Recently, we digitized the Sun City Development and Motion Picture Studio Plat Map Sheets for use in a class which led me to look into…what are these exactly? I uncovered a fascinating story of the brother of Cleveland railroad barons and a Georgia inventor who, a decade apart, tried to bring Hollywood to Florida.
During the 1920s, Florida experienced a land boom. Florida’s population was growing four times faster than any other state, spurred by the abolition of income and inheritance taxes and an active road-building program. Sun City, original name Ross, was located near present-day Ruskin, in Hillsborough County, and was one of many boom towns at the time in the state.
Herbert C. Van Swearingen, who made his living in real estate in Cleveland, Ohio, was the chief developer of Sun City. Herbert was the forgotten brother of two of Ohio’s biggest railroad barons, Oris and Mantis Van Swearingen. Sun City was his attempt to make a name for himself outside of his brothers’ shadows. The 500-acre Sun City Motion Picture Studio was constructed in late 1925 and built in the Spanish-Moor style with business offices, a projection room, a carpentry room, and 20 dressing rooms. Unlike any other studio, it offered a visitors gallery where Sun City residents and tourists could watch motion picture stars work. Initially, Sun City was successful. Land sales hit $2 million. The emerging city soon had a small number of residences as well as a school, hotel, theater, church, city hall, and power plant. Two short movies were filmed in the state-of-the-art studio.
However, by early 1926, the real estate speculation bubble in the state burst. Also, per usual in Florida, a hurricane hit, creating damage that further drove away seasonal visitors and tourism from the city. Land sales dried up, and Sun City Holding Co. fell into debt and was dissolved. Herbert filed for bankruptcy and returned to his family in Cleveland. Herbert’s brothers helped cover his losses and persuaded Herbert to retire from business. On July 4, 1932, all of Sun City was auctioned at the Hillsborough County Courthouse. Orlando businessman W.W. Staplen bought the land and dismantled the movie studio. He sold the bricks for $1,500. What was left quickly became a ghost town.
In the late 1930s, the next person tried to entice Hollywood to what was left of Sun City. J.T. Fleming, a developer and inventor from Georgia who went broke during the land boom in Florida and lost everything except 500 acres in southern Hillsborough County, bought special masters deeds to Sun City for $100. Fleming believed that the land would be worth millions as a moviemaking destination and resurrected the idea of a city where filmmakers and actors would live among regular residents. However, Fleming became increasingly involved in legal battles and this second try at an East Coast Hollywood never got off the ground. After years of continuous legal challenges, Fleming was ruled insane in 1953, incarcerated for 19 months, and finally had his rights restored by a Fulton County (GA) court. When Fleming died in January 1968, Hillsborough County reclaimed his 500 acres of land near present-day Ruskin for unpaid taxes.
Today, the land that Sun City once stood on is largely a mobile home park situated among industrial sites, fish farms, orchards, and scrapyards. The power plant that was built still stands on Route 41 and if you compare Google Maps to the original maps in our collection, you’ll see the names of movie stars are still on the roads. In fact, side by side, you see that where a movie studio once stood, there is simply woods.
Raponi, Richard. Herbert C. Van Sweringen House, Cleveland Historical app. https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/407
Sun City, Ghosttowns.com, http://www.ghosttowns.com/states/fl/suncity.html
Sun City Development and Motion Picture Studio Plat Map Sheets, Special Collections & Archives, Florida State University Libraries, Tallahassee, Florida. https://archives.lib.fsu.edu/repositories/10/resources/705 Accessed October 16, 2020.