All Photos Courtesy of St. Armands Circle Association
More than just a paradise for gourmets and shopaholics, St. Armands Key – and its respective popular tourist spot of St. Armands Circle – is home to some interesting history.
Home to more than 140 upscale boutiques, award-winning restaurants, posh art galleries, and more in an open-air European-inspired setting, St. Armands Circle is said to be the jewel of Sarasota. But there’s more to this barrier island destination – which sits adjacent to Lido Key and is connected to the mainland by the John Ringling Causeway – than just a sophisticated outdoor dining and shopping experience. Its rich history tells a story of presidential ties, elephants as building aids, and an intentionally circular layout inspired by that of a circus wagon wheel.
1. Its Name Should Really Be St. Amand Circle
The island is named for Frenchman Charles St. Amand, a homesteader who purchased roughly 132 acres of land on the island in 1893 (for the sum of $21.71!), becoming its first resident. However, his name was misspelled as “Armands” on the deed, thus St. Armands Circle was born.
2. The Shape and Layout Were Inspired by the Circus
Circus magnate John Ringling – whose honorary museum, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, is located just six miles away in northern Sarasota – purchased the island in 1923 with a vision for a spoked wheel–shaped shopping and recreation district and an upscale residential enclave consisting of homes of Mediterranean and Spanish architecture.
3. Elephants Built the Circle’s Adjoining Causeway
Well, not by themselves, that is. Ringling used his paddle-wheeled steamer, Success, to ferry workers back and forth to the island, but circus elephants were recruited for hauling the timbers used to construct the causeway and bridge.
4. It Has Presidential Ties
At the heart of St. Armands Circle, Ringling developed a community of residences around a circular park, which he named in memory of his friend, Warren G. Harding – the 29th president of the United States.
5. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places
The aforementioned park is now known as the Harding Circle Historic District, which celebrates its 95th anniversary in 2021, and was designated a national historic place for its unique community development and planning in 2001.
6. Sculpture Was a Key Part of Ringling’s Vision from the Beginning
John Ringling was a voracious collector of art. He indulged his passion on annual scouting trips to Europe for the circus, collecting works from the Old Masters including Rubens and van Dyck. Today, more than 30 sculptures grace the streets of St. Armands Circle – one-third of which belonged to Ringling himself.
7. It Nearly Fell Victim to the Stock Market Crash of 1929
In fact, the circle’s commercial and retail district sat virtually empty until the 1940s and ’50s, when shops and restaurants finally started filling up storefronts. Today, the district fulfills Ringling’s dream of being a premier tourist destination, drawing visitors from all over the world.
8. It Has Its Very Own Version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Winter home of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Circus, Sarasota honors its ties to the circus with The Circus Ring of Fame that lives in St. Armands. With a roster of more than 140 inductees from around the world, the award celebrates the highest of achievement in the circus arts, and each inductee is honored with a bronze wagon-wheel and biographical plaque inlaid in the circle’s central park.