A Federal Case

By staff October 1, 2003

Sarasota’s record for saving historic structures, heretofore spotty at best, has improved with the re-opening of the Federal Building on South Orange Avenue at Ringling Boulevard. Making this fine structure useful by housing some departments ofthe city administration there does more than recycle an old building. Itrestores a sense of place in a key downtown location. Most of us"Sense of place" has become a mantra of the New Urbanists, who have in mind the way in which one remembers certain buildings, monuments, streetscapes or natural features when thinking about a town or city. These visual clues provide the key toour relationship to our surroundings. We all have emotional memories of the school we attended, the family’s place of worship, or the first house welived in. Recollections of "home town" often trigger surprisingly specific mental images of a bank or post office, the street corner meeting place, the favorite store or restaurant which was part of daily life.


These are the essential ingredients of human experience within an urban landscape and lie at the core of the values city planners and architects now seek to restore. Sarasota has lost many of the icons which established its character: the Atlantic Coastline Railroad station, the John Ringling Towers hotel, the Lido Casino, the Smack drive-in restaurant and the Mira Mar hotel, to name a few. These were not just buildings—they helped to define the scale of our streets and our lives. In doing so, they defined our relationship to the city’s built environment and to each other. Place affects behavior, creates tradition, builds character. The disastrous effects of massive public housing projects built in the 1950s made that clear.

That’s why we are working so hard to agree on a new downtown plan scaled to human dimensions, why planners look to the nature of civic life in the past in an effort to find solutions for today’s urban dilemmas. In view of the loss of those places, it is encouraging to note that the Federal Building was acquired, saved, restored and rehabilitated by the City of Sarasota, wisely taking no chances on an eventual rescue by the private sector. Having taken the bold step of purchasing the building, which had been empty for some time after the departure of the Social Security Administration offices, city officials obtained a historic restoration grant from the state and put the project in the hands of Peter Horstman of BMK Architects, working with Nancy Carolan, the city’s Director of General Services.

The result? A building that suddenly re-asserts its presence on the street, lending new importance to the block between Main and Ringling, creating an accessible new place of civic administration while maintaining a dignified official demeanor. Looking at the Federal Building today, its elegant neo-classic facade glowing in the sun, it is difficult to acknowledge that it has "always" been there, so new does it seem. In fact, there has been no effort to change the exterior, other than a thorough cleaning of the warm, pinkish-yellow local stone and repair of the terrace balustrades.

The interior, gracefully institutional, subtly suggests the look of the  original post office built in 1934 under the architectural supervision of Louis Simon. Horstman has chosen several design clues from the few original details left in place, such as the art-deco grilles in the entrance doors, to guide his design. The grilles have inspired handsome railings on the new staircase and the second-floor gallery which replaces the original catwalk from which supervisors checked on the postal workers below. Bead board was all the rage in the 1930s; here it (or a modern simulation of it) is used as wainscoting to suggest the original look of the large central hall around which offices and conference rooms are grouped.

Skylights flood the reception area with light, and the use of marble and terrazzo is tasteful. The City of Sarasota seal embedded in the terrazzo, while obviously not part of the original design, is attractive. Placement of the new elevator seems to discourage internal access to the Orange Avenue doors, but since the public entrance is now the graceful, coffered-ceiling Ringling Boulevard lobby, it may not matter.

However, may we hope that the portico on Orange, sheltered by handsome columns, will be used for official functions from time to time? It is, after all, the symbol of the civic importance of this place. If so, the wide terraces surrounding the street facades will be ideal for the purpose, with their large pots of greenery, tables and benches next to the charming park which has been inserted between the Federal Building and the Wilson Building next door.

The park, fronted by a new bus shelter, creates a long-absent terminus to State Street, giving that short connector new relevance, more important than ever as the structures on the north side of the street, especially at the corner of Lemon Avenue, come into play as essential elements in downtown renewal. Civic pride in place, if that term is not hopelessly out of fashion, seems to have been involved in both the original construction and, we hope, in its rehabilitation. Stuart Barger of BMK asks, "What was it about the time and place that caused communities everywhere to spend their money in this way?

Do we still have some of that pride?" Looking at the Federal Building, sensing the care with which it has been restored to our civic landscape, sharing the comforting sense of place its human scale and elegant materials evoke, the answer has to be "yes."

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