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Municipal Auditorium

Articles: Sarasota History

Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - Municipal Auditorium photo

In 1935, Sarasota Mayor E.A. Smith proposed the idea of a municipal park on the last remaining waterfront tract in the city. This property, fronting what was then known as Broadway (US 41 and/or Tamiami Trail) and backing up to Sarasota Bay, was available for approximately $15,000, the amount of back taxes the defunct Sarasota By Hotel Company owed on the land. After purchasing the tax certificates, the city succeeded in getting federal funds for construction of the park. Under the auspices of the WPA, clearing of the land and construction of the Municipal Auditorium began in 1937. By 1938, the bayfront site offered not only the auditorium, but recreational facilities such as lawn bowling, shuffleboard and tennis courts.

The Municipal Auditorium was the result of the combined efforts of civic leaders, civic organizations, and the City of Sarasota. A group of prominent Sarasota businessmen contributed $10,000 for the project. These community members included B.W. Powell, Samuel W. Gumpertz, J.J. Williams, Jr., Ralph Caples, George L. Thacker, R.P. Hazzard, Michael Cantacuzene, George D. Lindsay, Frank Evans, Clyde H. Wilson, William G. Selby, and Karl Bickel. The Garden Club did the landscaping and their Founders Circle developed a small pond. The Palms Circle planted numerous palm trees.

Before work began, the city sponsored a contest for design and use of the property. Thomas Reed Martin, a local architect who had come to Sarasota in 1911, at the request of Mrs. Potter Palmer, won a $100 prize for the best sketch and plan detailing waterfront improvements. The city used those plans to obtain federal aid in development and beautification of the bayfront, then started on the auditorium in July, 1937. The federal government contributed $131,000 in two separate grants ($114,000 and $17,000). The city paid for all skilled labor on the project.

The design of the auditorium was modern with classic elements incorporated. Buttresses along the outer walls supported the roof and large arches in the buildings façade. The front of the building showed the current art deco trend with vertical sections of glass blocks. The roof was designed to withstand hurricane force winds. This representation of civic cooperation opened to the public in February, 1938, for the Sara de Soto Pageant.

Over the next several years the park area became even more of a community effort as a recreational center for residents and winter visitors. One of the original contributors to the project, R. P. Hazzard, of Hazzard Shoe Company in Gardner, Maine, provided an estimated $8,000 for a decorative fountain. Local architect, Frank Martin (son of Thomas Reed Martin) designed the fountain to compliment the Art Deco Style of the auditorium and Louis Larsen then built it. The electrically lit fountain stood in front of the auditorium until 1956 when enlargement of the parking area necessitated its relocation. The Public Works Department of the city then housed it until its donation to the Ringling Museum of Art in 1981.

A winter visitor to Sarasota, John Chidsey, contributed $10,000 in 1939 and 1940 to add a second floor and more recreation facilities to the rear of the auditorium. In 1944 the original roof was replaced. Wartime shortages of copper caused plans for reroofing materials to be altered, but contractors applied the best available material and expected the roof to last from three to four years.

The Municipal Auditorium remained virtually unchanged until 1971 when it was redesigned and remodeled. The glass blocks were covered with an updated look by architect Jack West; engineer Al Conyers, both of Sarasota, and the St. Petersburg general contracting firm of Rowe and Newberry. The name of the structure then changed to the Sarasota Civic Center Exhibition Hall. It continued to house various events over the years, as it still does today.

In 1987, rumors were going around of demolishing the historic structure and replacing it with a convention center; something that repeatedly came up for discussion. However, the community was against this, and to Sarasota's fortune, it was decided to take the building back to its original appearance, through restoration measures.

The Municipal Auditorium was finally restored to its previous Art Deco/Moderne grandeur, under the direction of architects Gary B. Hoyt, and Jeff Hole in 1993. As well, the Hazzard Fountain has come back to its proper location, and the community is grateful for a restoration job well done!