Manatee History Matters: Bayshore Gardens, hidden jewel of Mid Century Modern architecture

Mid Century Modern is the new buzz word among historians and those who support historic preservation.

Mid Century Modern does not seem old to those of us born in the 1950s, but its definition -- "A simplistic building technique that utilizes prefabricated building technology that can be efficiently reproduced" -- and its architectural features of straight lines, strong roof lines, large windows or glass doors, indoor and outdoor spaces and open and simple floor plans, make Mid Century Modern architecture worthy of notice.

Mid Century Modern was a perfect fit for the tropical environment of Florida and appealed to the millions of people moving to the state during the 1950s. In that decade, Florida's population more than tripled as military servicemen stationed in Florida during World War II returned with their families to start a new postwar life.

In 1955, Sydney R. Newman purchased the area now known as Bayshore Gardens on the west side of U.S. 41 along the eastern shore of Sarasota Bay, just north of the Saraso

ta/Manatee county line. On this strategic location, Civil Engineer Freeman Horton platted an area between what was dubbed Bayshore Gardens Parkway running from U.S. 41 to 26th Street West and Sarasota Bay.

This 3,200-acre area, once fields for growing tomatoes, would include recreation areas and a marina, schools, churches, shopping centers and medical facilities as well as homes in the popular style of that time, now called Mid Century Modern.

A variety of partners participated in the effort including Newman, Horton, Sidney Wilkinson, Stanley Goldman, Gustave, Robert and Alexander Berne, Peter, David and Robert Morton, J. Arthur Miller, Bob Wesley, Si Bell, Herbert Fleischer, and Lawrence and Ruth Richmond.

Richmond, who studied art and advertising, worked as a sportswear designer before joining her husband's construction company in the mid 1950s. She became the first woman in Manatee County to earn a grade "A" contractor's license, and brought not only technical skill to the construction in Bayshore Gardens, but an eye for aesthetics and amenities.

Richmond Homes advertised fully furnished homes "designed for the newlywed, decorated for the retiree and furnished for all others who seek comfort with carefree living."

The first home in Bayshore Gardens was sold in July 1956 to Jennie and Samuel Gibson. It was in the "Hibiscus" style, one of several model homes with names like "White Orchid", "Camellia," "The Bird of Paradise," "The Seagrape" and "Calypso". Prices ranged from $8,000 to $15,000 for a home with a lot. Six hundred homes were sold in less than three years.

In November 1959, Bayshore Gardens Shopping Center held a grand opening with stores that included Publix, a beauty shop, barbershop, hardware store, shoe repair, and clothing stores.

Bayshore area expands

In 1960, the shopping center was expanded to add more stores and a movie theater. With the addition of Manatee Community College (now State College of Florida), Bayshore High School and Bayshore Elementary School as well as Bayshore Gardens Community Church and the Bayshore Gardens Recreation Center, the development gained new identity and a sense of community.

Over time, Manatee County's population moved east, closer to the extension of Interstate 75 which was built in the 1980s. Just as Bayshore Gardens was once the trendy place to live, other communities such as Lakewood Ranch took on that title, and some areas of the Bayshore Gardens neighborhood fell into disrepair with absentee landlords, rising crime and other concerns.

Today, residents of Bayshore Gardens hope to build on their heritage to improve their community and increase pride. Knowing that property values and civic engagement rise in historic neighborhoods, a team of citizens is working with Manatee County and students from the University of Florida School of Architecture to designate Bayshore Gardens as a historic district, and hope to be one of the first Mid Century Modern Historic Districts in the United States.

To learn more and find out how you can be a part of this process, attend a community-wide meeting on the history and importance of Bayshore Gardens to be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Bayshore Gardens Recreation Center, 6919 26th St. W.

Cathy Slusser, director of historical resources for the Manatee County Clerk of Circuit Court and Comptroller, is Mid Century Modern and not sure how she feels about being designated historic. She is grateful for the work of students from the University of Florida School of Architecture under the direction of Professor Linda Stevenson, upon whose work this column is based. She can be reached at 941-741-4070.

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