Art and Tea in Circus Town

         I read that at its heart Sarasota is a circus town.  This is evident everywhere between the name Ringling being attached to streets, museums, restaurants, and business as well as the opportunities to learn to be a trapeze artist, a clown, or even just look at a circus mural. In Venice one crosses the Circus Bridge.  Circus is everywhere!

 I am looking forward to visiting the famous John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art but have decided to wait until a Monday when one can enter free.  John Ringling made as a requirement to his bequest that the museum be available to all, regardless of ability to pay and a little known fact is that one day each week entry is free.  It’s hard to pass up a deal like that!

  The Ringling Brothers Circus would winter here and the fortunes of John Ringling have contributed to the surprising amount of culture one finds in such a relatively small city. I’ve always been attracted to artist colonies and it is one of the biggest draws of this city.  Yesterday was May Day and we decided to celebrate by enjoying a walk outside and visiting a creative arts community nestled in downtown Sarasota – Towles Court.  Coast Living Magazine referred to this area as a top artists’ colony and the opportunity to take a shaded stroll through this quaint neighborhood was irresistible.

Sarasota’s circus past is intriguing and Towles Court has an interesting history of its own.  John Gillespie, Sarasota’s first mayor, built his home and a Scottish style 9 hole golf course in this area in 1905.  In the 1920’s Old Florida style bungalows were built on the land to house the professional people and a few seasonal “snowbirds”.  One can only imagine that this was a prestigious neighborhood.

Over the years the area fell into hard times and disrepair.  Bungalows were chopped up into smaller tenements and the area was known for its crime.  During the 1980’s the leaders of Sarasota wanted to improve the downtown and as such there was a move underfoot to lay waste to the entire neighborhood with a wrecking ball.  N.J. Olivieri,  a local developer had another vision. 

 He purchased the rundown bungalows to create an old-worth tourist attraction along the lines of Colonial Williamsburg. 

 Friends of his convinced him that an artists’ colony would be more fitting and they prevailed.   Today the small area is a charming enticement to tourists and residents alike. 

Yesterday was a record-breaking temperature for this early in the season – close to 90 degrees and humid.   Bob and I desired to be outside but didn’t want to be exposed to the brilliant and blinding heat.

  We longed for shade and found the perfect milieu in the enchanting surroundings.  We leisurely wandered under the moss strewn oaks in Towles Court and enjoyed the ambiance of the preserved history.

 It was charming, tranquil, cool under the shade of those oaks, and there was plenty of eye candy.  Since it was Saturday near noon, most of the galleries will closed so people could attend the weekly Farmers’ Market in downtown Sarasota.  We weren’t deterred.

First we strolled around taking a few pictures and just enjoying the exuberance of the colors, sculptures, and shapes.   The eccentric charm of Towles Court is immediately clear.

There are ample opportunities to eat at a number of restaurants, have a massage, visit galleries, or just sit outside on a porch or at a mosaic covered table in the garden. 

We entered the Katherine Butler Gallery ( ) which resides in a two-story, balconied and very green bungalow.  The gallery showcases artists who specialize in a number of medium including fabric, blown glass, paint, photography, and ceramics.  It is unusual in that one can either buy the art or rent it.  I was especially drawn to the fabric art by L. Susan Stark.  She wrote that her art was drawn from nature and I could see the ripples and cycles of the natural world alluded to in the interesting pieces. 

 The art and jewelry in the gallery compels one to open their wallet while the cozy sitting area invites art lovers to just relax and enjoy. 

From there we moved over to Shoogie Boogie, owned by Kathryn Kissinger ( ).  Kathryn was there and greeted us personally.  She’s a renown photographer who lived and worked for many years in Carmel, California before purchasing a bungalow in Towles Court five years ago.  Kathryn’s ability is in child photography and she captures the essence of this special time in life.  She explained that clients visiting her studio were intrigued by her antiques and eclectic pieces and she began to branch off, selling these items as well as continuing photography. 

 Her artist’s touch is clear everywhere. This is a perfect spot to pick up a gift or a little something unusual for oneself.  She has a small room just filled with French soaps from Provence.  What a heavenly bouquet!  I purchased a small bar of a delightfullly scented vervain for a friend.  Relatively recently Kathryn has expanded and now runs a little tea shop where one can delight in high-end teas, pedestals of finger sandwiches, salads, quiches, and soups. We had eaten breakfast so opted for a light repast of salad and French ginger water.

After visiting this shop we entered a couple of galleries, pausing to reflect on the talent in this area.  While on Deer Isle we were told that the Sarasota area was rich in artists and we agreed that although we had barely scratched the surface, there was much to look forward to seeing.

Finally we had finished our outing so we got into our car and drove off to look at more real estate in our search for the perfect house.  We will return to Towles Court on a day when it is not competing with the Farmers Market.

(Photos by Bob Wilson )


About Shawn Phillips

As someone who has relocated several times – buying and selling houses of my own for personal and investment purposes – I can easily put myself in my clients’ shoes. I know what I needed from my Realtors and I attempt to provide that or better for my clients. My family relocated to Charleston six years ago and my love for the city and the lifestyle is one I enjoy sharing with others. Prior to entering real estate in the Low Country I was a hospital administrator for many years in Charleston and New York City and was a Realtor in Sarasota, Florida. Leveraging my experience, I pride myself in providing outstanding client service, availability, personal touches, multi-faceted marketing, and skilled negotiations. The level of trust given to me by a client is the greatest compliment I receive as a professional. It is the foundation of my practice. My dedication to each and every client is evident before, during, and after the sale!
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