Let’s start with some good news.
The City of Sarasota will invest $500,000 in new windows, a new roof and other improvements to the Municipal Auditorium. So if you were wondering if the Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 master-planning process might put that 1938 landmark at peril, stop worrying.
“That building is iconic,” City Manager Tom Barwin told me. “That building is not going anywhere. It has that art deco look from the 1930s and it is beautiful.”
So beautiful, in fact, that it is No. 20 in my daily series “Florida Buildings I Love,” which you can follow on Twitter (@htrealestate, #flbldgs) and Facebook (facebook.com/Harold.Bubil).
Also safe is the “Blue Pagoda,” designed in 1956 by Victor Lundy for the Chamber of Commerce. Barwin said money has been budgeted for a restoration of that vacant, 1956 structure (Florida Buildings I Love, No. 14) that will focus on the front curtain wall.
But I did not call Mr. Barwin because I was worried about those buildings. Instead, I called him because I’m worried about the future of the G. Wiz building and its slightly older neighbor to the north, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall (Florida Buildings I Love, No. 31).
It was recently reported that the City Commission is considering the demolition of the vacant building first occupied by the Selby Library and then the G. Wiz science museum because it has been vacant for three years and it costs $50,000 a year to prevent total decay. As Sarasota’s motto once was “May Sarasota Prosper,” that kind of bill does not sit well with anyone.
So, Barwin told me, the City Commission asked him for more information, including the cost of a possible demolition. He said the estimate he received, $125,000, “seems low” to him.
To keep the 34,000-square-foot building in a steady state until the Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 group completes its master plan could cost several hundred thousand dollars, Barwin said, when the cost of maintenance, roof repairs and other need fixes are totaled over the next few years. Water is the enemy and it must be kept out.
Of course, one word that gets the attention of the architectural community is “demolition,” especially when the bulldozer is aimed at a noteworthy structure.
Opened in 1976 as the Selby Library, the G. Wiz building was designed by Walter Netsch (1920-2008) of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, one of the world’s best-known architecture firms. SOM designed the Hancock Building in Chicago.
“It does not make sense to me that the city would demolish such a building just to save maintenance costs,” said longtime Sarasota architect Phil Skirball, “as sooner or later, they will probably need building space for something, and then they will want to build a new building at 10 times the cost.”
When the library moved to Five Points and the building was renovated for G.Wiz, the project won an AIA design award for architect Dale Parks.
My daydream for the building is to have it become a museum of architecture and cultural/arts history, run by the Sarasota Architectural Foundation, maybe in partnership with the University of Miami’s College of Architecture, and local history groups. (Cultural heritage is a core principle for the Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 group, as is environmental and financial sustainability). If 34,000 square feet is not needed for that function, and if the city needs space, it could retain part of the building as a storage venue or some other use. It is on the shore of Sarasota Bay and a bayou, which might make it a good place for law enforcement’s marine patrol boats and staff.
Janet Minker of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation toured the building recently in a group that included Dale Parks and said the building is in good shape and looked as if it had just been vacated “yesterday.”
Barwin said other uses could include serving as a base for a water taxi service and ecological tours.
“This is exactly why the commission did not act to order it demolished,” Barwin said. “They wanted to float a trial balloon to get feedback from the community. We’ve asked if there are any objections to the staff reaching out to the architecture league and the historical commission for some feedback.
“We have had some dialogues with variety of ideas since G. Wiz went out of business,” he said. “But the decision has been to mothball the facility as we participate in the 20:20 process and the community re-envisions the future of the 42-acre bayfront for the next 50 years. That is the strategic direction we received from a previous commission.”
The Van Wezel will have to be the topic of a future column, but I can tell you that if it were historically designated, which it richly deserves, that would be a game-changer with regard to FEMA flood regulations, preservation expert Lorrie Muldowney tells me.