For the most part Florida sat dormant for over three centuries since St. Augustine was settled in 1565 until after the Civil War. From the period 1880 to around 1920, Florida experienced what it had never saw before: Growth. Industrialists from the north, with newfound wealth and prosperity now viewed Florida as a paradise to be discovered. A number of cities were settled during this period and are what I call Gilded Age cities.
These cities usually had one or more benefactors that were able to take a quality of life approach to city design. They designed and built these cities to attract those looking for a unique experience. Public space and natural beauty were primary considerations for this experiment in development. Unlike the industrial towns of the north, leisure was the industry for this new class of inhabitants. As I traveled this past weekend to the west coast of Florida, I stopped in two cities that were beneficiaries of this period.
As we stopped in St. Armands Circle, an island in Sarasota designed and developed by John Ringling one could see the history and unique design that made this area special. This unique island and commercial center was designed around a large circular public park with commercial building surrounding it. Ringling took the shape of the island into consideration when designing the urban plan and created a unique setting that still today attracts visitors from around the world.
Ft. Meyers with the beautiful Flora and Fauna, the Palm lined streets and waterfront location was only a cattle trail until Thomas Edison decided to make this his winter home and research facility back in the early 1880’s. Because his experiments centered on agriculture and invention, he was able to bring exotic plants and vegetation to this area from around the world, which gives the entire city a botanical garden feel.
My own city of Daytona Beach had a few Industrialists who made it their winter home. One of those being Charles Burgoyne who was the designer and benefactor behind our mile long riverfront park, an area built as a community living room and for years was hosted a world renowned botanical garden.
These early industrialist were looking to make a lasting impression by focusing on a quality of life approach to urban design. This was to be their lasting mark on the cities they inhabited.
If you find yourself in a Florida city that is unique and strangely appealing, it’s probably a Gilded Age city. There are a number of other Gilded Age cities throughout Florida, both big and small. I encourage you to look into the history the evolution, as we look for more quality of life settings, these Gilded Age cities might paint a picture of the opportunity going forward.