Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bertha Palmer in Sarasota



In a previous blog post, I described the life (and death) of Potter Palmer through a series of news clippings from the turn of the century. Many of Chicago's historical paths lead back to Potter Palmer and his legacy. I'd like to turn some attention to his wife, Bertha Honoré Palmer. After Potter's death, Bertha continued to increase the family fortune through real estate development on the Gulf Coast of Florida. When I learned of her connection to Sarasota, I wanted to see it all for myself and learn as much as I could about this fascinating person.

Potter Palmer married Bertha Matilde Honoré when he was 44 and she was 21, so it should come as no great shock that he died while she was still relatively young. In 1902, the widowed Mrs. Bertha Palmer maintained homes in Chicago, Paris, and London. She spent a considerable amount of time throwing parties in London during the "Belle Époque" (Beautiful Era) of Europe. King Edward VII (the son of Queen Victoria) reigned during this fashionable time but when he died in 1910, most considered the party to be at an end. Powerful forces were afoot in Europe as the chess board was being set for WWI. Four years later, the young Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife were gunned down in Bosnia, detonating a powder keg of turmoil still smoldering almost 100 years later. I digress...

Seeing that the good times were over in Europe, Bertha moved back to Chicago. However, she'd had quite enough of our winters. She invested in 80,000 acres of land in and around Sarasota, Florida where she built a winter home, orchards, gardens, a cattle ranch, and a hunting preserve. She began developing the land and selling property to wealthy friends from the north. By this time, Mrs. Palmer was internationally known for her parties and her extravagant lifestyle. She could spend over $200,000 in a day of shopping. She spent so extravagantly that Potter allegedly left money for Bertha's "future husband" in his will. When people asked him why he would leave money for his replacement he said, "because he will need it!"

Mrs. Palmer called her Sarasota home "The Oaks" ... so that's what I was searching for on maps, on the internet, and all around Sarasota. Well, I never did find The Oaks because the home by that name was torn down. There is now some sort of gated community or country club there by the same name. Instead, the remnants of her private winter estate is named Historic Spanish Point. It was here that I expected to find some interesting history about the area with respect to the Spanish discovery and exploration of Florida. Surprised was I upon bumbling into Bertha Palmer's gardens, guest houses, and a guided tour of the property!!

I parked my car and went into the visitor's center. The park is officially named Historic Spanish Point and there is an admission fee. I paid the fee and got a map of the park and drove to the main trail head. After walking past some open lawn, I encountered a tour group being led by a woman who was very knowledgeable about the property. Our first stop was the Duchene Lawn which features a classic style portal. The lawn was meant to be Mrs. Palmer's front yard, but the mansion was unfortunately never built. The portal was meant to frame a view of the cove and Sarasota Bay, but the land leading from the lawn to the waterfront was never cleared.



After the Duchene Lawn, we walked through a thicket of swamp plants and came out to another large lawn that had once been an attempted lychee orchard. Bertha's grandson Gordon Palmer tried to grow lychee trees here so he could sell the fruit to Americans. Unfortunately the climate in Florida is just a little too cool in the winter for the trees and most of them died. There were a couple left on the far side of the field.



We went past a butterfly garden and a "jungle walk" to arrive at the Guptill House, the original home on the property. The tour took a short break here and then we went inside the house. I took some pictures inside the house before continuing on the tour.



We walked over a footbridge and then spent a few minutes inside an ancient midden. There was a small museum built inside the midden and we could see a cross section of the shell heap. We watched a short video about the property and then moved on to the area of Mrs. Palmer's sunken garden and pergola.





The whole experience was really exciting for me just because I'm fascinated with the gilded age, the Palmer family, and the whole Chicago link to Sarasota. I always try to see the things that are highlighted by the brown "parks and rec" signs that I see on the sides of the road and this time I was definitely not disappointed.

2 comments:

Carla said...

Thanks for this info and the pictures. We are new here in Sarasota and I was interested to hear more specifics about Bertha Potter and what is left of her in this area. This is the best source I've found so far.

zuctronic said...

Thank you so much, Carla! You can see more of my pictures here:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/zuctronic/sets/72157616590877979/