A Visit to Ave Maria

By staff April 1, 2008

“Where am I? I must have missed it! What a crazy idea, anyway, to build a new city in the middle of the tomato fields...have I missed the turn-off? What is Oil Well Road, anyway?”

Such thoughts raced through my head on my first trip to Ave Maria, the brand-new time that is rising northeast of Naples in rural Collier County. After I left I-75 and turned east on Immokalee Road, dense new development soon gave way to long stretches of empty pavement with power lines marching to the horizon. It all seemed oddly Fellini-esque. (Remember those desolate late-night scenes on streets out in the Roman ‘burbs?)

A couple of gas station inquiries later, the intersection with Oil Well Road finally appeared, leading to a journey down a die-straight line, past occasional houses, some schools and miles of tomato stakes, this time Hitchcockian. No sign of life. No sign of Ave Maria. More muttering.

Wait! There it is, a turn across an Italianate bridge on to a beautifully landscaped road, gently curved and perfectly groomed, skirting wetland restoration zones and signs indicating the sites of future pharmacies, gas stations and subdivisions. And then, suddenly, a glimpse of a soaring roof, vaguely Gothic, more turns and, wonder of wonders, the center of town, a European piazza, generous and oval, flanked by a curving line of buildings in a gently Tuscan style, framing a massive ecclesiastical building, the Oratory, which soars above its platform in enormous arches over a travertine-sheathed base. Facing this urban configuration and stretching toward a lake is the central quadrangle of Ave Maria University, which, like the town, was founded by Domino’s Pizza creator and Roman Catholic philanthropist Tom Monaghan.

In a gesture surely without precedent in our time, Monaghan and his partners, the Barron Collier Companies, have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Monaghan’s dream: a city built around a new university and responsive to the precepts of smart growth in its preservation of open space and sensitive wetlands. The town will feature a mix of civic and business uses and a broad range of housing types. Monaghan charged EDAW, the town’s master planner and co-planner/landscape architect of the university campus, to create a plan that would meet the business requirements of real estate development while attracting other land uses beyond the typical bedroom community so often seen in Florida.

The layout of Ave Maria is a model of controlled growth, locating compact and walkable neighborhoods close to the town center and the university campus but away from the wetland system and wildlife habitat. As a result, an arc of interconnected streets and roads is linked with service alleys and ungated parks, open to all. Future plans include residential areas at various price points, as well as hotels, restaurants and retail, from groceries to art galleries.

Truthfully, the residential areas now being built by such well-known developers as Del Webb and DiVosta Homes are not of particular architectural interest, tending toward the familiar Med-Rev style. An area of affordable town houses has some potential, probably because of the simplicity of their tight-budget architecture. Everywhere, however, you see a sense of community symbolized by features seldom seen in new developments: open garage doors, owners chatting over hedges and children biking the streets.

Around the piazza are signs of life as shops and restaurants begin to occupy the ground floors of the mixed-use buildings, with the balconies of apartments above office floors gradually filling up with plants and terrace furniture. Between my first and second visits, two months apart, an interesting coffee shop, The Bean of Ave Maria, opened, providing a generous terrace facing the Oratory for the espresso and muffin crowd of visitors and students. (Oddly enough, there doesn’t seem to be any pizza in town yet.)

The focus of the town—and clearly the founder’s dream—is Ave Maria University. Given the mixed success of new academic construction around Sarasota, it’s an enormous relief to see the architecture of this institution, destined to accommodate 6,000 students in the future and already serving several hundred. Chicago-based Monaghan is a lifelong admirer of the work of iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Prairie Style architecture has found a new expression in these buildings by Cannon Design.

Monaghan has said this project “is all about roofscapes and landscapes,” a concept that has found stunning expression in the six buildings already completed. Low, strongly horizontal, they stretch away from the town center, flanking a terraced green mall, leading the eye to the lake and future campus sites. Wide roof overhangs and rich copper roofing seem to be at home amid the large live and laurel oaks that are planted throughout the campus and the bands of native grasses which curve gently around the buildings. Palm trees are notably absent; this is a Midwestern landscape by design.

The largest buildings, the library and the student union, are nothing short of amazing: rich in detail, generous in space and advanced in technology. The library, friendly and intimate despite its 96,000 square feet of space, includes study areas and lounges around the central stacks. The student union, of similar size, shelters a dining hall that rivals many upscale restaurants in its handsome decor and functionality. A café in the courtyard and a terrace on the lake, as well as various meeting spaces, complete the design.

Handsome and tranquil as the campus is, nothing can match the impact of the Oratory on the visitor. Incomplete during my first visit, it was hard to read during a noisy hard-hat tour, but clearly impressive. My second visit, however, revealed a substantially complete and functional building. In fact, a lecture/demonstration of Gregorian chanting was underway when I entered, bathing me in an acoustical wash of rich sound as the music floated up to massive steel arches soaring 100 feet high over a nave of nearly 25,000 square feet. A balcony over the west portal will eventually hold a large pipe organ and choir stalls near the rose window; an altar will dominate the east wall. No doubt about it, this is a major piece of contemporary religious architecture, also by the Cannon firm.

At completion, Ave Maria will hold 11,000 dwelling units, 1.3 million square feet of commercial space and 6,000 students within 5,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land, all served by roads, streets and other infrastructure services that meet the standards of the Rural Land Stewardship Area model.

Critics are supposed to be open-minded, but I’ll admit I was skeptical about Ave Maria. It was easy to scoff before actually visiting the site, making silly comments about the name of the place and the amount of pizza that financed it. But Ave Maria was a revelation. I’m grateful I made the journey and pleased to eat my humble (pizza) pie.

Architecture and music critic Richard Storm has won awards for this column from the Florida Magazine Association and South Florida's Society of Professional Journalism.

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