Fortune Smiles on the Scott Building, Reborn as the Center for Architecture Sarasota

Saxon Henry Saxon Henry

“Seven is my lucky number; it was on my soapbox derby as a kid,” quipped Joseph Farrell, AIA, during the opening celebration of the Center for Architecture Sarasota (CFAS). This was not just an offhand comment from one of the building’s original designers who was pointing up at the seven-foot sculpted overhangs brightened by a new coat of sky blue paint underneath. It was, in the most intrinsic way possible, a physical manifestation of one of Paul Rudolph’s main precepts: “An architect is a man concerned with building meaningfully.”

As the evening unfolded within the Scott Building, which the Center has claimed as its new home, there was a continual echo reverberating back to the legacy Rudolph and the other Sarasota School of Architecture (SSoA) practitioners set. This was a natural outgrowth of the efforts of CFAS founders to preserve a slice of a phase of architectural history that blossomed on Sarasota’s shores during the 1950s and grew into its own during the 1960s.

All photos by Greg Wilson.

An exceptional moment of legacy took place when Susan Rupp, the daughter of the late William Rupp, AIA, the other original architect of the building, approached Farrell. After she introduced herself, Susan handed him drawings of the projects he had helped design during the two years he had worked with her father. Watching his expression change as he rifled through his early handiwork was nothing short of magical.

“Seeing Joe for the first time since I was four years old was such a pleasure and I really enjoyed being able to share with him some of my dad’s old drawings that he had worked on but had not seen in years,” Susan remarked. “It was an amazing experience being back in that building I remember from childhood. So many of the original Sarasota modern buildings are gone or going, and I can’t thank everyone involved in this project enough for saving [it] and breathing new life into this one.”

One of the key resuscitators in this case is the Center’s Founder and Board President Cynthia Peterson, who spearheaded the creation of the nonprofit organization that raised over $850,000 in funds and in-kind services to renovate and restore the Sarasota County-owned building. The structure, which will be known as the McCulloch Pavilion after Nathalie Warren McCulloch — a major benefactor whose significant donation helped the effort pick up momentum — now houses exhibit and lecture-hall spaces and the University of Florida’s CityLab Sarasota, a satellite Master’s degree program coordinated by the University’s School of Architecture.

Peterson described the evening the building’s new purpose was finally christened as a surreal experience. “In a relatively short time, 17 months to be exact, CFAS was able to establish a nonprofit and to raise the funds necessary to achieve this amazing adaptive reuse of an important midcentury modern building,” she explained. The level of determination required to pull this off is reflective of a passionate commitment Cynthia shares with her husband Guy, the principal of Guy Peterson I OFA, who acted as the architect of record on the project, services he donated to the organization.

He tapped Damien Blumetti from his firm as the project architect. The pair kicked off the renovation in early 2014 with a design charrette that brought local architects, designers, landscape architects, UF students, and Farrell to the table. A recurring refrain I heard during the evening was how dynamic the project felt due to the fact they were able to gain input from one of the building’s initial designers.

“The ability to collaborate with one of the original architects made the entire process more meaningful,” Guy said. “Since we were able to run ideas by Joe, we were confident the renovation would truly maintain the spirit of the original design.” Regarding the responses of attendees walking through the building that evening, Blumetti remarked, “I don’t think the community really knew how beautiful the building originally was until it was brought back to life. I had the pleasure of watching and listening to the reactions of the people and hearing the different ideas everyone had about the possibilities the space offers, especially from Joe Farrell.”

Farrell, who has lived and maintained an architectural practice in Hawaii since he left Sarasota in 1961, told me how satisfying it was to see a structure, which could have remained nothing more than a forgotten portfolio piece, come into its own. “When we were working on it, we didn’t realize how important this building would be because we were so quickly moving from one project to another,” he said, “But it is significant because it was the forerunner to the Caladesi National Bank, which won a Progressive Architecture Design Award in 1961. This definitely puts the Scott Building in its place in the Sarasota School canon, but would anyone have even remembered it if it weren’t for CFAS?”

When viewing the backstory of these two young architects whom Clarence Scott asked to design a commercial building to house a showroom for the Barkus Furniture Company and three independent office spaces in 1959, perhaps the structure’s importance was inevitable. Though Scott’s commission took place during the first blush of their collaboration under the shingle William Rupp Architect, they had already worked in tandem as assistants to Rudolph — stints they began just after receiving their Bachelor’s degrees in architecture from the University of Florida. Their brief time in business together was fruitful, earning them national recognition for the Uhr Residence-Studio in Sarasota, which has not been as fortunate as the Scott Building and is falling into ruin, and the aforementioned Caladesi National Bank in Dunedin, which is no longer visible as a built project due to a larger outer structure that completely encloses it.

Though many architects know their chosen professions as early as they can remember, Farrell’s decision to join the ranks didn’t come until he was attending college. “My father had encouraged me to go into construction management and when one of my professors saw how intuitively I was drawing simple building materials like concrete blocks, he suggested I go into architecture,” he remembered. “I didn’t even know what it was, but I said I would check it out. I was clueless as to who people were, so I had no qualms about asking Rudolph if he would talk to me about the profession. He said, ‘Sure: let’s go to lunch on Sunday.’ The way he was talking about architecture really turned me on, and the only thing that had done that before was football and girls!”

Susan Rupp also shared stories about her memories of her father’s passion for architecture, but the celebration always swung back around to the built legacy we stood within. “I think architects dream of leaving enduring structures that reflect their ideals,” she said, “So to have one of his buildings revitalized and transformed into a center of learning is a perfect legacy for my dad: he would have been so pleased.” As to the futuristic aspects of the project, perhaps it takes a young architect like Blumetti to articulate the impact most succinctly: “It will remain close to me as I hopefully carry the torch into the next 50 years of architecture in our community.”