveland. The man who built homes in one of America's premier subdivisions - Shaker Heights, Ohio - soon fell ill and was unable to support himself.

He moved into a rental home with his son's family during the Depression.

He never spoke the words Sun City again.

A city changes hands

On July 4, 1932, all of Sun City was auctioned on the steps of the Hillsborough County Courthouse.

One man showed up to bid.

He bought it all for $100.

Orlando businessman W.W. Staplen dismantled the movie studio and sold the bricks for $1,500. Port Tampa bought the water tank. Weeds soon overtook the flower beds, and palmetto grew where houses were to be built.

Streets named after 1920s movie stars washed away. The jungle crept in.

When H.C. Van Sweringen died on Jan. 5, 1942, near Buffalo, N.Y., the New York Times wrote his obituary:

"Herbert C. Van Sweringen never was prominently identified with the colossal railroad and real estate holding company empire built by his brothers," it said. "Even in the heyday of the empire in the 1920s many in Wall Street were unaware that there was a third brother."

No mention was made of Sun City.

Tattered remains

In 1951, Paxton Van Sweringen graduated from college in New York and set out for Florida.

He was curious about the project that kept his father and grandfather away so long. What lured them to leave their families and chase fortunes in the sun?

He drove down U.S. 41, through Ruskin, and crossed the Little Manatee River.

"There," the old newspaper ads for Sun City had said years before, "overlooking the picturesque stream from the bluffs forming its south banks, is destined to become home of the motion picture industry of Florida."

But all Paxton Van Sweringen found was a field of weeds and silent streets.

He walked upon the same ground his grandfather had until he came to a clump of weeds. There in the grass lay the pieces of a sign. The paint was weathered from years of neglect, but he could still make out the words.

Sun City.

Next week: The man who would save Sun City.

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; Some Kind Of Paradise, by Mark Derr; public documents; and interviews with descendants of H.C. Van Sweringen.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or 813 661-2443.

 

. THIS SERIES

On the Web

To read previous installments in the Old Sun City series, go to links.tampabay.com.

 

[Last modified January 25, 2007, 07:32:33]


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