During the Depression years of the 1930s, a number of properties became available to anyone who could pay the back taxes on them.
Mayor Ernest Arthur “E.A.” Smith led the effort to acquire one of the properties, a prime section along the bayfront, for the City of Sarasota. Located west of North Tamiami Trail (then called Broadway Avenue), between Boulevard of the Arts and Tenth Street, the 37 acres became the beginning of today’s Civic Center.
The city bought the land for approximately $15,000. With partial funding from the Federal Works Projects Administration, construction began in 1937 on the Municipal Auditorium, the first building for the Civic Center.
Sarasota architect Thomas Reed Martin designed the building in an Art Deco/Art Moderne-style. It opened with the annual Sara de Soto Pageant Ball on February 24, 1938, and became the location for community concerts, dances and beauty pageants, as well as for hospitality events for soldiers from the Sarasota Army Air Base during World War II.
To the north of the auditorium, courts for tennis, badminton, and shuffleboard, and lawn bowling greens were laid out. Mayor Smith announced that the Civic Center would become, “one of the finest recreation centers in the south.”
Additions to the Civic Center soon followed. John and Ida Chidsey of Bristol, Conn., and Sarasota contributed funds for the “Chidsey Annex,” an indoor recreation facility added to the bay side of the auditorium. A short time later, in 1941, the Chidseys responded to the Sarasota Jaycees’ campaign for a new public library building, by offering to fund the building if the Jaycees could raise the money to furnish it.
On November 13, 1941, 1,000 people reportedly turned out for the dedication of the $25,000 Martin Studio-designed, Art Moderne-style Sarasota Public Library. For the first time, Sarasota’s library, begun as a project of the Town Improvement Society and sponsored by the Woman’s Club for nearly 25 years, had its own home.
Frank Martin, son of T.R. Martin, continued the involvement of Martin Studios, with Civic Center development. He designed an Art Deco-style lighted fountain that was placed in front of the auditorium along U.S. 41. Robert and Edna Hazzard of Gardner, Maine, and Sarasota, provided the fountain and it was officially presented to the city in a lighting ceremony on December 12, 1940.
By the end of the decade, a new Frank Martin-designed building graced the Civic Center. After more than 20 years as an organization without a structure, the Sarasota Art Association launched the first of several building programs. Covered now by a later addition, the original small gallery reflected Martin’s Art Moderne interest. It opened to the public at the end of January 1949, with an art show and sale during the annual Sara de Soto Pageant.
During this first stage in the development of the Civic Center, the Sarasota Garden Club provided much of the landscaping. Members created a pond with some garden sculpture and a variety of trees that greeted visitors approaching from the south. Paths offered foot access to the bay. Not until the second phase of construction in the Civic Center would the Garden Club have a place of its own.
Special thanks to Ann A. Shank, former Sarasota County Historian, for her research and time devoted to writing this article. Provided by Sarasota History Alive. "Where History Happens Everyday!" www.sarasotahistoryalive.com