Much has been said in recent years about our apparent inability to prevent the loss of important elements of our architectural heritage. Examples such as the Lido Casino, the downtown Atlantic Coastline railroad station and the John Ringling Towers Hotel come to mind, but there are others to lament, including many residences. In addition, some good buildings have been so ineptly "modernized" as to have lost their design integrity. For example, Paul Rudolph’s severe and handsome addition to the collegiate gothic Sarasota High School is now surrounded and smothered by additions and the oddly depressing arcade which links it to those newer structures.
But we do have some proud survivors, and it’s worth saluting them-and those who’ve helped to save them.
These 10 local landmarks (listed in no particular order of excellence) remind us of the spirit and quality we must maintain to ensure an architectural future which, if unlikely to rival the heady days of the Sarasota School of Architecture, might still be consistent with our reputation as an arts community.
1. The old Selby Library survives in the jaunty makeover supervised by Dale Parks. The original building was strangely dysfunctional (who doesn’t remember trying to navigate that angled staircase?), despite the fact that it was designed by one of America’s leading architectural firms, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Think Lever House in New York City, or the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and then thank Parks for giving the sharp-edged edifice new life and tickling the imaginations of new generations.
2. Sarasota City Hall. A fine example of Sarasota School architect Jack West’s work, City Hall is muscular in its horizontal planes and somber materials, although now rather submerged in overdone landscaping and diminished by the nasty annex building behind it. Its location, never as central as one might have expected, but intended to be the terminus of a processional walkway to Lemon Avenue, keeps it too often out of the public eye. Perhaps the revitalization of the Lemon Avenue area, especially the opening of the new bus station, will lead more people to see and appreciate its qualities.
3. Sarasota County Courthouse. Here, the past has triumphed against all odds. The recent restoration of Dwight Baum’s original Spanish-inspired architecture has been enormously popular, even though this part of the justice complex is less visited by the public than the handsome modern Justice Center behind it. The beautiful materials and graceful mass of the building project a strong historical presence in the central city. Perhaps most important, in view of the height of the new buildings sprouting downtown, is the way in which the slender tower holds its own. Elsewhere, Baum’s Sarasota Times Building has been saved, too, but its future is uncertain.
4. The Federal Building. On South Osprey Avenue near Ringling Boulevard, the former Federal Building (originally supervised by architect Louis Simon), having housed the offices of Social Security before it received a splendid and sensitive restoration, anchors an important site near the Post Office and seems serenely secure in its new life. The classical balance of its Greek Revival facade and its carefully studied proportions are at once impressive and welcoming, as a government building should be. It now houses some offices of the City of Sarasota, so one may assume it is not threatened.
5. John and Mable Ringling Museum. This John H. Phillips design may seem an obvious choice, but given recent trends in "adapting" older museums around the world, the care with which this building has been treated is noteworthy. Not long ago, extensive renovations restored the magnificence of the galleries and brought the infrastructure and mechanical systems up to date. Now work is underway to expand the exhibition space in accordance with the original plan while adding a visitors’ center. We should give thanks more drastic changes were not made: Imagine, for example, if a "contemporary" face had been grafted on the serene and severe Tuscan-style facade.
6. The Municipal Auditorium complex, including the Sarasota History Center, Art Center Sarasota and the Visitor Information Center. These are grouped together behind a rescued Art Deco fountain, north of the ambitiously named Boulevard of the Arts. This modest assemblage of public buildings, an authentic expression of an American "Art Moderne" style, is threatened by plans for a yet-to-be-defined "Cultural Zone" and the perpetually lurking conference center proposal. Losing Thomas Reed Martin’s Municipal Auditorium or Victor Lundy’s visitors’ center would be an unforgivable blow to our dwindling inventory of structures recalling the boundless optimism and design daring of earlier days.
7. Bay Haven and Southside schools. These buildings, both designed by M. Leo Elliott and very similar in their confident evocation of the Spanish style that captivated Florida’s early developers, remain welcoming, functional and fanciful despite the ordinary utilitarian quality of the additions and extensions that have been grafted on to the original structures. The Southside building, sheltered behind large trees, is monochromatic but still charming; the Bay Haven building, on the other hand, rejoices in the vibrant colors applied to the graceful columns of the entrance portico facing a wide lawn.
8. Sarasota Military Academy. Another rescued and recycled school building, formerly St. Martha’s School, the military academy is one of our finest examples of academic architecture in the modernist mode. Its long, lean lines, dominated by a low-rise horizontality, together with a refined palette of color centered on beige with soft orange accents, demonstrate its serious purpose. A variety of terra-cotta details and the sleek lines of the windows give it an aura of calm authority, speaking volumes about the skill of its architects, Kenneberg and Hanebuth. Its future is not certain, alas.
9. Siesta Key Chapel. The chapel is a spiritual tree house, almost hidden among pine trees in the central core of the island. The modest building-clad in dark wood, reached by long wooden ramps, enriched by generous expanses of windows that impart beautiful natural light to the interior-encourages the congregation to contemplate the glories of nature during worship. Thick carpets of pine needles, shafts of bronze light and the scent of vegetation combine with the genius of man in a magical setting. Sit in the sanctuary some sunny afternoon and absorb the tranquil beauty of its materials and proportions, designed by Frank Folsom Smith and Jim Holliday.
10. One Sarasota Tower. Yes, we’re talking about the glass building at the corner of U.S. 41 and John Ringling Boulevard, the keystone of the downtown waterfront, the structure still called "The Penner Building" by many. The building, by a now-defunct Tampa-based firm then called Design Arts Group, is not great architecture, but the way its reflective glass sheath changes color during the day, taking on the color of the sky, the Gulf, the sunset and the clouds, is often captivating. A well-proportioned and dignified sentry at the gateway to the Ringling Bridge, it says, "Welcome to Sarasota" to many. Once controversial, it’s now generally accepted; even the pelicans have stopped running into it.