16 years after its listing on National Register of Historic Places, Historic Sarasota County Courthouse wins spot on county register

County Commission approves action on unanimous vote

A 2019 aerial view shows the Historic Sarasota County Courthouse in downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Historic Sarasota County Courthouse officially has won a place on the Sarasota County Register of Historic Places, thanks to a unanimous Sarasota County Commission vote on Nov. 17.

That follows the courthouse’s March 22, 1984 listing on the National Register of Historic Places, county staff has noted.

“The Sarasota County Courthouse exemplifies the historic development of the City and County of Sarasota soon after the formation of [Sarasota] County from Manatee in 1921 and up to the present,” said a Nov. 17 staff memo provided to the commissioners in advance of the meeting.

The courthouse “was the first permanent civic building constructed by the newly formed Sarasota County,” the memo added.

A county staff member’s report on the history of the courthouse, prepared in accord with the historic designation process, pointed out that the person who designed the building, Dwight James Baum, was “one of the most significant architects working in Sarasota at the time.”

Further, the staff memo noted, “[T]he courthouse stands as one of the architectural masterpieces of the Mediterranean Revival style in Sarasota County.” It also is “a significant example of the style from the 1920s land boom development” of the state, the memo added.

The courthouse is located at 2000 Main St. in downtown Sarasota.

This is a postcard showing the Historic Courthouse in 1926. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The staff memo further explained that, on Oct. 25, 2016, the County Commission approved “a policy for designating significant county-owned historic resources.” The memo added that the intent of the policy was “to foster and further the protection of significant historic resources in public hands for future generations.”

The courthouse possesses all seven of the “attributes of integrity” listed in the County Code for historic designation, the staff memo pointed out: location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association.

On Oct. 6, the memo said, the County Commission authorized the county’s Historic Preservation Board (HPB) to review an application seeking the historic designation for the courthouse.

During the HPB session conducted on Oct. 27, the board members “unanimously recommended that the [County Commission] approve the historic designation,” the memo added.

Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller Karen Rushing. Image from the Clerk’s Office website

None of the commissioners commented on the designation on Nov. 17, as the item was listed on the agenda as one for which a presentation would be made if the board so desired. None of the commissioners asked for staff remarks.

However, during her report to the board later that day, Karen Rushing, clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller, referenced the action. “I’ve been an occupant or a tenant of that building since 1978,” she said and then joked that she was in preschool at that time.

She and her staff sacrificed space they could have used for their work to ensure the courthouse retained its historic characteristics, Rushing added. “There are lots of nooks and crannies in that building.”

If any commissioner would like a tour of the Historic Courthouse, Rushing said, she would be happy to arrange that.

An in-depth report on the courthouse

The in-depth August report completed by Jorge Danta Spector, a county historic preservation specialist, explains that the courthouse “was the County’s original purpose-built headquarters, which physically embodied Sarasota County’s government, law enforcement, and municipal judicial system.”

The courthouse “sits on a high basement and is constructed of hollow-clay-tile walls covered in stucco with cast stone and polychromed terracotta ornamentation,” Spector continued. “The original design consisted of two two-story pavilions connected to a central bell tower (campanile) by arcades. This design has been altered by later additions to the south façade; however, the primary elevation fronting Main Street retains its original 1926 appearance,” Spector pointed out.

“Florida gained more new residents between 1920 and 1925” than in the preceding 10-year period, he added. At the beginning of the 1920s, the population count for the state was 968,470, Spector noted; the number was 1.26 million by 1925.

The city of Sarasota, he continued, saw “a considerable population increase as well, from 3,000 in 1920 to 15,000 in 1926.” Spector cited a 1985 source for the figures.

Given what Spector characterized as “[f]renzied real estate and land development speculation” in Florida between 1919 and 1926, City and County of Sarasota leaders “realized that a planned approach to what at times appeared [to be] chaotic growth was crucial for the future prosperity of the municipality.”

This is urban planner John Nolen’s 1924 Civic Center master plan. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In 1923, Spector pointed out, the city “engaged renowned urban planner [John Nolen] to create a comprehensive plan to guide the city’s growth …” Nolen “recommended the creation of a ‘Civic Center’ as the solution to address the inadequate housing conditions both City and County governments were in.”

In 1924, Nolen proposed a grouping of three buildings: a city hall for the City of Sarasota, a library and a courthouse, “all three surrounding a public park with the courthouse occupying the central location of the ensemble.”

That Civic Center was to be located on Main Street — known at the time as Victory Avenue — at the Osprey Avenue intersection, four blocks east of what was then “the heart of downtown Sarasota at Five Points,” Spector explained.

As Nolen was working on the project, Spector continued, Charles Ringling, who was president of the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, “emerged as the pivotal singular figure in the realization of the plan and the construction of the Sarasota County Courthouse.”

Side-by-side images show the portal of the Historic Courthouse in 1990 (left) and in 2019, following restoration of the building. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Ringling pushed Nolen’s proposed Civic Center further west, out of the downtown area and into a real estate development Ringling had platted, Spector wrote. Given his position with the Chamber and the fact that he bore “the Ringling surname,” Spector added, “Charles would have commanded considerable influence.” Therefore, Spector noted, the County Commission agreed to build the new courthouse “on a prominent lot within Ringling’s Courthouse Subdivision at the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Main Street.”

To make sure that happened, Spector noted, Ringling sold the lot to the county “for a nominal fee,” provided that the construction of the courthouse did not cost more than $150,000 and that, if the county failed to build it on that lot, the property would revert to Ringling.

“It is unclear how or who brought James Dwight Baum … to the project,” Spector wrote. Nonetheless, after Baum submitted preliminary drawings for the courthouse to the County Commission in June 1925, the board members voted unanimously to select him as the architect, Spector added.

The cornerstone ceremony was conducted on May 12, 1926, Spector noted.