Better Than New

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The mark of a city’s maturity may be the use it makes of its older buildings. This maxim applies not only to historic preservation of landmarks, admirable as that is, but also to the re-use of "everyday" structures that have outlasted their original purpose. In this way, decommissioned schools might become art centers, empty banks […]


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The mark of a city’s maturity may be the use it makes of its older buildings. This maxim applies not only to historic preservation of landmarks, admirable as that is, but also to the re-use of "everyday" structures that have outlasted their original purpose. In this way, decommissioned schools might become art centers, empty banks entertainment venues, older retail spaces schools, and so on.

By retaining these buildings in a city’s streetscape, the character and scale of the place are preserved, providing the visual clues that contribute so much to the sense of hometown. One of the most attractive aspects of this endeavor is that, for the most part, it’s done with private money, adding little or nothing to the tax burden we so often lament.

Sarasota is doing quite well in this regard, partly offsetting the unpleasant memories left by the loss of the Lido Casino, the Atlantic Coastline Railroad station and the John Ringling Towers, although the possible demolition of that icon of the Sarasota School of Architecture, Carl Abbott’s magical Summerhouse Restaurant on Siesta Key, is a new wound waiting to be inflicted.

Back to the good news: One of the most attractive of the recent rehabilitations is the Girls Incorporated building on South Tuttle Avenue, just south of the Fruitville Road intersection. In renovating what had become a depressingly institutional-appearing social services center, architect Alan Anderson (C. Alan Anderson Architect, P.A.) has brought a refreshing new look to the complex, providing a smart new color scheme-red, black and white, with touches of hot yellow-and generous quantities of bright, natural light.

From the street, one’s eye is caught by the playful use of half-arches in the facade, pointing the way to a newly defined front entrance, made welcoming and secure by moving parking to the rear of the building, where there’s a fine outdoor pavilion with bright red supporting columns and a shiny metal roof. Once inside, the entrance atrium is clearly defined by its bright red reception desk and by the red, white and black floor tiles. If one glances upward in the two-story space, bright yellow stair and balcony railings bring a smile, as does the kitchen directly opposite, where the color scheme is used even more playfully in the wall tiles and work surfaces, a motif also carried out in rest rooms and showers.

Everything here says, "Come in, learn, have fun!" Exercise rooms, computer labs, auditorium/multi-purpose room, science laboratory, you name it-the feeling is simultaneously highly professional and personal, both educational and recreational. Executive director Stephania Feltz provides the best testimonial: "Since the renovations, we have more girls than ever using the facility. And new requests for other community activities are coming in all the time. Much of this can be attributed to the way the building beckons and entices, the way it never intimidates or preaches."

This project was not an easy one, according to Anderson: "Permitting was a chore, but the results are more than worth it." Anyone who doubts that the built environment can bring a positive influence to bear on behavior has only to visit this joyful place. And don’t miss the Pizza Garden!

On the commercial side of town, more snazzy recycling is ongoing. Not far from Girls Inc. on Fruitville Road, just west of the Tuttle Avenue intersection, long-abandoned manufactured housing/hotel units are being rescued by Homewood Suites, a division of Hilton Hotels. These once-grim structures are getting a new roofline-more "Floribbean"-and their windows, doors and balconies are being replaced, a welcome sign that the units are structurally sound and ready to shine. With good colors and landscaping, this complex could well be a new gateway to the city, providing much-needed accommodations near the fairgrounds.

A short stretch of South Tamiami Trail near the Westfield Shoppingtown Southgate plaza is bustling with workers completing three important rehabilitations. The most northerly of these is an old trading stamp (remember those?) redemption center recently used for another kind of redemption as offices for the Southside Baptist Church. The massive parabolic umbrellas that form the facade have at last been freed of in-fill masonry, their glass panels restored. The result is light and airy, good examples of 1950s’-era futurism, when the world was going to be made perfect by peaceful postwar technology (remember that?). The promised personal autogyros and automatic houses never materialized, but we do have this cheerful reminder of that optimistic time, recycled as the offices of the Diagnostic Medical Imaging Center, an appropriately high-tech use for the architecture.

Not far to the south, the building that used to house a bank at the corner of U.S. 41 and Siesta Drive is getting a snazzy paint job and a new upscale restaurant, Fleming’s Steakhouse and Wine Bar. Most of the Siesta Drive facade has been remodeled, but there are still some of the "eyelash" awnings, now gray, previously bright blue, that made it a quasi-landmark. Make no mistake-this is not now and never was great architecture. But given its strategic location, its new look and function are most welcome.

On the opposite side of U.S. 41, a bit to the south and opposite Southgate, another bank building (formerly Huntington) is in the process of rebirth. The old facade has been replaced by sleek glass panels, and the right-angle intersection of the two wings has been made the focus of the design. Simple reconstructive nips and tucks, perhaps, but a very effective face-lift, nonetheless.

As the amusing signs posted during the successful renovation of the Alcazar building on Main Street housing the Two Senoritas restaurant proclaimed during that process: "She’s having a little work done." If some cosmetic surgery performed on our city, a game old girl rather than a grande dame, can provide new life, bring it on. And, while we’re at it, let’s rebuild the Lido Casino.