Beware the Ides of March

By staff March 1, 2008

Shakespeare’s famous line, warning Julius Caesar of the setup that cost him his life, might be running through the minds of the group hoping to save legendary architect Paul Rudolph’s iconic Riverview High School buildings when they go before the Sarasota County School Board on March 15 to present their Riverview Music Quadrangle project. Could it be that they will suffer an analogous fate at the hands of those who do not share their vision of the way a cultural treasure from the past can enrich the future?

The group, an alliance of the Three Rs (Revive Rudolph’s Riverview) and the Sarasota Architectural Foundation, has been charged with the weighty task of convincing the authorities that not only can the Rudolph campus be renovated, but also that doing so will not cost the district anything in time and treasure. Time is important because work on the new Riverview High School is already underway and cannot be delayed; treasure counts because the project must be completely neutral financially, paid for by sources to be presented to the board and approved by them.

Do these criteria seem virtually impossible to achieve? Could they be set up to guarantee failure? Those thoughts do cross my mind, and the convoluted history of this crusade seems to confirm my doubts. The fate of the Rudolph buildings, constructed in 1958 during the heyday of the Sarasota School of Architecture, has been bubbling away in the background since at least 2002, when analysis of the need for a new school began. In 2004, Superintendent of Schools Gary Norris responded to a recommendation from the review architects that the original structures should be preserved and incorporated in the new school by stating flatly that the new Riverview would be just that—completely new. Nothing said since then would indicate a change of heart.

Planning for the new school buildings and demolition of the Rudolph campus moved forward, despite negative reactions from the Sarasota County History Center, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, all of which recommended preservation. Prominent architects and architectural historians around the world joined the chorus, but in June 2006, the school board voted to demolish the original campus. In October, Superintendent Norris declared that he considered the new design to be a “homage to Paul Rudolph” and promised a plaque in the lobby to commemorate the original.

That may have been the last straw, for immediately thereafter, advocates for preservation shifted into high gear. Charles Gwathmey, whose New York firm is in charge of restoring Rudolph’s famous Yale University School of Architecture building, visited the campus and praised it as a key work of modernist architecture, and renowned New Urbanist Andres Duany warned that Sarasotans would be called “barbarians” by the rest of the world if the campus were torn down.

Bubbling advocacy came to a boil in early 2007, when the Save Riverview group forged an agreement with the school board to invite the National Trust for Historic Preservation to conduct a workshop assessing the rehabilitation/adaptive reuse potential of the buildings. At the same time, Riverview School was named to the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Sites. Announcing their agreement to participate in the workshop, the school board repeated its stern warning that the process could in no way impede construction of the new campus.

To everyone’s surprise (and to the discomfort of some), the workshops resulted in a concept that could save the Rudolph buildings as part of the new campus. The preservation group moved forward, working with the World Monument Fund, to organize an international competition for the project. Metropolis Magazine produced a strong video documentary, Site Specific: The History of Regional Modernism, which centered on the Riverview buildings and became part of the case being built by Save Riverview and the Sarasota Architectural Foundation. Money was raised, requests for proposals were sent around the world, the World Monument Fund provided financial support through its “Modernism at Risk” program, and private donors contributed matching funds.

Time being of the essence, the group, now dubbed “Reviving Rudolph’s Riverview” (3Rs), worked with the architectural foundation to recruit a distinguished jury to judge the incoming proposals. Meanwhile, the board kept reminding everyone that the jury’s recommendation would be just that—a non-binding recommendation—and that the plan must cost the district nothing and have no impact on any of the myriad aspects of the new construction, parking, drainage, environmental issues and neighborhood impact. Talk about Mission Impossible! Or is this Catch-22?

On Nov. 17 of last year, four qualified proposals were presented to the jury. Seibert Architects, RMJ M Hillier with Diane Lewis Architect, and Beckelman+Capalino presented the proposal that the jury finally chose, the Riverview Music Quadrangle. This plan would rehabilitate the original buildings as a regional and international music center with practice rooms, classrooms, performance spaces and residential facilities. It would establish Sarasota as a center for music studies and provide improved facilities for the Perlman Music Program and, it is hoped, such programs as the National Youth Orchestra and the Juilliard Opera Studio. The campus could also be used by teaching festivals such as the Sarasota Music Festival.

The school board has agreed to review the Music Quadrangle at its meeting this month, scheduled for that resonant date, March 15. At the school board’s Dec. 11 workshop, members again stressed that this ambitious and visionary plan must somehow be provided to the school district and the community at absolutely no cost and with virtually no impact on the neighborhood. In case anyone missed the point, board member Frank Kovach made more than one suggestion that the group “bring a check” to the March meeting.

Make no mistake, this is worthwhile endeavor. It could enhance Sarasota’s reputation as a center for the arts while saving landmark buildings that are key to our threatened architectural heritage. It could also show how visionary architecture can stimulate creativity in other fields. The Rudolph buildings are still ahead of their time in environmental impact and sustainability. As such, they could be an exciting and appropriate cradle for a long-awaited surge in new music from Sarasota.

Mark Smith, AIA, one of the leaders of the efforts to save Riverview, cautions that the dance will not be over until it’s proved beyond doubt that the preservation alliance cannot satisfy all the requirements established by the school board. If that should happen, says Smith, he will take reluctant comfort in the knowledge that the group’s efforts were undertaken with imagination and in good faith. As for me, I sincerely hope that my fear that the final round in this long contest might be like the welcome the Roman Senators gave poor old Julius on March 15, 44 B.C., will prove to be unfair and unfounded.

Architecture and music critic Richard Storm has won a number of awards for this column, including from the Florida Magazine Association and South Florida’s Society of Professional Journalists. 

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