The principal thoroughfare of the northern portion of Siesta Key is Higel Avenue, which runs due south from Sarasota Bay to its dead end just north of Avenida de Mayo and Siesta Village. Several times, Siesta Key residents have proposed more exotic names for Higel Avenue, but Higel Avenue deserves to remain Higel Avenue. It is the only memorial on the island to Harry Lee Higel, a three-term mayor of Sarasota whose life was associated intimately with Siesta Key.
Siesta Key was an unpopulated wilderness called Sarasota Key in 1884 when seventeen-year-old Harry Lee Higel moved with his parents and brothers from Philadelphia to Venice, Florida. Harry worked for his father, maker of fruit jellies, until 1890, when he moved to just-born Sarasota to seek his fortune.
In 1896, Harry married Gertrude Edmondson, daughter of Thomas and Louisa (Whitaker) Edmondson, and granddaughter of William and Mary Jane Whitaker, pioneer residents of the Sarasota Bay regions. Gertrude’s widowed mother owned eighty acres of land at the northern end of Sarasota Key, land that was to become the focal point of Harry’s driving ambition.
Harry decided in 1907 that the time was ripe to develop the Edmondson tract. He changed the name of northern Sarasota Key to Siesta Key, laid Higel Avenue, built a pier at the bay end of his avenue, and plotted a residential community. His advertising brochure expressed Harry’s feelings about Siesta Key, inviting purchasers to lose themselves “in the rapture of thought and the inspiration of soul and feel that God really exists in this lovely land of opportunity and life.” A national depression in 1907, and the absence of a bridge to the mainland, discouraged acceptance of that warm invitation.
Only slightly daunted, Harry concentrated on his other interests. He had slipped naturally into politics in 1902 and had served five terms as a councilman. In 1911, he was elected to the first of three terms as Mayor of Sarasota. Mayor Higel was a dedicated budget watchdog and a fervent progressive who drove improvement programs through the council with the sledgehammer of his will. When investment-land owners complained that property taxes were rising because of his improvements, Harry pointed out that property values were rising even faster, and for the same reason.
Turning to Siesta Key again in 1912, Harry dug out Bayou Louise (named for Louise Higel, his younger daughter) and Hanson Bayou, to provide more waterfront homesites. On the finger of land between Big Pass and Bayou Louise, he built the opulent Higelhurst Hotel, completed in 1915. Harry was certain that proposed Siesta Key Bridge would bring hordes of affluent hotel guests and land buyers to his island paradise.
The Higel family moved in 1913 to an imposing new stone residence on Gulf Stream Avenue north of Main Street. There, Harry and his family lived graciously while awaiting the construction of the bridge that would secure their future.
On March 31, 1917, thirty-one days before Siesta Key Bridge was scheduled to open, the five Higels watched helplessly from the lawn of their home as fire totally destroyed the Higelhurst Hotel across the bay. Harry had staked his resources on the HIgelhurst and on land. The hotel was gone and land sales in a prolonged slump, Harry lost the handsome Gulf Stream Avenue house and his other properties and retreated with his family to a cottage on Siesta Key’s Higel Avenue, north of Siesta Drive.
Harry Lee Higel died in 1921 at the age of fifty-three. As a seer, he has been proven reliable; only his timing was faulty. When the Edmondson tract on Siesta Key finally blossomed into one of Sarasota’s most esteemed luxury real estate areas
, Harry had been dead for forty years.