Last winter, John Chrzczonowski fished a piece of history out of a pond on the Sarasota Garden Club’s property — several pieces, actually. Now, Chrzczonowski and the rest of the club’s members are looking for help putting those pieces together.
During a cleaning of Tuttle’s Puddle, the pond that sits just off of U.S. 41 at the Sarasota Garden Club facilities on Boulevard of the Arts, members located some unusual debris. The heavy granite differed from the other stones sitting at the bottom of the pond and matched a pedestal that sat, broken, adjacent to the water.
The pieces, Chrzczonowski eventually discovered, comprised a sculpture of a Japanese lantern donated to the club in 1939. The lantern was a gift from Ralph and Ellen Caples, a prominent Sarasota couple whose estate is now a part of the New College of Florida campus. Questions still remain about how or when the sculpture was broken, but when it was intact, it sat next to Tuttle’s Puddle, visible to passersby on U.S. 41.
For an organization steeped in tradition, the discovery of the missing lantern pieces was an exciting one. Olivia Haynes, the garden club’s president, pointed out that the group’s Sarasota School of Architecture building dates back to 1960 and has a historic designation from the city. Haynes said the lantern would serve as another testament to the storied history of the club.
“All of us are kind of aware of the history and kind of reverent about the history of this area,” Haynes said. “The lantern is significant because Mrs. Caples was a member of the garden club, as was Marie Selby, as was Mable Ringling.”
The group has made significant strides toward restoring the lantern, but piecing together the history of the sculpture did not come easy. Chrzczonowski said that, initially, other members of the garden club were skeptical of the likelihood of ever repairing the lantern. He downplays his work, but Haynes credited him with spearheading the project.
“John has such a passion for this,” Haynes said. “He has gone to the ends of the earth to find information about the lantern.”
To trace the origins of the statue, he went to the Sarasota County Historical Society and other sources for research. To make sure the project would have proper governmental clearance, he worked with the city’s senior planner for historic preservation, Cliff Smith. He contacted Ron McCarty, a curator at the Ringling Museum, regarding how to reconstruct the artwork.
And to find more missing pieces beneath the opaque surface of the water, the retiree had to be willing to get dirty.
“It’s just flatly having to be in the muck, lying on my belly,” Chrzczonowski said. “I can’t see — the water is murky — so I just fish with my hands.”
Chrzczonowski has found five or six pieces of the sculpture, he says, and he estimates that two or three are left submerged in the pond. He’s continuing his search, but, in the meantime, he’s coordinated with local artist Sean Colson to restore the lantern. The garden club is seeking funding for the restoration; the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation has already volunteered to cover one-third of the $4,200 price tag.
For Chrzczonowski, who calls himself an antique-lover, the project has given him an opportunity to dive into the garden club’s past. He valued the opportunity to see a project through from beginning to end, and he hopes to have a rededication ceremony when the sculpture is ultimately restored to its original position near U.S. 41. In his eyes, the work has been worth it.
“I enjoy history, whether it’s from Sarasota or anywhere,” Chrzczonowski said. “I kind of took this as a passion.”
Haynes said the lantern was a valuable relic of early Sarasota.
“We think that anything historical — especially in Sarasota, which doesn’t have such a long history — is very, very important to give us some roots,” Haynes said.
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