That was a pressing question in Sarasota after the Mary Selby Botanical Gardens announced a $92 million project in 2017 to build a new welcome center, parking garage and state-of-the-art research facility on the 15-acre waterfront.
Selby bequeathed her former home and estate to the “enjoyment of the general public” in 1973. With her legacy, now a living museum, celebrating its 50th anniversary and the first phase of its master plan preparing to open in January, now is a good time to take stock of Selby’s gift and how it has been transformed By its hosts.
Besides Bertha Palmer, a prominent Chicago society figure who helped develop Sarasota in the 1910s, it is safe to say that no other woman exerted such a lasting influence on Sarasota’s history as Mary Selby.
Unlike Palmer, who had made a name for herself in Chicago as the wife of the developer of the famous Palmer House Hotel and chair of the board of directors of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Selby was relatively unknown when she came to Sarasota. As a young bride.
With her oilman husband, William Selby, Mary built a modest Spanish-style home among banyan and laurel trees in Sarasota in the 1920s. This two-storey plaster building contains a café whose seating area serves as a museum of sorts about Selby.
Born Maria Minshall in 1885 in West Virginia, Selby grew up in Marietta, Ohio, where her father taught geology at Marietta College and invented parts for the oil industry, which was still in its infancy. Selby met her husband, William Selby, in Ohio, where he worked with his father at the family-owned oil company that was later sold to Texaco.
Before Bill and Mary Selby settled in Florida, they took what was then an adventurous trip across the United States by car in 1909. Historical accounts credit Mary Selby with being one of the first women to make a cross-country trip by car.
Love animals and gardening
In Sarasota, Mary Selby developed a love of nature and became a member of the Founders Circle, the forerunner of the Sarasota Garden Club. The first president of Founders Circle, founded in 1927, was another important Sarasota woman: Mabel Ringling, wife of circus magnate John Ringling.
Pictures of Mary Selby hanging in the Selby Gardens Café show her with her dog, horse and car. Mary and Bill had no children, which may be why the valuable—and later controversial—piece of Sarasota property no longer remained in the Selby family.
It’s also why her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but not her great-grandchildren, rose to the occasion (likely with the encouragement of Selby Gardens management and board) when neighbors and others objected to the expansion because it would increase traffic and noise in the area.
Shortly before the City of Sarasota Planning Board held a public hearing on Selby’s master plan proposal in September 2019, a letter signed by eight of Selby’s closest living relatives was released.
“Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and as a pioneer woman, Aunt Mary often shared hers,” the letter read. “But we respectfully ask community residents to express their personal opinions and not to diminish the memory of Aunt Mary by implying that they know what she may or may not be thinking.”
According to the letter, Mary Selby would have been “overjoyed” with the master plan for Selby Gardens.
“Her legacy was about saving as much of the Sarasota waterfront as possible and finding ways to make it as accessible as possible,” the letter states.
New York transplant
Jennifer Rominiecki, who has been president and CEO of Selby Gardens since February 2015, wholeheartedly agrees. “Mary will be happy with what’s happening at Selby Gardens,” she says.
Prior to joining Selby, Ruminiecki held directorial positions at cultural institutions such as the Metropolitan Opera and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Under Ruminitsky’s leadership, the gardens’ influence was amplified. Today, Selby Gardens has 75 staff and 800 volunteers who contribute a total of 1.6 million hours annually.
According to Rominiecki, the biggest change she has made during her tenure is to reposition the destination as a “living museum” to encourage repeat visits. “Before that, people would say to me, ‘I’ve been to Selby Gardens. It’s beautiful,’ as if they had no reason to come back,” she says.
The introduction of rotating art exhibitions and live performances has led to huge gains in membership and visitors, both of which have more than doubled, says Ruminiecki. “There’s always something new to see,” she says.
Last season’s Tiffany glass exhibits and John Berman’s artwork received national acclaim and helped attract new visitors to the gardens.
As part of its 50th anniversary celebration, Selby presents “Yayoi Kusama: A Letter to Georgia O’Keeffe” from February 11 to June 30, 2024. The exhibition will explore the mentorship role O’Keeffe played for the Japanese artist, now 94.
Another crowd-pleaser in the 50th anniversary lineup was a performance by writer, performer and visual artist Patti Smith on November 15. Smith was previously named Selby Gardens’ inaugural artist-in-residence. It will return again in 2024.
One constant throughout Selby Gardens’ history is orchids. Since its founding in 1973, the hotel has housed the largest scientifically documented collection of live orchids in the world.
This year’s Orchid Show, which runs until November 26, highlights specimens from Selby’s world-famous collection of 4,400 orchids, 3,500 bromeliads, 900 auricles, 460 ferns, 240 gesneriads, and 3,400 other “accessories.” This is the scientific term for a collection of related plant material of a single species collected at one time from a specific place.
The increase in visitors and the need to weatherproof Selby Gardens’ precious collection in the face of climate change are part of the rationale for the Foundation’s master plan.
Grow up and move out
To those who have complained at public meetings and in letters to the editor that the new four-story parking garage will increase traffic, Rominiecki responds by emphasizing that the garage and new welcome center will ease congestion.
Not only have Selby Gardens been built since Ruminiecki’s arrival; They have also been expanding outside of downtown Sarasota. In 2020, it adopted the historic Spanish Point as its second campus.
Spanish Point Historic District, home to indigenous burial grounds, may be “the most archaeologically valuable piece of land in Sarasota County,” according to the county’s tourism agency, Visit Sarasota. The site is located in Osprey, which is also where Bertha Palmer made her winter home in the Sarasota area.
Similar to how large metal reproductions of John Berman’s iconic Sarasota illustrations went on display this summer in downtown Selby Gardens, photographs taken by famed Florida photographer Clyde Butcher were installed earlier this month at Historic Spanish Point. This exhibition continues until August 31, 2024.
Fun Fact: Selby Gardens recently announced that the first phase of its master plan will open on January 11, 2024. This is also the day in 1960 that the Sarasota Garden Club met in its new Japanese-style building on land leased from the City of Sarasota.
Two years later, another Japanese-style structure was added and named after its donor, Mary Selby. Today, the Garden Club is located within The Bay Park, a waterfront park that opened in October 2022.
The resonance in dates may be little more than a coincidence, but it serves as a reminder that the enterprising gardener-turned-philanthropist still has his presence felt in Sarasota.