How can Sarasota reinvent its future without destroying its past? The question is more than academic.
It’s at the heart of the current debate over the fate of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and the city of Sarasota’s 52-acre bayfront site. The question is as complex as a Rubik’s Cube. There are no simple answers.
As it stands, an independent planning group is considering building a new performance venue, leaving the fate of the Van Wezel uncertain. The Observer has covered these proposals at length. For this article, we reached out to a cross-
section of area architects for their opinions.
Although many are leaders and members of architectural and civic organizations, their viewpoints are their own.
Think Long Term: Carl Abbott
The existing Van Wezel is a significant part of Sarasota’s architectural and cultural history. It’s been criticized as inadequate and vulnerable to sea-level rise. Before coming up with solutions, let’s examine our definition of the problem.
Saying “The Van Wezel is too small” is the wrong way of looking at it. Most small cities have two public auditoriums — one large and one small. The elegant solution would be to build a larger, new auditorium nearby, perhaps in the existing footprint of the David Cohen Hall, while simultaneously reducing the capacity of the Van Wezel, which would finally allow for a central aisle. Downsizing could also include the removal of the lower levels. Together with additional barriers, this would address the problem of rising tides.
Economically, a two-part approach to downsizing the Van Wezel, while creating an additional, larger auditorium, makes sense. Demolishing and replacing the Van Wezel would cost $100 million or more and shut down its operations for years. This makes absolutely no economic sense. The structure is sound, and it will be eligible for the benefits of historic preservation status in 2019.
The fate of the Van Wezel is only one piece of the bayfront puzzle. The question of the architecturally significant former G.WIZ building remains. This could have a new life as a wharf for a water taxi. We’re also faced with the looming possibility of a 10th Street Bridge to Longboat Key.
We need to think in terms of a 50-year window, or we’re wasting our time.
Focus on Functionality, Not Design: Michael Halflants
I am not advocating demolishing the Van Wezel, but I also don’t think it should be saved on the basis of its architectural merit. It is not a bad building. (We have enough examples of those in Sarasota.) However, it’s also not a masterpiece — not by a long shot. While the building attempts to imitate the language of Frank Lloyd Wright’s later work, it also fails to learn much from him. The performing arts hall forsakes its exceptional site by turning its back to the bay. From the porte cochère to the circulation space, concertgoers aren’t given any opportunity to be reminded of the waterfront. We do have an event space under the skirt of the roof that faces the bay with a wide-open view. However, its relationship to the main hall is tenuous. The hall’s main shortcoming is its poorly designed seating arrangement. The middle seats are exceedingly hard to reach for our aging population. While the intermission should be a highlight in any community event, it is a dreaded time when patrons have to shimmy past 30 of their neighbors to reach the aisle and go through the same dance a few minutes later.
I can understand that some have affection for the purple hall as a longtime symbol of Sarasota and as a place with many shared memories. I can also appreciate that the decision to tear down a building should not be taken lightly. There’s an intrinsic value in reusing older structures. But the decision to keep this hall should be based on whether it adequately serves our growing community, and not on its alleged architectural distinction.
Repurpose to Preserve: Guy W. Peterson
Having been a lifelong Sarasota resident, I’ve been fortunate to have personally experienced much of Sarasota’s iconic architecture. Many of the buildings I grew up with have been demolished or altered beyond recognition. Sadly, disrespect for Sarasota’s architectural history is a part of our history. With the pressures of new development, architecture is often sacrificed or considered disposable.
I was part of a group that tried to save Paul Rudolph’s Riverview High School. We lost that fight, and that loss is a dangerous precedent. We were given assurances that Rudolph’s Sarasota High School would be saved. Fortunately it was, and that’s a hopeful precedent.
With the exciting opportunity now in front of us to redevelop our downtown bayfront, coupled with the city of Sarasota engaging a firm as talented as Sasaki, I am confident they can develop a responsible plan that includes the Van Wezel (if instructed to do so) as a contributing component of their master plan. The structure could be a redefined performing arts hall, or a repurposed new facility that adds value to our community. Renovating existing buildings is one of the most sustainable and responsible approaches we can pursue.
A case in point is the recent renovation of the 1960 Scott Building, originally designed by Bill Rupp and Joseph Farrell in downtown Sarasota. This building has been fully restored and is now the home of the Center for Architecture Sarasota and also recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The restoration of Sarasota High School is another good example, although its use has not significantly changed.
The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall was built when I was in my early teens. It offered our community both a new cultural facility and a recognition of architecture’s importance in defining our sense of place.
Sadly, once a building of such significance is gone, it becomes nothing more than a historical memory — a part of a future historical exhibit or a postcard image of our past.
Keep Talking: Julian Norman Webb
As we consider the bayfront, it’s critical that not only the Van Wezel be discussed, but also the existing old G.WIZ Science Center and the former city library. The G.WIZ is still being shown as demolished on the most recent plans. The Van Wezel has been shown to remain, but conditionally, depending on community debate. I’d call that punting into the long grass to try to remove a difficult decision from the debate.
The decision on the fate of the Van Wezel is obviously part of the overall bayfront plan and budget and cannot be conveniently sidelined. There’s clearly a strategy to present a project that is governed by an apparently arbitrary calendar put out by Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization. We risk being made a slave to this timetable.
Wise decisions and informed community debate (in lieu of top-down weighted surveys and presentations) should be paramount. The proposed project should serve the community.
Yes, we are in competition with Lakewood Ranch and other cities. Yes, we want to keep the Sarasota Orchestra and Van Wezel performances in the city of Sarasota. Yes, we want to redevelop the bayfront for public use.
We don’t want to respond in a way that later makes us ask why didn’t we think of that; why didn’t we build on our history; why did we miss that opportunity?
Protect the Past: Laney Brown
I am genuinely excited for a new performing arts center. The project has the potential to bring people and to activate a beautiful piece of underutilized waterfront property. But we shouldn’t let this overshadow the architecturally significant buildings that are already located on the bayfront.
Building a new performing arts center shouldn’t automatically mean that we demolish the old. There has so far been a great deal of effort to propose new buildings, but there should also be time dedicated to creatively proposing meaningful ideas that preserve the history of the G.WIZ and Van Wezel buildings. G.WIZ already stood as an example for successfully repurposing buildings from their original design. Sarasota can and should continue to grow and develop — architectural and culturally — but we can’t remove the past completely.
Say No to Demo: Selma Göker
The Van Wezel is a structure of unique design by a notable architectural firm representing the architectural lineage of Frank Lloyd Wright. Although it has some shortcomings in terms of its siting, internal configuration, and current use, these reasons alone aren’t sufficient to warrant its demolition. The recent treatment of this building, by the city and the bayfront master plan designers was unprofessional and ill-considered. To show design drawings without the Van Wezel, and then claim that it wasn’t intended for demolition, is ludicrous. An existing building on a site needs to be shown as such until its removal is confirmed. Its removal cannot and should not be confirmed until a full and professional study has been conducted — not only on its current state, but its future possibilities, including structural, practical and cultural implications. The Van Wezel will certainly need to adapt to a new relationship with water, but this is true for many buildings on the waterfront. The Van Wezel should not be singled out for demolition for this reason alone.
To suggest demolishing such a building without proper consultation, research or public outreach, is not in keeping with the goals and missions of this city. The fate of the Van Wezel should have been assessed independently and prior to the master plan project. We now need to consider its architectural and cultural value, and do so independently of the pressures imposed by a new development at the bayfront site.
What the Van Wezel truly needs is integration to the city and its immediate neighborhoods. The bayfront project should strive to achieve this goal, in whatever direction the project takes.
Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.