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Historic Homecoming

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  • | 4:00 a.m. October 28, 2009
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The 8-foot-2-inch seahorse sculptures stand guard over Mote Marine Aquarium. Separated by brown double doors, the two sculptures that arrived late last week look as though they could have been designed specifically for the project behind the doors: the Seahorse Conservation Laboratory, where nearly 40% of lined seahorses displayed in U.S. aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums are now born. The statues will make their formal debut Thursday, Oct. 29, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony during the 50th anniversary celebration of the law firm of Ruden McClosky, a major sponsor of the exhibit.

But the sculptures have their own story.

The Lido Casino, located in the spot where the Lido Beach Pavilion currently stands, opened in 1940 with restaurants, shops, cabanas and a dance floor. Funded by the Works Progress Administration, the largest New Deal agency, the city opened it to attract tourists and create jobs. Famed Sarasota architect Ralph Twitchell designed the building and also hand-drew templates for eight seahorse sculptures that were attached to the building’s second story. Four sculptures overlooked the beach, while the other four looked out onto the front of the casino.

“They were very striking,” said John Dart, a partner at Ruden McClosky, which has 11 offices, one of which is in Sarasota. A Sarasota native, Dart remembers seeing the seahorses as a child from the casino pool, where he took swimming lessons. “They were the accent pieces that sort of defined the casino.”

Bikini-clad tourists lined up to have their pictures taken next the seahorse sculptures, which were made from a natural sand aggregate. Soldiers training to fight in World War II at the Sarasota Army Air Force Base often took a bus out to the casino and posed next to the seahorses.

“It was probably the place to have your picture taken on the beach,” said Sarasota County historian Jeff LaHurd.

For 29 years, the casino was a prime beach destination. But, eventually, the operating costs became too expensive and the city closed it. The casino was demolished March 17, 1969. But before its destruction, the eight seahorse sculptures were removed. According to LaHurd, the originals went to an Elvis impersonator living in Phillippi Creek. (LaHurd doesn’t know what, if anything, the man paid for the sculptures.)

The original mold, made in the 1930s, sat in storage for years. Then, when the Sarasota Quay was developed in 1987, the project’s owners suggested bringing in the iconic sculptures. For residents who had lived in Sarasota for decades, the seahorses were a reminder of the Lido Casino’s glory days.

Nine sculptures were made from the original mold. They adorned the balconies and terrace areas of the development from 1987 to 2007, when the Sarasota Quay was demolished. At the time, Dart was representing the project’s owners. Before the demolition, Dart’s wife, Deborah, who is a historic preservation activist, approached him about saving the seahorses. The Quay’s owners agreed to let Ball Construction remove the sculptures and place them in a storage facility (two were damaged in the moving process). The statues went into storage for two years.

When Mote was preparing to open its Seahorse Conservation Laboratory exhibit, the seahorse sculptures seemed like a natural fit, so a group of community preservationists, including the Darts, arranged to give the aquarium two of the sculptures, where they will stand permanently.

Five sculptures remain in storage in a Sarasota warehouse. They’ll sit there until arrangements are made with other non-profit organizations in order for the statues to again be on public display.
“They have a special meaning for Sarasota,” Dart said.

About the exhibit
• The seahorse population has declined, with many of the creatures being sold for souvenirs, used for traditional Chinese medicines and accidentally caught as bycatch by shrimp fisheries. In the wild, only one in 1,000 seahorse babies will survive to adulthood.

• At Mote’s Seahorse Conservation Laboratory, between 50% and 75% of seahorse babies survive into adulthood. There, seahorses develop and are shipped to other aquariums, so that those facilities don’t have to catch seahorses from the wild.

• The exhibit featuring seahorses, in addition to interesting facts about the creatures, is scheduled to open to the public Sunday, Nov. 1. The exhibit is still in need of sponsors to help with the laboratory’s approximate cost of $50,000 a year.

Seahorse exhibit facts:
• Male seahorses give birth to the babies. The female deposits eggs inside the male, which gives birth to baby seahorses. Seahorses are the only type of animal in the world in which the male gives birth.

• Male and female seahorses mate for life.

• Seahorses have no stomachs, so food passes quickly through their bodies. As a result, Mote officials spend much of their time at the laboratory feeding seahorses and cleaning their aquariums.

Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected].