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Museum of the Cross

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Ann Shank, former Sarasota County Historian
Source: Sarasota County Historical Resources
Photo Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources
Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources

Sarasota History - Museum of the Cross photo

Although Ben Stahl’s Museum of the Cross was open to the public for only three years, it made a lasting impression on those who saw it. The core of the museum’s collection was “The Way of the Cross,” a series of 6-foot by 9-foot paintings depicting the Good Friday events from Jesus’ condemnation by Pontius Pilate to Jesus’ body being placed in the tomb.

The museum first opened in November, 1966 in a building on Tamiami Trail just south of the junction of U.S. 41 and 301. The two-story, round glass building had been built in 1959 by Victor Lundy, one of the Sarasota School of Architecture architects who brought a modern look to Sarasota’s postwar construction. The 14 large oil paintings hung against a backdrop of floor-length draperies around the circular walls. Subdued lighting, background music and benches invited the viewer to move slowly through the museum. Also on display were several hundred crosses that had been collected by the Stahls.

The second opening of the Sarasota Museum of the Cross was held in April, 1968 in the building shown in the above photograph by Joseph Steinmetz. On U.S. 41 south of Stickney Point Road, this building was designed for the museum by Bradenton architect Gene Willis. Like its predecessor, it also had curved walls. A 60-foot high white and gold cross market the museum’s entrance.

Inside, the 14 original paintings, plus a new one titled, “He is Risen!” hung against the velvet draperies. A smaller room in the center of the oval building contained a number of Stahl’s earlier religious works, some of which were on loan from other institutions. Visitors could listen to a taped narrative that conveyed the story of each painting and was set to an organ music background. The museum closed after the large paintings were stolen in 1969 and never recovered.

Ben Stahl was a major figure in the American and international art world. He was perhaps best known by the general public for his illustrations in the Saturday Evening Post between 1939 and 1969. His skills and interests in teaching resulted in the development of a public television instructional series, “Journey Into Art.” Stahl was one of the founders of Famous Schools International, a school for a number of the arts.

Extensive world travel provided ideas for a number of Stahl’s projects. He visited the Holy Lands and Egypt before illustrating the Stations of the Cross for a special Catholic Press edition of the Bible. A tour of the U.S. Air Force installations in the Far East provided background for murals he painted for the Air Force Academy in Colorado.

Stahl first lived in Sarasota from 1953 to 1972. During that time he was a leader among the many artists who had moved here after World War II. Active in the Sarasota Art Association, Stahl also served on the Florida Arts Commission. He and his wife returned to Sarasota in 1986 and he died in 1987.