For a fraction of cost to taxpayers of a replacement performing arts center, Sarasota can update and protect its iconic purple presenting hall, and add free indoor and outdoor cultural & leisure spaces at The Bay Park.
On July 17, the Sarasota City Commission selected the 7 members of an all-star panel that will explore the future of the organically modern, remarkably memorable purple theater that Carl Abbott, FAIA, called “Sarasota’s icon” – the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. They are (drumroll please):
The ad hoc panel has ALL the Wright stuff to study financial and environmental sustainability of continued presenting hall use, or adaptive re-use, of the cultural “Crown Jewel of Sarasota Bay“.
Thank you everyone who participated in sharing the community’s wealth of knowledge about the hall, including prior engineering and market research, and came to the conclusion we think the panel will: Sarasota should cherish, polish, and protect the unique bayside theater that put the city on the map as the capital of Florida’s culture coast:
The proposed Sarasota Performing Arts Center is based on the misconception that we need added seating capacity to compete with Tampa (which has had the largest performing arts center in the Southeast for the last 35 years).
As the Van Wezel Foundation's own 2016 AMS market analysis explained, the touring industry works on regional blackouts, and we can't solve the geographic market constraint of proximity to a metropolis by adding more seats.
There is no reason Sarasota’s unique, acclaimed, landmark Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall can’t continue to delight audiences for another 50 years.
Built in 1968, the “Crown Jewel of Sarasota Bay is an architectural landmark and a cultural treasure.
It is world’s only purple seashell-shaped theater.
Renowned for his innovative organic structures, Van Wezel architect William Wesley Peters holds a vital place in the history of 20th Century American architecture.
According to Van Wezel Director Mary Bensel, there have been many studies of theater seating conducted for ADA (American for Disabilities Act) compliance, and Continental seating is the safest.
In fact, according to fire marshall tests, the Van Wezel empties faster than most halls of its size due to the exit doors near each row and exterior staircases.Continental seating offers the best unobstructed stage views for everyone, which is why storied theaters—like Sydney’s opera house, and Clearwater’s Taliesin-designed 2,190 seat Ruth Eckerd Hall—also use it.
The misnomer driving the SPAC initiative is the idea that if we had a bigger hall, with more seats, we could get bigger acts to perform here, rather than Tampa. Decades worth of operating history suggest this premise is flawed because of our geographic proximity to the largest performing arts hall in the southeast.
For first-run touring Broadway (which is the #1 draw and desire of the patrons surveyed by the Van Wezel Foundation), Tampa blocks Clearwater, St. Pete, and Sarasota from booking the most popular shows. As the performing arts center for a metropolis, the Straz Center has enforced these blackouts for the last 35 years, and will continue to do so – even if will build a purple people seater with a billion seats.
There are breakpoints in the touring industry for halls with 2,000+ seats vs. those smaller (like the Van Wezel, which has 1,741), but there appears to be nothing we could book if we had 2,200 seats which Tampa would not block.
A look at the 2022 Broadway touring schedule demonstrates that Ft. Myers, which, like Sarasota, has a theater with under 2,000 seats, can book some of the shows Sarasota can’t, because Ft. Myers is outside of Tampa’s 90 mile blackout radius:
A state-of-the-art Meyer speaker array and a Yamaha digital sound console were added in 2010, and based on Trip Advisor and Google reviews, most patrons and performers are pleased with the Van Wezel’s sound quality.
It is true that the sound quality suffered for orchestral purposes when the tower was added in the 1990s to support the larger sets of touring Broadway.
An orchestral shell was added to the Van Wezel which addressed most of the concerns, but symphony music is best enjoyed in a shoebox shaped theater – which the Sarasota Orchestra’s new music hall on Fruitville will provide.
That bespoke music hall will also book touring musical acts in competition with the Van Wezel or any replacement for it.
In 2011, 25 seats were added, and bolt-on accessory cup-holders were installed, impeding navigation between rows and adding to the “stuck in traffic” feeling while waiting to exit at intermission.Patron comfort is important, and since the Van Wezel rarely sells out, consideration should be given to the remodeling plan commissioned by the city manager (to remove up to 200 seats and add two center aisles).
As it has since its inception, the Van Wezel continues to attract world-class performers like Harry Connick Jr., Josh Groban, Dolly Parton, and John Legend.
But, as we have for the last 35 years, we do have an immutable geographic constraint that prevent us (and St. Pete, and Clearwater, and every other city in a 90 mile radius from Tampa) from booking some shows.
Here’s what Van Wezel director Mary Bensel explained about how blackouts impact the touring industry…
“I’m going again to see the Hamilton producer. We’re always fighting for shows like that because The Straz in Tampa thinks that we’re the same marketplace.”
It’s not the same case with standard concerts and shows—it’s simpler and more successful. Bensel cites her great relationship with the management at Ruth Eckerd Hall and the Mahaffey Theater who have agreed not block each other from doing a show.
“That allows an artist such as Harry Connick Jr. or Josh Groban to play two shows in our area—one at Ruth Eckerd Hall and one at the Van Wezel.”
In other words – IF we build it (a larger hall), they (Hamilton) STILL won’t come to Sarasota if they can book at Tampa’s Straz.
That said, when you have a unique theater voted #1 in North America 6 times, you can command top talent. So here in Sarasota, we can continue to have our cake and eat it too!
Manifestly, Nature loves and continually seeks individuality. Nature places her premium upon it, resists and punishes the loss of it in the great fields of her glorious creations. If our artificial civilization as a way of life goes contrary to this diversity and does not learn the nature of it, does not learn secrets of becoming behavior and appropriate character, does not know the necessary change of form, then what is going to happen to us...Great art alone can prevent us from becoming spiritually paralyzed by standardizations, from being sterilized mechanical systems, losing the rich and potent sense of life...— Frank Lloyd Wright
The Wright Way– 4 principles of organic design
Buildings wedded to the site - not merely perched on the land.
Structural manipulation used to destroy the traditional "box".
Materials chosen to weather over time to reveal their true nature.
American architecture must express individuality and democracy.
Wright's Right Hand
Wright's chief protégé, William Wesley Peters, was described by Taliesin fellows as a "genius architect" in his own right. He was the chief designer of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Peters was Wright's first apprentice, son-in-law, and closest associate for 30 years.
William Wesley Peters was born June 12, 1912 in Terre Haute, Indiana to Clara Margredant Peters and newspaper editor Frederick Romer Peters. He attended Evansville College from 1927 to 1930, then studied engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1930 to 1931. In 1932 he became Frank Lloyd Wright’s first apprentice, establishing the Taliesin Fellowship.
"Wes" Peters, was an engineer as well as talented designer. Among other celebrated public buildings, he is credited with much of the structural design of the UNESCO World Heritage Wright masterpiece, Fallingwater, and the Guggenheim Museum.
Peters’ architecture possessed a highly distinctive style. From the dramatic and glamorous, to the intimate and inviting. A registered architect in 50 states, Guam and the United Kingdom, he designed more than 120 built projects.
Unequivocal Heir to Wright
William Wesley Peters (1921–1991), sometimes called "Wright's pencil in hand" also penned more than two dozen significant professional articles and was recognized throughout the international architectural community.
Peters’ heart seldom strayed far from Taliesin. He wore two watches: one set for Taliesin time and the other for his current time zone.
After Wright’s death in 1959, Peters became Chief Architect of Taliesin Architects and taught at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.
According to Wright scholar Jonathan Lipman, Peters played an enormous role in the development of modern architecture in America because he figured out how to build what Wright intuitively designed.
In 1985, after Wright's widow Olgivanna passed away, Wes Peters became Chairman of the Board of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation—a title recognizing his role as the unequivocal heir to the Wright legacy.
Peters was described as a chess player of tournament caliber. “He reads extensively and is regarded as one of the best informed men anywhere.”
Ultimately, Peters received three honorary PhDs: Honorary Doctor of Science (Evansville College, 1971), Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts (Center College of Kentucky, 1973), and Honorary Doctor of Architecture (Florida Southern College, 1989).
Taliesin architect Anthony Puttnam pointed out that many of Frank Lloyd Wright's basic architectural philosophies are clearly evident in the work his son-in-law created.
Peters based the design on natural forms, explaining “we wanted it to relate to the native seashell but didn't attempt to imitate the shell.”
It was designed based on the relationship to nature and with the site; "the roof based on a seashell, opening the building to views of Sarasota Bay, the dramatic interior spaces, and use of humble materials to achieve an unexpected richness. They all add up to a 'celebration of circumstance,' as Frank Lloyd Wright said of other designs."
Even the bold color evokes the seashell theme. The distinctive hue was chosen by Wright's widow Olgivanna, based on a seashell she found near the Sea of Japan. That seashell now is on display in the Van Wezel lobby.
Jørn Utzon, the 38-year-old architect who won the opera house design competition, was a Wright acolyte who reveled in the chance to meet his hero at Taliesin. His vision exceeded the grasp of physics, and after years of cost overruns, he was fired from the project and never saw the finished building. Architect Peter Hall completed the structure, including designing all of the interiors.
The signature "sails" of the original sketch for the striking roofline won over judges, but proved structurally unsound and unbuildable.
The project took a decade longer to build than expected due to constant engineering challenges and heated political debate over altered specifications, changed plans for its use and finance.
Largely funded through state lottery, the Sydney Opera House was budgeted at $7 million, and ended up costing $102 million. In today's dollars, that translates to $962 million Australian dollars, or about three quarters of a billion U.S. dollars.
The 1,000 room Sydney Opera House consists of a 2,664 seat concert hall, a 1,507 person theater with continental seating for dance and Broadway, 544 seat drama theater, a 398 seat cabaret, and a 364 seat playhouse.
Until its recent update, the Sydney Opera house was admired as art, but dysfunctional as a theater. A triumph of form over function, the acoustics were poor, the air conditioning horrible, and there were accessibility and circulation issues.
After extensive public debate, including discussions of abandoning the iconic structure to build a new one, Sydney fulfilled its civic promise to
renew the opera house for future generations. In July 2022, the Opera House completed extensive upgrades to the venue, totaling one fifth of the cost of the original construction.
Interior renovations were designed by the original architect and included improved acoustics for performers and patrons, enhanced access for people with mobility needs, state-of-the-art theatre machinery and staging systems, and a more flexible and safer working environment behind-the-scenes.
circus tentis not architecture - it is an
no other purpose than that of demonstrating the esthetic audacity of the designer.
I have made a sculpture.
You could say that he produced the shells. He was a sculptor. He was not an architect.
I don’t care what its costs. I don’t care what scandal it causes; I don’t care how long it takes, that is what I want.
With modern calculation tools, it has been possible to verify the poor structural design of the initial sails.
It has nothing to do with Opera or architecture whatever. It's not a building - it could be constructed with folded paper, or blown up with fabric.
The devil's work.
Wes Peters was Wright's "write hand". He was the Taliesin Group's lead architect for the biomemetic Van Wezel. He wore a purple tuxedo to the opening.
The design process commenced in 1968, and the hall was completed in 1970. Fittingly given its serrated lavender shell canopy, the first show was "Fiddler on the Roof".
Lewis and Eugene Van Wezel donated $400,000—about a quarter of the hall's total cost— to complete the structure.
The fan-shaped theater had 1,716 continental seats when it opened (25 were added in 2011).
Although complaining about Continental seating has been a neighborly bonding ritual for 52 years, the patrons and performers rate the hall highly because of the excellent sight lines, great acoustics for theatrical performances and amplified music, and ease of access to the theater.
When the City of Sarasota embarked on the first major renovation and expansion of the landmark theater in 2000, the $20 million dollar challenge was to bring it into the 21st century while preserving its architectural integrity.
The auditorium was renovated, with a much larger state-of-the-art stagehouse, accessibility improvements including elevators, and better public facilities. The Selby education center and administrative wing was added, and the Grand Foyer and lobbies were enlarged. Special measures were taken to protect the theater's superb acoustics, as well as the intimate feeling in the theater itself. The building became vastly more efficient and comfortable, while the iconic architecture remained intact.
In 2010, a state-of-the-art Meyer speaker array and a Yamaha digital sound console where added.
In 2011, 25 seats were added and the original seats were replaced (although patrons have complained that the seats lack the recline the prior ones had to enable easy passage in front of seated guests -a problem exacerbated by bolt-on aftermarket cupholders).
2013 saw the addition of the unique shade sails on the terrace, together with new furniture, fire pit, and landscaping.
In 2015 a new portable Wenger orchestra shell was installed on stage, which allows for enhanced acoustics and more flexible storage when large Broadway shows are presented, and the restrooms and foyer were redesigned and renovated.
Seal leaky Founder's Lounge door. Redecorate the Green Room. Replace the roof every 20 years because Florida....
Shells are built for water! The only damage the Van Wezel suffered when Hurricane Ian's 100 mph winds hit Sarasota Bay was the loss of a letter from the sign. Paint-on weather seal to 15' storm surge height.
Upgrade analog lighting console to digital.
The new seats don't recline as much, and bolt-on cupholders were added, impeding navigation. Consider replacing & reconfiguring seating.
Put in storm glass. Anchor against storm surge. Replace slabs in foyer and basement. Install exterior berms or floodwall.
The 2007 master plan for the bay contemplated up to 3 cultural arts buildings: 1) the Van Wezel for presenting Broadway & variety 2) a new concert hall for the Sarasota Orchestra, and 3) new theater for The Players and other local arts groups.
With The Players moving to Payne Park auditorium and Sarasota Orchestra building a new music hall on Fruitville, and the Van Wezel in good working condition, operating profitably, and booking greats shows, it seems reasonable to ask of the SPAC vision...why?
We are grandchildren of Lewis Van Wezel, whose generous donation to the city led to the creation of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, which has made Sarasota an arts mecca.
We were shocked to learn that the city had entered into an agreement authorizing an entity known as the Sarasota Performing Arts Center to make unilateral decisions that will undermine the ability of the Van Wezel to carry out its mission as a venue for the performing arts in Sarasota.
As the descendants of Lewis Van Wezel, we share the concerns expressed by Georgia Court in her recent guest column regarding the detrimental impact of this agreement on the city and its arts community. However, we have additional concerns about the matter that are specific to our family legacy.
First, we are concerned about the decision-making process that led to this abrupt determination regarding the Van Wezel's fate. The lack of transparency throughout this process offends responsible stewardship, and it offends the legacy of philanthropy and public service that our grandfather’s example represents.
To justify its $350 million-plus plan to replace the Van Wezel, the Sarasota Performing Arts Center has exaggerated and distorted the deficits of the facility and the practical potential of overcoming them.
For example, a leading urban entertainment economist consultant retained has determined that the Van Wezel still has plenty of life. After $20 million was invested to update the hall, it now has a state-of-the-art sound system and other amenities to attract the productions it presents.
Moreover, the Van Wezel’s vulnerability to climate change will be no greater than that of the proposed replacement performing arts center on The Bay.
These considerations must be urgently addressed by the city government and the philanthropic community –not only to save the Van Wezel's legacy, but to ensure that Sarasota and its citizens do not pursue an unnecessary and grandiose project that could endanger Sarasota’s financial solvency.
The proposed construction of a new performing arts center on the bayfront – a venue that would replace the existing Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall – is worrisome in many ways. But there are two concerns in particular that stand out to me:
The first problem with the planned arts center is clearly its staggering cost. During a recent Sarasota City Commission, I watched with amazement as the estimated price tag for the new venue – $350 million – was bandied about as though it was a token amount. It was also astonishing to hear the Van Wezel Foundation, which is pushing for the new center, suggest that it would be a piece of cake to raise such an enormous sum.
Never mind that when Sarasota recently agreed to spend some $20 million to reimagine the Bobby Jones Golf Course, the city commission members swallowed hard before approving that expenditure – and this was after years of debate and consideration. And never mind that if the foundation’s fundraising goes awry, the city might need to cut services to pay for the new arts center.
Yet another concern about this proposal is how it has led the city to turn its back on the Van Wezel legacy, even to the point of agreeing to the foundation's insistence on renaming the planned facility and erasing the family's link. In fact, the Van Wezel Foundation itself is being rebranded as the Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation, which also downplays the Van Wezel's enormous contribution to our city.
The city currently controls and operates all aspects of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. But with the blessing of the city commission, both the existing site and the new arts center would be controlled by the Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation, which has no experience in managing facilities.
And here’s the kicker: the foundation would prevent the existing Van Wezel hall from competing with the new performing arts center for concerts, theater shows or any other events. So if the foundation has its way, there would be no future role for the Van Wezel as we now know it.
Let's get one thing out of the way: No, it does not have a center aisle. That is the most commonly heard complaint regarding the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. In many visits to the hall over the years, I don’t recall muttering to myself, “If only this place had a center aisle.”
Instead, I, and many of its 265,000 visitors a year, have marveled at the beauty of this nearly 50-year-old building. Its completion was seen as a landmark in Sarasota’s history. In fact, contemporary Sarasota really began with the construction of this building.
If any single structure represents Sarasota’s cultural stature and architectural heritage, it is the Van Wezel.
From the beginning, its color and shape (both based on seashells) prompted locals to dub it “the Purple Cow” and “the Purple People-Seater.” Its prominence on the bay shore made its architecture hard to miss for motorists on the John Ringling Bridge, although the addition of sail-shaped shades on the hall’s western terrace in 2013 did nothing to enhance that view, and, in fact, partially blocked it.
However, the 1,741-seat Van Wezel’s future has been the cause of discussion as the Bayfront 20:20 group envisions a master plan for 42 acres of city-owned land on the bay north of downtown. Some people believe the building has outlived its usefulness and must be replaced. Others recognize its landmark status, the efforts made by the city and hall management to renovate and update the structure in the past two decades, and believe it should be an important part of a revitalized bayfront.
The designer, William Wesley Peters (1912-1991) had a notable pedigree. He was Frank Lloyd Wright’s protégé, helping him design the famous Fallingwater residence in Pennsylvania and the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
In addition to being a talented designer and loyal member of Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship, he was Wright's first apprentice. In 1932, he married Wright’s daughter, Svetlana. She was the daughter of Wright’s third wife, Olgivanna.
It was Olgivanna who selected the Van Wezel’s color, which duplicates the color of a shell she found near the Sea of Japan. That shell is on display in the hall’s lobby.
Our people had a right to demand a concert hall worth of a community which prided itself as Florida's "City of the Arts". Commissioner David Cohen listened and, with the Allied Arts Council to back him up, he spearheaded a movement to build a performing arts center of which we could be proud.
Architect for the project was William Wesly Peters, vice-president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation director of Taliesin Associates. Mr. Peters was a man of vision, and his proposal gripped the imagination of those who had anything to say about plans for the new building. Sarasota already had a history of encouraging originality in architecture. At one time, we could boast of a colony of experimental young architects, whom we loosely chose to call "The Sarasota School of Architecture". As for Wesley Peters. he was the heir-apparent to the reputation of the eminent Frankly Lloyd Wright.
As the building began to take shape, Wesley Peters explained that "the form of the design has been influenced by the simple but complex world of the seashell. Broad sloping roofs, themselves deep and richly serrated shells, colored with the pale iridescence of the chambered nautilus, enwrap the building and extend down to form vertical walls and screens."
Then there was the color—purple. A lot of people were upset by it. They began calling the structure "The Purple Cow" and "The Purple People Seater". They were even more horrified to find out that it was purple inside as well as out. There were even a few acres of lavender carpet in the halls too. The color, it was said, was the choice of the widow of Frank Lloyd Wright. She was still the dominating influence, the queen bee, at Taliesin. Her purple inspiration, so the story goes, was suggested by the purple dye secreted by the murex, a gastropod dweller of warm tropical seas, sought by the ancients to color the garments of royalty. In the front lobby of the Van Wezel purple shells are on display which are said to have been the inspiration for the design of the hall; and, indeed, there is a decided resemblance. Not Gulf of Mexico shells, these, however. They come from the south seas. In spite of the community's strong objections to the color, how soon we got used to it, and there are many today who swear they love it and would have it no other way.
The eager public attending the grand opening was impressed by the great curve of seats set in ascending rows with unobstructed sight lines, the absence of aisles, and the easy access by means of the nine entrances from the corridors on either side of the auditorium. Purple was everywhere, in all of its various aspects, from pale lavender to deepest violet. And there was the chief architect himself, arrayed in a magnificent purple tuxedo, if you will, especially made for the occasion.
Aside from the construction of the Ringling Museum and Ca’ d’Zan, it’s likely that no building has transformed Sarasota as much as the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
Beyond making purple both the most popular and the most hated color in this arts-focused community, the Van Wezel opened up a world of entertainment such as the Sarasota had never seen.
Luciano Pavarotti, Leonard Bernstein, Ella Fitzgerald, Ringo Starr, Marian Anderson, and Josh Groban are among the major stars who have filled the hall since its glittery opening night on Jan. 5, 1970.
It was the talk of the town during construction as its unique clam-shell like roof began to take shape and when its distinctive purple color covered the outer and inner walls, It was quickly dubbed the “Purple Cow” and the “Purple People-Seater.”
The hall elevated Sarasota to the ranks of much bigger cities.
“We had a performing arts hall before Tampa and St. Petersburg and Clearwater. We were on the cutting edge of architecture,” recalled Charlie Huisking, a former features reporter for the Herald-Tribune, who grew up in Sarasota. “There weren’t entertainment possibilities like the Van Wezel provided anywhere.”
Peggy Wilhelm remembers the gala opening night, when she wore a gown as close to the building’s shade of purple as she could find.
“People were dressed in their fanciest attire,” she said. “It was a lovely evening. It was certainly special for this city, a new venture for the city and for the arts.”
Wilhelm wasn’t the only one wearing purple. William Wesley Peters, the main architect and son-in-law of Frank Lloyd Wright, was seen in a purple tux that night. Wright’s widow, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, is credited with suggesting the building’s distinctive color, which has made it memorable for many of the performers who appeared on its stage.
Some may have occasionally mistaken Sarasota for Saratoga in the midst of a national tour of performances, but “they never forgot the building. They remember the purple performing arts hall,” said Mary Bensel, the current executive director.
In 2015, the Van Wezel Foundation, with city support, engaged a leading arts and entertainment consultant to determine the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall’s ability to continue serving as the cultural anchor of the Gulf Coast for the next 50 years.
At the time, the distinctively purple, shell-shaped venue, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son-in-law and completed in 1968, was 47 years old.
After assessing the hall's facilities and operations, consultant AMS Research & Planning posed four possibilities:
Keeping the status quo, it was argued, would limit the hall’s profitability, programming and competitive ability and leave it vulnerable to climate change. The next two options were also summarily dismissed as “unfeasible,” based on the argument that their cost would exceed the FEMA “50% rule,” which limits expenditures on renovations in flood plains to half the building’s value (at the time $30 million). New construction, the 223-page report concluded – at an estimated cost of $150-$525 million – was the way to go.
Public outcry – and a survey that showed 80% of residents were against demolishing the “Purple Cow” – forced what designers called “a course correction.” ”
Since this all began, the Van Wezel has had a few more birthdays. It is now 52 years old – which qualifies it for nomination to the National Register of Historic Buildings and potentially for the extensive tax incentives and credits that can come with such a designation. That's money that could cover the cost of the previously rejected options to harden the facility against sea level rise and renovate it to competitive standards.
So before we proceed with the commitment to build a hugely expensive new facility that is, let’s face it, is just as vulnerable to climate change, shouldn’t we pursue historic designation for the Van Wezel and explore whether it can be retrofitted to meet the community’s needs?
This building has good bones. The iconic Van Wezel is an historic building that should be saved.
It is indeed premature to select the architect for the new performing arts hall when due diligence as to whether the Van Wezel building can be retrofitted/remodeled to be floodproofed in accordance with FEMA guidelines hasn't been performed. The fact that we are looking at a new performing arts hall costing $300 - $350 million it would be financial negligence not to explore the floodproofing option at perhaps at a tenth of the cost.
When a building is floodproofed in accordance with FEMA Technical Bulletin 3-93 Non-Residential Floodproofing - Requirements and Certification, the FEMA 50% Rule does not apply as the building would be in compliance with FEMA regulations. The floodproofing needs to extend up the exterior walls of the building to 1 foot above the Base Flood Elevation.
The Van Wezel building is located in FEMA Flood Zones AE (EL 12) and AE (EL 13). Floodproofing the Van Wezel building would entail an evaluation of the structure to determine if the existing walls can resist/counter the hydrostatic pressures of flood waters at a height of the FEMA Base Flood Elevation 13’..
The weight of the building would need to be calculated to see if the building is heavy enough to resist the hydrostatic pressures of the flood waters. When the walls are floodproofed it creates a “bathtub” effect where the building could pop out of the ground when surrounded by flood water. If the building is too “light” perhaps additional concrete could be added to the perimeter and tied to the existing walls or augured piles may need to be placed through the existing first floor slab to anchor the building.
The floodproofing material would need to extend from the top of the foundations to the Base Flood Elevation of 13’ plus 1’.
This should solve the dampness problem as the exterior walls would then be waterproofed. If the moisture is coming up through the concrete floor slab additional remediation would be needed.
The existing storefront windows and doors would need to be replaced with floodproof rated windows and doors.
We have lost too much of our architectural history over the years I believe it can be saved, that it should be saved, that we have to stop demolishing our history.
I am writing in response to an Oct. 8 letter that compels the community to consider the replacement of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in the wake of Hurricane Ian because of its vulnerable location on the bay.
I think that rather than replacing the hall we should develop creative solutions to address the impacts of sea-level rise on our community.
Removing vulnerable buildings is not a solution, because with their loss comes the loss of our heritage.
An interesting approach to addressing the threat of sea-level rise was completed recently at Tampa General Hospital, where they installed an “aqua fence” to ensure that the facility was protected from rising water.
A solution for Sarasota could be historically designating the Van Wezel.
With such designation, the hall would become eligible for exemption from certain state and federal regulations that could help with the implementation of storm protection.
This action is the only responsible one for our city leaders to take in their service to our community.
[My] uncle Dave [Cohen] was a child prodigy and a brilliant musician graduating with honors from the Curtis Music Institute in Philadephia. After he and Eleene came to Sarasota from Petoskey, Michigan, Dave, Ruth Butler, and Lota Mundy (with others) decided that classical music needed a local venue. They raised money, requested and received from the city a location in the civic center, and saw that the Florida West Coast Symphony (now the Sarasota Orchestra) had a permanent home.
In the early 60's Dave ran and was elected (as the first Jew) to the Sarasota City Commission. He and four other business leaders (including Gil Waters) led the very creative body to change the face of Sarasota in many ways. As the concertmaster and First Violinist of the FWCS, Dave became frustrated that the orchestra had to perform in a very unsuitable facility for symphonic music. So, he conjured up the idea of the city voters approving a bond issue for the construction of a performing arts hall on the waterfront. City taxpayers said "Yes!" Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin architectural firm was hired to design the building.
Lewis and Eugenia Van Wezel contributed over a million dollars to the project, hence the name Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. In 1970, Dave and his fellow commissioners cut the ribbon and opened our purple jewel to the public with performances of "Fiddler on the Roof" (a musical about Jewish history -accidental? Maybe not! Hmmmm…).
A junior high school student who attended the Van Wezel's opening night found it so meaningful and moving that the youth preserved the ticket and program - and was drawn more to learn more about the Jewish faith and culture depicted in the storied musical.
What an amazing feat for our city with probably less than 30,000 population. This was the beginning of the reference to Sarasota as "the cultural oasis of the west coast of Florida."
As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the VWPAH this year, we need to recognize the genius and "chutzpah" of former Mayor David Cohen who was named the "most important citizen of Sarasota" in the last half of the past century.
Thank you, Uncle Dave! May you look down from above with pleasure and pride!
Thanks to columnist Carrie Seidman for seeking to keep the proposed Sarasota Performing Arts Center issue front and center leading up to the Nov. 8 election.
I do support planned growth for Sarasota but not at any price, including the potential marginalization or demolition of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
Equally important is my concern for the overall financial burden on our community for the Sarasota Performing Arts Center and all of the associated costs that will be called for – also at city expense.
This comes at a time when we are not adequately addressing such important issues as affordable housing, along with other infrastructure.
I was involved past fights to save the original Paul Rudolph-designed Riverview High School (demolished in 2009) and the old Sarasota High School (restored and the current home of the Sarasota Museum of Art). What made the difference?
In both cases, there were knowledgeable, committed residents working on multiple fronts to save the buildings in a town that has earned the nickname “Tearasota” for the alacrity with which it demolishes it own historic architecture.
What made the difference was not only loud and sustained activism from residents, but elected officials and administrators who, regardless of their own leanings, supported the citizens’ choice.
So….two messages here. If you don’t want to see the Purple Cow go the way of the Lido Casino, the Ringling Towers or the old railroad station, support the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation in seeking National Register designation for the Van Wezel and advocate for its continued viability.
Then cast your vote for candidates who will do the same, putting fiscal responsibility and the preservation of community heritage ahead of politics.
I served on the Sarasota City Commission for 18 years, and I am concerned about the city's recent decision to build a new performing arts hall on Sarasota Bay that will cost taxpayers at least $175 million. This has the potential to be the single largest discretionary capital expense in our city's history: as a comparison, the renovation of Ed Smith Stadium in 2011 cost $20 million.
Here are some facts about the existing Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall:
A new performing arts center will come at a staggering cost for a city our size. But let's go beyond the cost and just ask ourselves a simple question: Why do we even need a new performing arts center?
According to a 2015 study commissioned by the Van Wezel Foundation, the Straz Center in Tampa is the largest performing arts hall in the southeastern United States. It serves a metropolitan area that is five times our size. This is why the Straz Center is the venue of choice for popular musicals like "Hamilton," and building a larger performing arts center in Sarasota won't change that fact.
Also, the Sarasota Orchestra plans to build a hall on Fruitville Road near Interstate 75. It is clear that this facility will also compete with a new performing arts center for events.
When teachers, first responders and hospitality workers are struggling to find affordable housing in Sarasota, how can we justify the use of any taxpayer money on a project that the public neither wants nor needs?
Recently the city of Sarasota and a newly formed nonprofit agreed on a contract to build a new performing arts center to replace the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. But it was clearly far too premature for the city to sign such a deal.
The contract, which creates significant obligations for the city, was not competitively sought – and there was inadequate public scrutiny and debate before it was hurriedly approved by the Sarasota City Commission on a split 3-2 vote.
The recent Sarasota Orchestra initiative to build a large new performing arts facility near Interstate 75 has changed the environment significantly from what it might have been a few years ago. Previously, building a new city-owned venue to replace the Van Wezel could have been conditioned on securing collaborative joint use with the Sarasota Orchestra and others in need of a large venue. In addition, there could have been conditions in place to avoid constructing that large venue on the bayfront, notwithstanding that location’s aesthetic appeal to high-end patrons.
That was then, however, and this is now. And right now a “no build” option is a more prudent path.
There is also a real chance that competing [with the Orchestra] for the resources needed to simultaneously build two large local venues could cause the orchestra and the new performing arts center to cannibalize each other’s efforts – and seriously affect the ability of either to thrive on a long-term basis.
Finally, and most appealing to me, the good work by the Bay Park Conservancy that is emerging on the bayfront is poised to produce a viable and defining feature of downtown – and one without a huge new building overwhelming the site. It will be a wonderful green space that will attract and sustain a lot of community use by regular folks. And it won't be a merely business-oriented site that could be facing an uncertain future.
It would be tantamount to civic misfeasance for the city to downplay the numerous and serious challenges that could hurt the feasibility of a new performing arts center – and, even worse, for the city to not have a strategic plan in place to address such concerns.
It's time to reassess things.
One of my favorite expressions is “You have to separate your wants from you needs.” It appears to me that many may want a new Sarasota Performing Arts Center, but do we need it? That's why residents fear that this proposal is moving along without addressing numerous important concerns. They include:
The city commission must complete its due diligence on the proposed arts center, and make sure that decisions are based on reality, and that we are separating wants from our needs.
The SPAC agreement states: “Co-funding for the … performing arts center shall be a 50% contribution between private philanthropy and a 50% contribution from public funding sources, which shall be outlined in a mutually agreed upon Implementation Agreement.”
This says taxpayer money will be used to fund the hall. That could include city, county, regional, state, and federal tax revenues, including allocation from the tax increment financing already in place for Bay Park.
Public funding also could include the city financing its share by issuing revenue bonds that would be paid off from the ticket revenues generated from the center. But that source triggered concerns.
What if the ticket revenues are not enough to cover the debt payments? From where would the money come?
City Finance Director Kelly Strickland said repayment could not come from property taxes, nor could the city raise its millage rate to cover debt payments.
Any deficiency would have to come from the city’s general fund sources: fines, communications tax, franchise fees and other taxes. If money is drained from the general fund, City Manager Marlon Brown said the effects could result in cuts in some services.
Just how high would a surcharge on tickets at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall — and, later, a new Sarasota Performing Arts Center — have to be to pay back a revenue bond for part of the cost of that new venue?
This week, Ron Kashden, a Certified Public Accountant with more than 30 years of experience — including five years as chief financial officer of a multi-billion-dollar hedge fund and several years of service as the auditor of the Shubert Theatre on Broadway in New York City — provided The Sarasota News Leader details of an analysis that he has undertaken, based on available information.
The Van Wezel, he determined, averages 145,000 attendees a year. A Connecticut company that undertook a 2015 analysis of the Van Wezel and a new performing arts center — AMS Planning & Research Corp. — discussed in its report a larger facility with a longer season, which could result in the sale of 198,000 tickets a year, Kashden pointed out.
Using the Van Wezel’s historical averages and the AMS projections, Kashden calculated that a $79.56 surcharge per ticket would be necessary to pay back a revenue bond of the size the City Commission has discussed.
That would be on top of what Kashden has predicted would be an average ticket price of $74.54.
In voting 3-2 on April 4, the City Commission committed the city to covering half of the expense, whatever it ends up being
During two discussions of the funding issue — on March 21 and April 4 — City Manager Marlon Brown told the commissioners that the city could issue a revenue bond to make up any difference between the amount of money it would be able to utilize from various other sources and the amount it will need for its share of the SPAC’s cost. He included the revenue bond scenario as a major option, as he made clear the uncertainty about whether the city could get grant funds to support the project.
Another option, a general obligation bond, would put the cost burden on city residents, as noted during the commission’s discussions. First, city voters would have to approve such a bond. Second, the debt service on a general obligation bond would have to be paid by city taxpayers.
In 2014, this purple cow statue was purchased with love, decorated and named by children in a contest, and moved around the Van Wezel campus for a delightful game of hide-and-seek.
Someone mentioned on a Facebook post that they hadn't seen the statue around lately. I did an FOIA to find out what happened to the statue and what its name was (seemed best to ask before filing a missing cow report with the SPD).
The answer is it was left unweather-sealed, allowed to rust, and discarded, with its name no longer recalled (I'm posthumously dubbing it "Shelly McMoo"). This is the saddest of the metaphors in the battle for Sarasota's soul as emplaced by the Van Wezel performing arts hall.
Learn more about the efforts to keep the hall named 6-time winner of the best in its class in North America (most recently in 2020), in this informative article from the Sarasota Newsleader.
|Judy Gohl||Please do not destroy another piece of Sarasota's history.|
|Jessica Traiger||It’s a very special part of our beautiful Bayfront and community!|
|Brenda Daniel||Please save it!!!|
|Donald Kovalik||Historic architecture designed with integrity. Perfectly designed seating and acoustics for the best audience live experience .|
|Rebecca Wilson Bowman||We need to keep this landmark|
|Jan||Keep this diamond structure as part of our skyline|
|Darcie Becker||Why is this even an issue? Van Wezel is beautiful.|
|Annette Gregorio||Been going there since I moved here over 20 years ago. There is something about the building that is pleasing to me and I like that it isn't too large of a venue. I've seen great performances there and would be sad to see the building go away.|
|Gary Shelp||No need to build and out price Sarasota citizens|
|Charles Mallicote||A FL Wright jewel. Truly the ultimate Demolition Crime-Against-Humanity FloriDUH could possibly achieve. World class cultural destruction.|
|Thomas Bridgham||Please don’t squander our money on a new facility we don’t need. Upgrade the VW and everyone wins…except those select few that are lining there already deep pockets.|
|Claudia Bridgham||Keep the Van Wezel building and update it, it’s needed. A $5-10 million budget we can make it great again. The city shouldn’t allow a $300 million project from richest philanthropists be a burden on the taxpayers that live and work in Sarasota for many years to come.|
|Tracie L. Reuben|