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Sarasota Art Museum & SarasotaMOD: Architecture is the star this weekend

 The old Sarasota High School has been on the Tamiami Trail as long as you’ve been driving it.

Little has changed on the facade of the red-brick, Collegiate Gothic-style building since it was built in 1926. If you passed by recently and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, it’s time to turn back for a closer look.

The front facade of the 1926 Sarasota High School, now part of the Sarasota Museum of Art. Photo: Rich Schineller.

The surprise — and it’s a big one — begins on the backside. 

Where once there was a space between the “old” school designed by architect M. Leo Elliott and a 1960 satellite structure of the “new” school by Sarasota School of Architecture icon Paul Rudolph, there’s now a courtyard and statement entrance to a world-class museum of modern art. The Sarasota Art Museum of Ringling College opened to much fanfare in December 2019. Coronavirus abruptly shut it down three months later.

The museum’s grand new entrance plaza. Photo: Ryan Gamma Photography.

The completion of this $30 million project not only preserves touchstones of Sarasota’s architectural history, but fulfills the vision of the original architects by another, Terence Riley of K/R Architects.

“While the two buildings stylistically present differently, they work exquisitely well together and create the essential courtyard,” which Elliott had envisioned and Rudolph was aware of, says SAM Executive Director Anne-Marie Russell.

Odili Donald Odita’s “Force Field” in the
museum loggia.

The museum, which began slowly reopening in September, gets the chance for a splashy do-over in the form of its exhibition, Carl Abbott: Architecture for Nature, opening November 8.

It is especially fitting that Abbott, who was a student of Rudolph’s at the Yale School of Architecture, is being fêted in a building that pays homage to architecture while showcasing modern art. Though Abbott, who is both an architect and landscape architect, has used Sarasota and the Gulf Coast as his lab for more than 50 years, this exhibit is not a retrospective but a modern art exhibition. Large-scale installations that blur architecture with sculpture and provide a multi-sensory experience provide insight into the bold modernist, who is also recognized as the last architect to join the Sarasota School of Architecture movement, in which Rudolph’s work figures prominently.

The man of the hour, architect Carl Abbott FAIA, at work in his studio. Photo: Marne Gaston.

An outdoor installation in the plaza emphasizes Abbot’s great skill in shaping exterior space. Indoors, a replica of his home and lab, Bayou Studio, is central to the exhibit, inviting visitors to watch a simulation of a day’s interplay of light and shadows across the preserved wild land across Whitaker Bayou, as observed by Abbott from the studio. 

Carl Abbott is also the theme of this year’s SarasotaMOD Weekend (November 6-8), an annual event patterned after Palm Springs’ Modernism Week, presented by the Sarasota Architectural Foundation. The octogenarian will be on hand when SarasotaMOD participants exclusively tour the exhibit on November 6 to kick off the weekend events. 

SarasotaMOD is typically packed with tours, films and conversations about the mid-century modern architecture that has done so much to shape the Sarasota of today. This year’s events are thoughtfully planned to balance access with social distancing and take full advantage of Abbott’s extraordinary skill at siting each project in relation to nature. 

This year, participants will follow a self-guided map to visit the gardens and outdoor rooms of at least 10 Abbott-designed homes, including his well-known Putterman Residence, while watching or listening to pre-recorded videos with the architect speaking at each house.

The interior of Abbott’s Putterman Residence, viewed from the pool.

“It is one way of getting Carl to tell you what he was thinking,” says SAF chair Anne Essner, “when he decided how the land would inform each site.” 

Another first this year will be guided architectural kayak tours on Siesta Key.

“During quarantine, our board member Christopher Wilson discovered that there are all of these mid-century homes you can see from the water,” says Essner. An idea was born and is already creating a stir. The SAF is looking to make the tours a part of their ongoing offerings. 

“The SAF has done a brilliant job reimagining how we might look at, and think about, Gulf Coast architecture in the times of COVID,” says interior designer Ellen Hanson, whose Pansy Bayou Design Studio in downtown Sarasota recreated the interior of the Cocoon House, another project of the SAF to lease and then restore Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell’s 1950 Healy Guest House on on Siesta Key’s Bayou Louise. 

“I’m excited about taking a guided kayak tour of some of Sarasota’s mid-century gems as this is something that would not have occurred to me in ‘before times,’” says Hanson, “and new perspectives are what is needed right now as we look ahead to so much uncertainty.”

The Sarasota Art Museum of Ringling College opened in December 2019. Non-ticketed areas include the new plaza courtyard, gardens, bistro, gift shop and lobby art installations. Carl Abbott: Architecture for Nature is on view from Nov. 8-April 25, 2021. 1001 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, sarasotaartmuseum.org

Sarasota Architectural Foundation (saf-srq.org) presents its 7th annual SarasotaMOD Weekend (sarasotamod.com) November 6-8 to celebrate the city’s legacy of mid-century modern architecture. This year honors Carl Abbott.