Setting the Stage

By staff October 1, 2005

Perhaps it's the Ringling circus heritage speaking, but Sarasota has always had a theatrical allure for me. I'm old enough to remember going to rehearsals at the Winter Quarters, agog at the trapeze artists and the animals, thrilled to watch the circus train arrive and depart. My family lined Main Street for the parade scene in De Mille's epic The Greatest Show on Earth, our movie debut.

The interior courtyard dining room at the John Ringling Towers Hotel, too, was an exciting stage set, populated with both ordinary mortals and show business stars. We played in the perilous ruins of the unfinished Ritz-Carlton at the south tip of Longboat Key, a magic castle if ever there was one. And the Lido Casino was pure Hollywood, a sleek setting that seemed always to promise Esther Williams on the diving board and Ricardo Montalban on the dance floor.

Although little remains of the atmosphere created by those late and lamented icons of our jazzy past, we do have the outrageously theatrical Ringling home, Cà' d'Zan, a "Venetian Gothic" fantasy, paired with the severely Tuscan facade of the Ringling Museum, floating at the end of its long approach drive like a painted backdrop, inviting a peek at the lavish follies inside, a terrific peep show.

Perhaps this predilection for creating theatrical settings, coupled to some uncontrolled nostalgia for past glamour, has tempted our developers to add layers of stagecraft to much of the construction which is sprouting all over the area. We've pointed out new buildings that display their owner's choice of a "Mediterranean Revival" vocabulary, a choice that too often leads to the meaningless and distracting application of styrofoam and stucco elements to a basic concrete shell. Fortunately, there have been a few important exceptions to this cheesy trend; we will review them in a future column.

More startling, perhaps, has been the recent vogue of dolling up existing buildings as they are converted to new use. Three of these are notable, highly visible and unapologetically theatrical; one is simply amazing, the other two are just on the edge of parody-one of them amusing, the other way over the top.

Let's start with amazing: The Homewood Suites hotel on Fruitville Road, just west of the Beneva intersection. For years, we've been wondering what would be the fate of a failed housing scheme built of prefabricated units, piled on each other like a children's game. As they sat, forlorn and neglected in their empty lot, they came more and more to resemble a pile of enormous trailers dropped there by a tsunami.

Suddenly, they began to show signs of ownership, signs of a new life to come. As they were spruced up, they acquired "Spanish" architectural elements, including cornices, columns, medallions, towers and rhythmic roof lines. The process was fascinating at first, moving quickly into the realm of astonishing.

What has been created is a fantasy village, built around a central plaza in which the swimming pool is located, well landscaped and raffishly charming. It may seem to be a permanent Potemkin village, but it's so self-confident that it wins one over. If the nearby fairgrounds are ever redeveloped along the lines recently proposed, that stretch of the Fruitville gateway will truly bring a strong whiff of circus back to our increasingly dignified and self-important town. Amazing, yes, and encouraging in its brash energy and the nerve to save the unsalvageable.

Whimsy may have influenced the renovation of an old car dealership, most recently a drab call center, on Ringling Boulevard at School Avenue. The Ringling address is appropriate, as this building now boasts almost every stock item in the Med-Rev theatrical catalogue, including more medallions, window arches, the obligatory tower and tile roof. The colors are amusing, ranging from the usual ochre to sprightly white and burgundy accents. Given its position near a Checkers restaurant and the county jail, opposite the severe but not unpleasant mass of the Health Department, Courthouse Square brings a welcome bit of circus flair to a rather bureaucratic neighborhood.

Whimsy doesn't begin to describe the makeover given to a quietly handsome former printing plant on South Orange Avenue, near Ringling Boulevard but way beyond what even the old circus magnate would have approved in terms of showbiz taste. Here we see elements from an architectural catalogue of cute accessories stuck on the building like costume jewelry, including swags, plaques, columns and urns. It seems that, faced with a huge menu of these elements, those in charge chose a few of each, regardless of their compatibility.

Think Victorian garden folly, goose your sense of humor and be grateful there are no plastic flamingos at the Orange Dolphin Galleria. Yet.

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