A blog dealing with Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota.

Friday, September 5, 2014

From 31 to 103: How Six Palms Aged 72 Years in 72 Days!

When I first heard the official Downtown Improvement District narrative about the 26 cabbage palms on North Palm Avenue, I was told all twenty-six were "dumped" there when adjoining Bay Plaza Condominium was built in 1983. "Dumped" was apparently a reference to be being planted without benefit of being located with landscape architect's ruler or french curve. The implication was that this was an accidental landscape with no history and no intention.

But I was suspicious because I'd been doing business in that row of buildings since 1975 and I didn't recall a palm-free period. Still, even the Reagan-era date meant the palms had been in place nearly one third of the City's existence, suggesting they couldn't have been completely intolerable. On June 22nd I posted a blog entry that read:

"The Palm Avenue Twenty-Six are planted in front of a single story building that was built in 1954. I'm still trying to find out when the palms were placed there, but I suspect they have been there for many decades. These may actually be trees with historic import."

Since I routinely use historic aerial imagery in my teaching and consulting, I turned to PALMM, which is not a palm database, but rather the Publication of Archival Library & Museum Materials. I was surprised to find there wasn't much I could use. I resolved to head out to the County History Center, which was wisely moved from the storm-vulnerable, but historic, Chidsey building (near the Bayfront) to just east of Cattleman. There I found a gorgeous 1957 aerial photograph that covered downtown. Then on July 9th, I posted this:

The building was built in 1954, and it seemed unlikely there was just lawn between the storefronts to the curb from 1954 until 1983. So I drove out to the Sarasota History Center and looked at their beautiful 1957 aerial photograph of downtown. That picture was taken on March 10, 1957 and, lo and behold, it clearly shows a row of palm trees in front of that block. Because the canopies are full in the photo, and because it takes transplanted palms a while to recover and grow a new dense canopy, I think the odds are excellent they were planted in 1954, when the building was built. 

Looking south, the two dark rectangles are the 1954 building and the dark circles are the palms.

The cabbage palms had just aged 26 years in 17 days! More importantly, it meant the narrative being promoted by the DID was wrong, and at least some of the trees had been there more than half the City's existence. But the image seemed to account for eleven of the trees at the most, not twenty-six. After dining downtown, my wife and I walked over and discovered there were two completely different sets of cabbage palms. Read about that finding here.

On July 14th, my blog posting contained the following bombshell:

"Now an anonymous researcher has produced a photo from 1925 that shows a row of cabbage palms lining that section of Palm Avenue. That means some of the palms have been there 89 years, nearly three times the age that the Downtown Improvement District thought was relevant and clearly making a case that these palms have some historic significance. 

These aren't simply palms seen by Jerry Springer, Stephen King, and Dick Smothers, these are palms Mrs. Potter Palmer drove by, palms seen by Jimmy Stewart, Emmett Kelly, and Mackinlay Kantor. Palms that survived the great depression. Palms that were there when servicemen trained in Sarasota and when the war ended on August 14, 1945. The City failed to undertake any meaningful due diligence to determine the history of the landscape they have been proposing to replace.

Since they are healthy and established in the photo, one has to wonder how much further back they go." 

Magenta arrows point to the location of the palms.
Blue arrow shows the Woman's Club, now Florida Studio Theatre.
El Vernona Hotel, under construction, is shown in the upper right.

Five days had passed and the palms had aged another 32 years! Some of them were 89 years old - nearly as old as the City. Not only that, the palms in the clear photo had full canopies, indicating that they were not planted in 1925, but had been there at least one, and possibly many more years.

I was convinced they were more than 90 years old and returned to the History Center to carefully page through old facsimiles of the Sarasota Times. I wondered if we should be celebrating their centennial instead of plotting to kill them. I started looking in the 1913 editions. I found a June 12 1913 front page article discussing Palm Avenue street improvements, but that article didn't mention palms. I found a September 11, 1913 article that stated the Woman's club had paid for cabbage palms to be planted on Main "between the bank corner and the depot", but there was no mention of Palm Avenue.  In December of 1913, it was reported that "only one of palmetto cabbage set out on Park Day has failed to survive although planted in salt and newly dredged from the bay." In 1914 they were discussing whether to plant camphor or water oaks on Mango (now Central). In March a column advocated "The expenditure of a comparatively small sum would line every highway in Sarasota with trees that in time would be one of the city's proudest possessions." That article went on to suggest Eucalyptus robusta, water oaks, camphor, maple, cinnamon, Chinese fan palm, silk oak "and, if a competent tree warden is to be engaged, have all the varieties of citrus growing along the highways." In April Mr. Ludwig donated 40 cocoanut palms for planting in the Bayfront Park. An April 27th meeting of the Woman's Club reported receipts of $82.50 "For planting palm trees".  In August of 1914 the Council spent $200 to purchase and set out over 1,000 eucalyptus trees on 25 foot centers. On and on with downtown landscaping news, but no mention of cabbage palms on Palm Avenue. It seemed as though the possibility that some of the palms had been there a century was an unlikely prospect.

Meanwhile, City staff had been busy challenging these findings. They had one shadowy 1970 photograph where it appeared to some as though there might be no trees at all. Another had trees in that location that looked to someone as though they were "canopy trees*" (meaning not palms), but the canopies of the trees in the picture were clearly spherical, suggesting cabbage palms, and not oaks, etc. Someone else had a friend who was a car buff who was convinced it couldn't be a 1925 photo because the model years of cars shown were from the 30s. The "friend" was discredited when it was pointed out that the photo included a image of the El Vernona hotel (AKA John Ringling Towers) under construction, a building that was started in 1925 and completed in 1926. After meeting with staff they conceded that some of the trees were quite old and accepted the 1925 date as legitimate.

Then I went on vacation to a location that lacked both phone and internet service. When I reestablished on contact with the electronic world on September second, I found an email from a source with a subject line: Palm ave Palms - I told you so! Attached was a copy of a Sarasota Times front page from October 12 1911 with a brief article:

Palm Trees Planted
There is nothing that adds to the appearance of a street so much as shade trees and good sidewalks. On Palm and Gulf Stream avenues the tile sidewalks are completed from Main street to Banana avenues, and large cabbage palms planted outside the walks every ten feet for the entire distance. The driveways across the alleys have been hard surfaced, making Palm avenue one of the most attractive streets in town. 

The palms had gone from being 31 years old on June 22nd to being 103 in just 72 days! Yes, the palms had aged 72 years in 72 days -- all based on research that anyone interested could have done for free (although I contribute to the tip jar at the History Center). Volunteers had been pushing back the date on average one year every day.

So it turns out some of those palms have been there longer than Sarasota has been a City since Sarasota was incorporated as a City in 1913, (as a Town in 1902).

At least six cabbage palms have been in that location at least 37,584 days and, until recently, the City was going to yank them out, and send them to the landfill unaware of their steadfast service, their unlikely perseverance, and their cultural legacy.

Although hundreds were probably planted in 1911 (on ten foot centers-- probably over 350 trees if they were planted on both sides of Palm and Gulfstream from Main to 41, which was Banana at the time) the six or seven remaining may have the best return on investment in the history of the City.


For those keeping count, the combined total of page views for these
various postings on the palms of Palm Avenue is
1,120 page views as of September 9th.


Factoid: If you went on a downtown treasure hunt,
trying to find things that people built or placed downtown prior to 1912,
more than half of them would likely be
the cabbage palms on North Palm Avenue,
because so few things remain from that period.

* For some reason, local officials and staff have taken to calling dicotyledonous trees "canopy trees" despite the fact that all trees have canopies unless they are dead (or temporarily leafless as a result of being deciduous). The City has no definition of a canopy tree and it is clear from the photo below that the palms' canopies produce copious shade, while the briefly deciduous gumbo limbos planted next to the parking garage produce far less. 

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