Visiting architect weighs in on Warm Mineral Springs


While the debate intensifies over what to do about Warm Mineral Springs, one regular visitor has a few simple words for its owners, Sarasota County and the City of North Port. "Get over it, guys."

So says Jifat Windmiller, a New York architect who spoke in Sarasota at the first national symposium of Docomomo-US, a branch of the international group Documentation and Conservation of the Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement.

In 2010, the springs was sold to the county and North Port. The bank that sold it, Cypress Lending, is managing it on a contract until June. North Port's leaders are trying to decide what to do with their ownership interest. Citizens are taking both sides: "The city has no business running a business," or, "Warm Mineral Springs is a public asset that must be protected from developers." (FOR A PHOTO GALLERY ACCOMPANYING THIS STORY, CLICK ON THIS LINK.)

"I wish they could see what I see there when I look at those buildings," said Windmiller of the elected officials, "and I know without a doubt that we're not seeing the same thing."

At the Docomomo event, the soft-spoken architect gave a loving tribute by narrating her own photos of Warm Mineral Springs' motel (separately owned), the sculpture of the bathing ladies by Tamiami Trail, the WARM MINERAL SPRINGS arrow sign, the abandoned building on the road to the springs that has the same "parasol" roof as the Victor Lundy-designed motel, the Springs' welcome center, the gift shop, the abandoned Cyclorama celebrating Ponce de Leon and the "Fountain of Youth," the breezeways, then ... the springs!

Windmiller is so soft-spoken yet enthusiastic, and such a good photographer, that she celebrates the spring and its buildings in a new and delightful way.

She described the bathers: "Women in all kinds of hats; men having a business meeting, in Russian."

She pointed out that Sarasota County and the city of North Port bought the property, but "don't have a clue as to its value," particularly the architecture. "In fact, they don't know what to do with it, and it is set to be closed in two months. I am not a political person, but my advice to them is, 'Get over it, guys. You need to figure out what to do.'"

Drawing inspiration from the MiMo (Miami Modern) preservation movement, she proposes a new one: NoPoMo (North Port Modern).

Windmiller discovered Warm Mineral Springs about five years ago on a car trip.

"I saw the midcentury sign, and the glimpse of the motel, and a glimpse of the sculpture, and this giant arrow, and I literally had to make a U-turn and come back," she recalled.

"I learned about the motel and went to the springs — a phenomenal natural phenomenon. So on the one hand was this wonderful, luxurious springs, decadent for your body, and on the other hand is this midcentury architecture. I couldn't believe how lucky I was that the two were together.

"There was the God-made and the manmade and they celebrated each other. The architecture doesn't make any sense without the springs. Of course, the springs could exist without the architecture, but it celebrates it. It says, 'This is special, and we are here to party with it. I felt like I was the lone person who could see it that way.'"

What architecture?

Europeans are regular visitors to Warm Mineral Springs, but many Sarasota County residents are barely familiar with it, said Windmiller.

"Eastern European visitors love it, but not the architecture," she said. "They love the springs. They don't care that the bathrooms are not to five-star luxury standards; they understand the mineral content of the springs and what that does for their health. They seek these places out around the world, and they found it in North Port. Many of them have moved to live there because of the springs.

"Sarasota, with its school of architecture, doesn't even know it exists. Look, it's not the most important architecture that has ever been built. No one could say that. But there is a value of celebration.

"It is also an American architecture. It is of the moment, it is postwar, it is the relief of these world wars behind us. There is no other movement of architecture like this right here that celebrates in the way midcentury modern architecture celebrates."

Windmiller became such a devotee of the springs that she's even met with management to discuss the architecture there.

"The general manager," she said, "will promote it endlessly for its health value, for its economic development potential, for its environmental, archaeological, historical value — there is a whole list of what he thinks is great. I started to talk about the architecture and he literally thought I fell from the moon. 'What architecture?' A lot of it is in disrepair, and the Cyclorama, which is reasonably intact and well-preserved — again, 'what architecture?'

"The only reason they didn't throw me out the door right away is I am an architect from New York and they thought, 'Well, she likes it. Maybe she knows something.' "

General manager Gene Vaccaro said he has discussed the architecture with several people and didn't recall Windmiller specifically, but acknowledged the springs' architecture has importance.

"The uniqueness ... starting with the motel," said Vacarro, "the old abandoned building, and then the springs' buildings. It is all very interesting and it would be a shame to see it go away."

Windmiller even spoke at a public meeting in Sarasota in which Warm Mineral Springs' fate was being discussed.

"Because we are in Florida, I made an analogy to Miami — that 20 years ago, the Art Deco buildings were not known, recognized, understood, appreciated, cared about. You could buy them for a song. They were falling apart. I went to Miami for the first time and saw these things — they were like giant pieces of candy. With time, they became appreciated and ... now South Beach is one of the premier destinations in the state, if not the country. That wouldn't have occurred without the Art Deco buildings."

Plan is critical

Windmiller is not about to say that a few midcentury modern buildings in North Port can rival South Miami Beach's rows of Art Deco landmarks. But, she said, "It is of the same resonance and the same something special."

Regardless of who or what ends up in control of the property, the buildings are something that can be capitalized on, she said.

"Together they are much greater than the sum of its parts, and it would be a missed opportunity to overlook this," said Windmiller. "What exists there now, if you can look beyond the current state of neglect and envision these buildings restored and celebrated as they're meant to be, is such a stroke of good fortune, it could not be recreated today for any amount of money.

"People would be drawn there for reasons other than the experience of going to the springs alone, but also for historic, artistic and cultural reasons, as well. There is much to profit with that. There is such a unique commodity there in so many regards, including in those curious-looking buildings. Learn about them, appreciate them and capitalize on them. It will exponentially raise the attractiveness of this site as a draw for future visitors."

But a master plan is needed to overcome indecision about the site, Windmiller added.

That is the "critical piece. Ideally this would incorporate all the various aspects of the site and would offer a vision of how all the old and new components fit together, so that they can continue to celebrate, compliment and enhance one another.

"It would inform all the subsequent decision making that's currently without direction. Then you can work backwards from this master-plan view to the present day and know where you're headed. With such a plan in place, requests for proposals can be sent out in stages to develop the property on an as-needed basis and as its future unfolds, not haphazardly, but by design.

"In my view, this is essential to the long-term success of the property."

Ultimately what happens to these buildings, said Vaccaro, will be decided from a business perspective. "The buildings all have to be rehabilitated," he said. "They are 70 years old and need refurbishing. Does that mean replacing? If refurbishing costs way, way more than replacing, that is a business consideration.

"Secondly, someone in authority would have to make a recommendation based on the historical value of the buildings. The city and county don't seem to have a handle on that."rSprings05m

Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: May 6, 2013
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