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Old Sun City: The Finale: Dead dreams

A movie town that never got off ground

An Ohio home builder launched the idea and failed. A Georgia inventor couldn't revive it.

By BEN MONTGOMERY
Published February 16, 2007


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Read the series

Last in a series of stories looking at the failed Sun City development.

 

"The wild part of Florida is really wild. The tame part is really tame. Both, though, are always in flux: The developed places are just little clearings in the jungle, but since jungle is unstoppably fertile, it tries to reclaim a piece of developed Florida every day. At the same time, the wilderness disappears before your eyes: fifty acres of Everglades dry up each day, new houses sprout on sand dunes, every year a welt of new highway rises. Nothing seems hard or permanent; everything is always changing or washing away. Transition and mutation merge into each other, a fusion of wetness and dryness, unruliness and orderliness, nature and artifice."

- From the 2000 book Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

A secret exists here.

You can see it in the short stretches of stone curbs that line a few of the dirt roads and hint at something more.

You can see it on faded street signs that bear the names of 1920s film stars: Pickford. Chaplin. Chaney.

You can see it from above, in the light outline of one-time roadways that have been reclaimed by nature.

And you can see it best if you follow the old maps south of Ruskin to the dead-end corner of Griffith Avenue and First National Drive. Walk deep into the thick woods, and you come to four crumbling walls fixed to the landscape like ancient ruins.

What's left of a massive schoolhouse made of bricks and steel is now overgrown with vines, but it suggests that these 500 acres hold a history.

The dead dreams of two men are buried in Sun City.

H.C. Van Sweringen, the brother of wealthy railroad magnates and a man who once built homes in the exclusive Shaker Heights enclave near Cleveland, tried to capitalize on Florida's land boom and America's lust for movies by creating Sun City.

In 1925, he scraped clean the land, platted it, built a giant movie studio and began selling lots. But the project was short lived. The land boom went bust and Van Sweringen returned to Cleveland a broken man.

In 1938, Georgia inventor and businessman J. T. Fleming bought the barren city for $100 and tried to rekindle the Hollywood vision. But he ran into problems at every turn and sued everyone from the Hillsborough County Commission to Harry S. Truman. He became such a challenge to the government that they convened a sanity commission, found him incompetent and shipped him to the state's mental hospital.

Today, Sun City isn't much more than a disjointed mobile home park situated among industrial sites, fish farms, orchards and scrapyards near Ruskin. Many of the dirt roads are lined with garbage and old furniture.

The majority of Sun City is divided among three landholders, with the county holding deeds to some property.

Its history is kept with a few folks,

"There seems to be a black cloud over Sun City," said Graham Reeder, one of the landholders. "We just hope it doesn't affect us."

This story includes information from materials in the Special Collections Department 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.

Researchers Angie Holan and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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

 

. on the web

A dream pursued

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

 

[Last modified February 15, 2007, 07:40:04]


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