The architect I.M. Pei, who passed away this week at 102 years old, is best known for works like the Pyramide du Louvre at the Louvre Museum in Paris, or the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. But he also had a very specific Sarasota connection: in September 1963, he was hired to design the campus of the just-founded New College of Florida. The college accepted its first class of students in 1964.
The project wasn't easy for Pei. The month he was hired, he told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, “New College is the greatest challenge I have ever faced.” Financial problems eventually forced Pei to resign from the project, but not before he completed the campus' residence halls.
Initially, Pei wanted to knock down the Charles Ringling Mansion—also known as College Hall—so the dormitories could sit on the New College bayfront; it's rumored that he also wanted the buildings to be on stilts. Building east of U.S. 41 was a last resort.
The first of the three Pei-designed residence halls opened in 1965. Still in use today, the dorms can house more than 250 students in double and triple-occupancy rooms, each with a private bathroom. The outdoor Palm Court, around which the rooms are grouped, features 24 royal palm trees and is a focal point of student life. Rooms measure approximately 15 feet by 15 feet, and some have covered porches or large balconies. The buildings’ clustered construction, communal spaces and orientation around Palm Court afford a strong sense of community.
But apparently not everyone was keen on Pei's designs, at least in the beginning: In December 1965, New College's student newspaper, the Catalyst, published a piece saying that the architect was reportedly disappointed with the response to his dorm designs since only one student sent him a letter of praise.