By staff May 1, 2002

We haven't been too good about saving our architectural heritage in this town. The freshest loss, of course, is the much-lamented John Ringling Towers on the site of the new Ritz-Carlton. Be honest, though: Do you really miss it? Could it have been recycled into a useful building? If not, should it have been saved anyway? I don't think so.

More important, a structure that was the terminus of Main Street and

certainly should have been re-used was the charming Spanish-style railroad station, which vanished in the mid-1980s after failing as a restaurant. And let's not even discuss the glorious Lido Casino, photographs of which still provoke longing and regret, especially now that the Lido Beach landscape has been altered significantly by the elephantine new Radisson hotel addition.

Still, we have seen some excellent examples of recycling, including Frank Folsom Smith's handsome and functional U.S. Garage on Pineapple Avenue and Dale Parks' wizardly rehab of the old Selby Library into the G.WIZ hands-on science museum, welcoming and flooded with light. In addition to opening the interior to the world through a skylight that evokes I.M. Pei's glorious glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, Parks managed to remove forever the malevolent spell of the library's infamous Staircase of Terror. That curving structure compelled its users to cling for dear life to the railings as they clawed their way up or down in defiance of natural law. The Towles Court and Laurel Park areas between South Osprey Avenue and U.S. 301, too, are good examples of recycling, turning the vernacular cottages into live/work areas, studios, galleries and restaurants.

Longtime Sarasotans have often joked that our best buildings used to be gas stations. Think Bijou Cafe, for example, although the recent rebuilding has removed some of the distinctive shape of the old fill-'er-up place. Another is the graceful building at the corner of South Osprey and Main Street, the home of Hamilton Bank until its recent closing. In its petroleum heyday, this must have been the most charming station in a downtown full of them. Now it is a bit lonely in its isolation but still beautifully proportioned and relatively unharmed by its adaptation. Here's hoping it will be saved, even although the bank has ceased operations.

And now a couple of new rehabilitations have enlivened the architectural inventory of our town. The more cheerful of these is the new Scott Thomas Spa just off the corner of Goodrich and Main, behind Il Panificio. A beautifully proportioned Craftsman-style cottage, the building has kept all its trademark details, including the tapered columns framing the front porch and the six-above, one-below windows. Its spanking new yellow-and- white color scheme and perky landscaping (including window boxes) confirm a dynamic transformation from neglected residential to snazzy commercial use.

Not far away, where South Osprey Avenue meets U.S. 41, an old

auto/boat/whatever dealership has had a dramatic rebirth as a Corbusier-like industrial structure. Michael Epstein of Seibert Architects has replaced the old garage doors with well-proportioned new windows while adding saw-tooth skylights on two levels. The space inside, says the architect, is "glorious, with exposed steel beams and generous natural light from those clerestories. This is now a space for humans, no longer for cars and parts." Credit the Glauser company for saving the building and undertaking this ambitious recycling on "spec," without a committed tenant or buyer. We are told that form should follow function in modern architecture, but we are happy to keep this form even in the absence of an assured new function.

Less certain is the fate Jack West's wonderful assemblage of Sarasota School of Architecture structures at the junction of South Palm Avenue and U.S. 41. Built in 1966, this was one of the city's earliest mixed-use projects-residential spaces above a commercial ground floor-something our new master plan urges we do more of now, to bring vitality to the urban core. Its warm clay brick walls (both inside and out) are a welcome relief from the so-called Mediterranean Revival peach we see so much of these days. And its bold squares, cubes and rectangles, joined by an overhead bridge and surrounding a modernist fountain, form a compound, a striking little neighborhood of clean architecture. I recently saw that the overgrown landscaping around this modest masterpiece had been cleared away and the building apparently emptied of tenants and West tells me that yes, a renovation is in the cards, although he isn't sure how faithful it would be to the original. Let's hope it will be; saving a piece of the fast-vanishing Sarasota School would be one more for the good guys.

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