Vintage image of the Scott Building soon after its completion in 1961.
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Set on a sparkling bay, Sarasota is a vibrant Gulf Coast city awash in sugar-white sands and palm tree-shaded streets. The destination is decades away from its former reputation as a slumbering beach town, known more today for its flourishing arts scene than its popsicle-hued sunsets. It is also recognized for its adventurous architectural spirit — home to world-famous examples of the Sarasota School of Architecture movement, which includes structures built in the mid-20th century by such legendary architects as Ralph Twitchell, Paul Rudolph, William Rupp, Tim Seibert, Mark Hampton and more. For this reason, Sarasota has an architectural past worth preserving and a future worth fighting for.
Cynthia Peterson, the chair of the board of directors at the Center for Architecture Sarasota, is an ardent champion of the city's valuable architectural legacy. So, when the downtown Scott Building — designed by Sarasota School architects William Rupp and Joseph Farrell in 1959 — became rundown, she knew it was time to step in. Designed as a furniture showroom for the Barkus Furniture Company, the building is one of the city's last surviving commercial buildings by Rupp and Farrell, who were commissioned by the structure's original owner Clarence Scott. The single-story commercial structure was designed in the International Style. Its distinct mid-century features; flat roof, open floor plan, beautifully sculpted overhangs and sweeping terrazzo floors, were almost unrecognizable after years of changing hands and deferred maintenance.
Not only did Cynthia hope to revitalize it, she envisioned it as an educational environment for aspiring architects. "I didn't want to just renovate a building," she says. "I wanted to educate a community."
Cynthia's husband is prominent modernist Guy Peterson, principal architect of the Sarasota architectural firm Guy Peterson Office for Architecture. Guy is currently a professor at the University of Florida (UF) School of Architecture, which had expressed a desire for a satellite graduate center in Sarasota. It was a perfect match: Sarasota County would lease the building to UF for its CityLab-Sarasota, a master's degree program in architecture.
Returning a mid-century modern gem to its original glory — and then reincarnating it as a learning laboratory for students to study architecture and the tenets of the Sarasota School movement is a huge victory for preservation in its own right. It's also one of those stories that comes full circle, leaving you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. But wait, it gets better. Sarasota County stipulated that the building also needed to make a connection with the immediate community. Thus, Cynthia, along with a small coalition of like-minded professionals, formed the Center for Architecture Sarasota (CFA) — an organization that is dedicated to promoting the preservation of the city's rich architectural heritage and encouraging innovative new design. The CFA would share the space with the University of Florida. "We're touching the past, present and future with one building," Cynthia says. In other words, it was a win, win, win.
However, they were up against a long road of renovations. Joseph Farrell, one of the original architects, is now living and working in Hawaii, so Cynthia contacted him and asked if he would consult with them on the project as legacy architect. He agreed. Rupp passed away in 2002, but his daughter found the original drawings of the Scott Building in her basement and sent them to Cynthia to assist with the revamp. In keeping with a true community center, the CFA also hosted a collaborative design charrette that brought together 14 local architects and landscape architects to come up with the most architecturally sensitive solution for the building.
Guy Peterson's office took on the renovation pro bono. His team, led by associate architect, Damien Blumetti, reconfigured the space to address the needs of the new tenants while preserving the architectural and design characteristics of the building. This included salvaging the terrazzo floors, where possible, and removing the drop ceiling to expose the original 10' high concrete-beam ceiling. The original layout featured four offices (including the office of William Rupp), so they relocated these offices to the east end of the UF side, incorporating a work area for staff and conference room for faculty. They also added a concrete overlay on the UF side to contrast with the existing terrazzo on the south end of the building. In the center, they moved one wall forward to accommodate a large lecture hall that will serve as shared space between UF and the CFA. The remaining half of the building was transformed into a gallery in the front and a rear conference area for CFA meetings. The team enlisted architectural lighting designer Thomas Paterson of Mexico City-based Lux Populi to run museum-quality lighting throughout the space. Outdoors, they restored the original lighting.
The renovations were finalized late last month, just in time for the gala celebration on March 28 when the Scott Building reopened as the McCulloch Pavilion, named for its benefactor Nathalie McCulloch. Fittingly, the gallery's inaugural exhibition featured the work and legacy of original architect Joseph Farrell. The event marked both a happy ending and bright new beginning for the building.
Its next chapter is set to begin in August, when the first wave of graduate students arrives. "The UF CityLab will bring a whole new dynamic to our community," Cynthia says. "I think it will be so exciting to drive by and see the lights on at night and students working inside." The structure has also been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.
Preservation not only shapes a city, it determines its future. It is Cynthia's hope that the story of the Scott Building will encourage others to value the city's significant architecture and conserve it for future generations. "We hope to fundamentally change the dialogue on the built environment in our community," she says. "This puts advocacy into action."