During and through most of the 1940s, Sarasota experienced development and construction unrest brought on by the 1926 real estate crash, followed by the Great Depression in the 1930s and World War II until the mid-1970s. 40s.
But after the end of WWII in 1945, the optimism that had characterized the Roaring Twenties when the community established itself as a snowbird retreat returned. Sarasota was full of excitement, embracing progress and modernism as the watchwords.
The changes were most evident thanks to the work of a group of architects whose modernist designs in homes and schools reflected the abandonment of the old look of the Mediterranean renaissance / Spanish mission. Collectively, these men later became known as members of the Sarasota School of Architecture and were praised internationally for their designs.
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The march forward gathered pace in 1950 when Ken Thompson was sworn in as the new city manager, leading the community for the next 33 years, ensuring the frenzied excesses of the 1920s were brought under control.
Editorials predicted Sarasota was on the verge of becoming a “grown-up” city. The newspapers were again full of large openings, full-page announcements of new subdivisions, and the count of tourists and new residents was cheerfully reported.
New roads and bridges have been planned. US 41 was to be rerouted along the Bayfront, and downtown, the heart of the city before the outward spread, was given a three-part makeover: the Memorial Oaks on Upper Main Street were shot down, the War Memorial in the center of Five Points was moved to Gulf Stream Ave., and a new “White Way” was created with the installation of fluorescent lighting.
While the first two changes were met with skepticism and controversy, the addition of bright fluorescent lights to replace the incandescent glow of old street lights was approved and celebrated.
The city-wide festival has been dubbed the Diamond Jubilee of Light and was to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the invention of the incandescent bulb by Thomas Edison.
In true Sarasota style, the event was marked with a large-scale celebration across the city. Ahead of the event, the traders association advised its members to turn down all lights in their businesses, including signaling a “dramatic two-minute power cut,” reminiscent of the war years when the drills power cuts were often practiced.
The big event kicked off Thursday, October 21, 1954 at 7:30 p.m. with mandatory speeches and a congratulatory message to the city from Robert H. Fite, director of Florida Power and Light. Evening master of ceremonies Tod Swalm, president of the chamber of commerce, who made a phone call, amplified through loudspeakers, to the curator of Edison Home and Laboratory in Fort Myers who was to light a replica of the first light bulb .
The town’s first mayor, AB Edwards, was on hand to turn off the old-fashioned street lamps for two minutes, after which Ben Hopkins III, son of the current mayor, turned on the new lighting system. Edwards, long regarded as Mr. Sarasota, reminded crowds that when he was a boy, Five Points had been a tropical jungle, “filled with wild birds and wild animals of all kinds.”
During the conversation with the curator of Ft. Myers, a large painting by Thomas Edison was staged, as he recounted Edison’s work to invent the light bulb.
Fluorescent lights were said to be eight times more powerful – not just good but the best available in 1954 – and the contrast was obvious. As the Herald says, “The fluorescent lighting system turned night into day on a crowd of 10,000 people. When the lights came on, Mayor Hopkins promised, “The new enlightenment marked a new era of growth and progress for Sarasota. “
Following the cheers from the crowds, several other events took place, including a beauty pageant with young women from across the state vying for the honor of being crowned Miss Queen of Light of Florida. Entering Sarasota was this year’s Miss Mail Away winner Jane Snider. All participants were driven downtown in flashy convertibles, waving to the crowds, then dropped off alongside a stage set up at Five Points. The winner was 18-year-old Miss Joan Faye Brown of Haynes City, “triumphing over 22 of Florida’s top examples of young womanhood.” As the Sarasota Journal headline put it, “BEAUTIFUL GIRLS SHOW NEW STREET LIGHTS.
A parade of vintage cars brought in by Horn’s Cars of Yesterday each carried a competitor dressed in popular clothing in 1879 to enter a Miss or Mrs. 1879 contest.
The Lou Hall Trio provided music for a jitterbug dance (grains of sand had been sprinkled on the street to reduce friction); three members of Sailor Circus put on a trampoline show, and numerous prizes were presented throughout the festive evening which continued until almost 11 a.m.
While the bright new lights took Sarasota away from its small town past, the old lamps are still in use today, having been moved to Bay Shore Road near the John and Mable Ringling Museum.
Jeff LaHurd grew up in Sarasota and is an award winning author / historian.