With the opening of the new Elling Eide Center, a local Sinologist’s legacy is cemented.
Entering the 72-acre property along Little Sarasota Bay is like taking a step back in time. One of the largest undeveloped waterfront properties in Sarasota County, it remains mostly untouched, looking as it might have when its earliest prehistoric Native American settlers fished its waters.
Nearing the bay, almost out of nowhere, a stark contrast emerges, breaking the illusion. Clean horizontal lines in crisp white and black cut through the dense monochromatic expanse of Old-Florida green. Finally, the sleek, minimalist structure appears in full view, standing three stories high and elevated a floor above the ground.
It’s an impressive sight — and without prior knowledge, one would never know it existed.
The Elling Eide Center, located at 8000 S. Tamiami Trail, opened its doors Oct. 20. With its ample Zen spaces and remarkable views, it hosts Chinese and Asian scholars from around the world and is home to one of the largest
personal collections of East-Asian literature, poetry and art in the United States.
The collection — some 75,000 volumes of reference materials, poetry and rare books dating back to the 13th century — is on par with that of a mid-sized university. But the impressive assemblage belonged to just one man: Sarasota native Elling Eide, who hand-selected its contents over 60 years, with hopes to one day house it in his own library.
Unfortunately, he never lived to see his vision realized. The center’s completion, a project 13 years in the making, comes four years after Eide’s death. It marks the final chapter in his decades-long quest to house his collection of ancient books and artifacts. Its intentional stylistic juxtaposition is the yin to its location’s yang — a modernist testament to one man’s thirst for knowledge and love for Asian cultures of the past.
A Rich History
It’s an early Thursday morning, and Harold Mitchell, the center’s president and CEO and Eide’s first cousin, is strolling the grounds of the property, recounting its history.
He and Eide’s grandfather, Oliver Luther Mitchell Sr., purchased the land, then known as Indianola, in 1935. The following year, he bought a home in Bradenton and paid to have it floated via barge to the property, where it remains today.
“Elling lived for most of his life in our grandfather’s house,” says Mitchell. “But I know that was never the type of house he wanted. He wanted a place to store his collection.”
Mitchell makes his way to the entrance, where Zen-like rock gardens adorn the space beneath the elevated first floor and an original antique bell from the house is displayed as a testament to the center’s new-meets-old motif.
Spending much of his career in finance, Mitchell says he was never much interested in Sinology — the study of Chinese language, literature and culture — at least not the way his cousin was. But in the 13 years it took to see the project to completion, through extensive archiving, financing and permitting issues, and Eide’s ever-changing vision, he’s become well versed in the collection in his own right.
Inside, passing ancient tape-stries and statues, Mitchell rattles off their historical significance with ease.
In one hallway, there’s a glass-housed foot-binding display. In another room, a Persian ceiling painting, circa 1850, hangs installed above the table, whose reflective surface offers guests a view of its ornate detail without having to crane their necks.
“This is something you might’ve found in the home of an upper-middle class family in Iran,” he says. “Elling really wanted the reflective tabletop.”
“I had no background in any of this,” he continues. “But through all this, I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve come to find it all fascinating. That begs the $1 million question: How did Elling get started in all of this?”
Born and raised in Sarasota, the son of two doctors, Eide graduated from Sarasota High School in 1953 before studying at Harvard University. He graduated summa cum laude with a degree in Far Eastern languages, despite his parents’ wish that he become a lawyer.
“He was always interested in world travel and in language,” says Mitchell. “He was fluent in several languages in high school. He told me, ‘I don’t want to do all the things that other people want to do.’ I think he found Far Eastern languages in college, and he decided to give it a try. He fell in love with it all, and that’s where he made some of his closest lifelong friends.”
Labor of Love
After graduation, while stationed around East Asia and studying in Taiwan as a Harvard Junior Fellow, Eide began preserving and collecting literature. In 1984, he published a translated book of poems by eighth century Chinese poet Li Po — his favorite.
Today, the collection, including thread-bound publications, wood-block printings and ancient rubbings, is properly preserved and available for use by scholars from around the world. Before that, the majority of the collection was stored in containers, under beds and piled in various historical buildings on the property.
The effort to build a permanent library began in earnest in 2003, when Eide contacted architect Guy Peterson, who designed the center. By 2011, when the construction was fully underway, Edie’s health had begun to deteriorate. He had experienced a minor stroke, which affected his speech and vision.
Mitchell recalls walking him down to see the progress.
“He told me, ‘Harold, I can hear it. But I can’t see it.’”
Realizing he might not live to see the project’s completion, he considered giving up.
“We spent a good few hours talking about his legacy,” he says. “I told him, ‘You’ve got all these materials, and you finally have the opportunity to share them with the world.’”
From Nov. 10 to 12, the Elling Eide Center hosted its first conference for the T’ang Studies Society. When the bus arrived, and scholars from around the world unpacked and loaded into the conference room, Mitchell says the emotional weight of the journey hit him.
“Here were professors from the top universities from all over the world, coming here to see the Elling Eide Center,” he says. “It just washed over me. I thought I knew him. But through this, with every page I turned, I saw another side of him — his intimate thoughts filling in all the gaps. I walked away from this with a closer connection to my cousin, and to me, that makes it all worthwhile.”