Van Wezel included on Florida’s 11 to Save list

City’s Purple Ribbon Committee holds first meeting

This is the image of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on the Florida’s 11 to Save list for 2023. Image courtesy Florida Trust for Historic Preservation

The Florida Trust for Historic Preservation has announced that the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota has been added to the 2023 Florida’s 11 to Save, “a list of the most threatened historic properties in the state.”

A news release explains that the initiative “highlights endangered historic sites throughout Florida as nominated by the public and is an important step in advocating for their preservation.”

The Trust made its announcement during the Preservation on Main Street Conference in Ocala on July 19, the release notes. The 2023 list represents endangered resources “covering hundreds of years of history,” the news release adds.

“These are the historic places that matter to people throughout our state,” said Erin DiFazio, program director for the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation (SAHP), in the release. “We’re optimistically enthused that the Van Wezel has been recognized as a vital property to protect,” she continued. “We’re also pleased that the City of Sarasota is exploring future use options and storm surge protection measures for this iconic landmark.”

Florida’s 11 to Save list for 2023 says this of the Van Wezel: “Designed by William Wesley Peters of Taliesin Associated Architects, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall was completed in 1970. Seashells were used as inspiration for the design and the pink and lavender color scheme was suggested by Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright.

“Today, the 53-year-old building is threatened both by time and environmental threats, which challenge its future as a financially viable performing arts center.”

The Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation (SAHP) “is part of a consortium of groups and individuals that has been leading an effort to ensure that the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, celebrated by architectural historians and critics as a stunning example of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Architects, is preserved,” DiFazio explains in the release. SAHP listed the Van Wezel on its Six to Save Endangered Buildings list in 2022, the release notes.

Other participants in the efforts to preserve the performing arts hall include the Historical Society of Sarasota County and 2,500 Sarasota residents who have signed the Save The Van Wezel petition, the release points out.

“Along with the [Trust’s] recognition comes access to the 11 to Save Grant Fund,” the release notes. That fund “aims to make a tangible impact supporting historic sites on current or previous 11 to Save lists,” the release explains.

The Alliance is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “Preserve and Enhance our Historic Places,” the release says. SAHP was incorporated in 1985, it continues. The Alliance, which is “a membership-driven organization,” comprises “more than 500 residents, visitors, artists, architects, engineers, historians, builders, archaeologists, Realtors, planners, designers, and writers working together to preserve and encourage others to preserve — not only the remaining significant landmarks — but also the contributing structures that define Sarasota County,” the release points out.

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Pondering the future of the Van Wezel

On July 17, the City Commission appointed seven members to what it has christened the Purple Ribbon Committee. Those members are charged with determining whether the Van Wezel can continue operations in the future and, if so, what its role should be.

The creation of the committee was stipulated in an April 2022 agreement with the Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation — formerly the Van Wezel Foundation — which has been working on plans for a new Sarasota Performing Arts Center (SPAC) within The Bay Park on 53 city-owned acres in downtown Sarasota.

This is a map of The Bay Park, as shown on the park’s website.

This is the clause in the 2022 document calling for the creation of the committee: “City shall, within one (1) year of the effective date of this Agreement, convene a Blue Ribbon Committee to determine the viable and financially sustainable options for future reuse, purpose, ownership and/or operation of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall to ensure that the reuse options do not compete directly with the PAC. [The Foundation] shall not assume costs to renovate the Hall and [it] shall not operate a repurposed Hall.”

The May 1 resolution that the city commissioners adopted for the work of the Purple Ribbon Committee included the following clauses:

“WHEREAS, the City Commission discussed the creation of a Blue-Ribbon Committee at the regular City Commission meeting of March 6, 2023 and moved to rename the committee the Purple-Ribbon Committee in acknowledgement of the Van Wezel’s signature color; and,

“WHEREAS, the City Commission has determined to create a Purple-Ribbon Committee with authority to make recommendations as to the most viable and financially sustainable options for future use, purpose, ownership and/or operation of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall; …”

Four days after the appointment of the committee, City Manager Marlon Brown sent an email to the members, welcoming them and letting them know that he would be working with city staff “on logistics related to your first meeting (which will be an orientation) and second meeting (which will be a tour of the bowels/behind the scenes of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall).”

Brown continued, “I will also be giving you, just for your knowledge only, the scope of work for the comprehensive assessment of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, so that you are aware of what is being conducted. As a little homework for you, start thinking about your personal/work schedules so we can also discuss our Purple Ribbon Committee meeting dates and times. I am also tinkering with location of the meetings (Van Wezel, Bayfront Community Center, or City Hall), so your input is critical.”

As it turned out, the first meeting of the committee was conducted at 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 15. The agenda called for a presentation about the overview of the purpose and scope of the committee, the swearing in of the members, selection of the chair and vice chair, and a review of Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Laws.

Morris Hylton III. Image from his LinkedIn account

During that Aug. 15 meeting, Lee-En Chung was named chair, while Morris “Marty” Hylton III was named vice chair. In her application for service on the committee, Chung pointed out that she was “the first female in Florida to be both a certified General Contractor and registered Professional Engineer.” She was named to the seat for an individual with expertise in civil structural engineering.

Hylton holds the seat for an individual with expertise in historical preservation. He wrote in his application that he has “nearly three decades of experience in architecture, historic preservation, and coastal resilience, [making him] uniquely qualified to contribute to the mission of the [committee]. In particular,” he continued, “my architecture and preservation applied research and practice have been largely focused on the conservation and adaptive use of modernist structures.”

The members also agreed on Aug. 15 that they will meet at 5:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month, on an as-needed basis, either at City Hall on First Street in downtown Sarasota or at the Van Wezel. Their next meeting has been set for Sept. 13 at City Hall.

In the meantime, the committee plans to tour the Van Wezel at 2 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 28.

The city’s Aug. 4 newsletter noted that the members “will have two years to bring their findings and recommendations to the City Commission.”

On Aug. 11, Kelly Franklin, one of the leaders of the Keep the Van Wezel campaign, sent an email to the Purple Ribbon Committee members, providing them copies of documents she has obtained about the Van Wezel.

“I have not had the pleasure of meeting any of you in person,” Franklin wrote, “but from your backgrounds and resumes, it appears the city commission has assembled the right team of experts to look objectively at the question of how best to fulfill our present and future arts and leisure needs at The Bay Park, while acting responsibly toward taxpayer assets and cultural icons.

“Thank you, in advance,” she continued, “for your service to our community, and your willingness to volunteer your time and talents to this critical civic question. In taking on this task officially, you will be augmenting the efforts of the ad hoc group of knowledgeable residents (2,600+ and counting) who have examined the reports and analysis provided by the city and the [Sarasota Performing Arts] Foundation — as well as a decade’s worth of operational and financial history for the hall.”

This is part of the Keep the Van Wezel homepage image.

“All of the primary reports are available on the petition site,” she added, “making the case that we should protect, update, and keep the city of Sarasota’s world class variety and Broadway presenting hall.”

She concluded her email by writing, “All of this information is provided in the spirit of looking forward together, and I hope it is useful to you as you embark on the journey to chart a sustainable and responsible path ahead for the free enjoyment of arts and leisure at The Bay cultural park.”