Practical Magic

By staff November 1, 2003

George Palermo has a reputation around town as a practical fellow. His buildings are efficient, both in the design/build process and in their operation. Not for him, apparently, the Fountainhead glamour of beautiful but nearly impossible to build architecture. A Palermo building responds to the needs of the client in the most direct ways, the result of brief but high-intensity planning conferences and a tight timeline for realization of the project. While that approach may have led to some unexceptional buildings early in his career, his more recent work shows spirit and originality.

Palermo came to Southwest Florida in the most pragmatic way possible: He followed the good weather. Freshly graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in architecture, he was offered three jobs, one in New York City, one in Washington, D.C., and one in Tampa. When he got to New York, it was snowing; in Washington, he found sleet; in Tampa, sun and sea breezes. "Easy," says Palermo. "I chose Florida and have never regretted it." After seven years of working for others, many of them spent designing school buildings, Palermo started his own firm in 1976. In a typical year, the firm creates up to 150 projects, many more than most firms of this size.

Such a workload can encourage cookie-cutter architecture, but in designing his own headquarters in 2001, Palermo broke free. The Palermo firm's building at 100 N. Washington Blvd., near the Fruitville Road downtown gateway intersection, is an interesting take on contemporary design, combining post-modern whimsy with the solid presence of a corporate center. Standing boldly right at the sidewalk line and thus helping to define the streetscape, the building offers its main entrance to the passer-by in a most friendly manner, allowing a glimpse of the sleek lobby beyond the trademark spiral columns.

Parking is placed behind the building, where it should be in a downtown location. On the third floor, Palermo's offices are (you guessed it) both pragmatic and fanciful. The open plan, divided only by the occasional low partition or divider, takes full advantage of the flood of natural light and the soaring, low arches of the roofline. Efficiency is served by centralized computer wiring and the use of exterior building materials on the inside walls. A visitor is both charmed and impressed, taking note that there are seriously amusing people at work here.

In an area full of medical facilities, some of them housed in structures of enormous banality, it's good to find some modernist angularity in the offices of Suncoast Orthotics on Hillview Street, at the heart of a trendy neighborhood containing some very odd architecture, much of it a Hollywood version of so-called "Mediterranean Revival" style. Palermo's design, with its bold white thrust, provides a welcome antidote to the theatrical facades

in the neighborhood and was remarkably ahead of its time in Sarasota terms. Given its strong impact, it is surprising to learn that this building dates from 1997.

Palermo has also made an impact in Lakewood Ranch, the site of his headquarters for Lee Wetherington Homes and the Neal Communities corporate offices. Poised to be a new city away from the coastal development that has been traditional here, Lakewood Ranch is a mix of residential and commercial buildings aimed at the mobile younger population, those who feel their needs are not met by the old urban centers. The "downtown" core is filling in nicely, starting with the usual mix of banks, dry cleaners, restaurants and supermarkets. A strict architectural code seeks to restrain speculative building and architectural excess by mandating proportions that are primarily horizontal and of human scale; colors and materials are also subject to review, aiming to create a homogeneous impression of friendly livability, the sense of "home town." So far at least, the resulting construction is pleasant, if not groundbreaking.

Fortunately, Palermo's headquarters for Wetherington Homes and Neal Communities employ the code in more graceful ways, taking an updated "Old Florida" look as the basis for functional low-rise office buildings, substantial and reassuring in their use of good materials and solid construction, pleasing in their human scale. Palermo built both the athletic club and the tennis center in Lakewood Ranch Country Club, and they also share the attention to proportion and operational detail that characterize his best work.

Palermo's new fanciful efficiency, his secure blending of the practical and imaginative sides of his trade, also enlivens the new medical offices of Dr. Jose Antunes on Fruitville Road. The building resembles the retro table radio seen in the third-floor elevator lobby of the nearby Palermo headquarters building, with a gently bowed facade on the street side and simple rectangles elsewhere. What brings on the head-turning (tricky in Fruitville Road's traffic) is the geometric tile mosaic facing the street. The tilted grid of tiles, in strong green, yellow and purple, is positively cheerful, not the sort of thing one associates with a visit to the doctor. The same grid is repeated in panels on the parking lot side and-a deft touch-the colors are carried inside to accent walls in the consulting rooms.

If this is pragmatism, keep it coming, George. 

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