Sarasota's Days of Pei | as the Iconic New College Residence Halls House a 50th Class, a Look Back at Their Conception

By Bubil, Harold | Sarasota Herald Tribune, November 10, 2015 | Go to article overview

Sarasota's Days of Pei | as the Iconic New College Residence Halls House a 50th Class, a Look Back at Their Conception


Bubil, Harold, Sarasota Herald Tribune


ARCHITECTURE

When he was hired as architect of Sarasota's New College in September 1963 after an 18-month search, I.M. Pei said the 115-acre campus he was about to design would be his biggest challenge yet.

Pei, now widely considered one of the five greatest architects of the 20th century, also said then that the campus could not be "a stylish piece of work -- it must last and be flexible enough to accommodate change."

Financial problems prevented the fledgling college from constructing more than a few Pei buildings before he resigned from the project in 1967, but the three dormitories that were built have met his goal. They are housing their 50th class of students.

Despite rumors in recent years that the "Pei dormitories" -- also known as first, second and third court -- on the campus' east side might be demolished, New College knows what it has, and has taken steps so the buildings will be useful for the foreseeable future. One of them was "significantly renovated" in 2008, and a second in 2014, at a total cost of $2 million. The third also will be renovated, said the college's facilities manager, Alan Burr, but he could not say when.

"The cost of construction has gone up, so it will be more for the last one," Burr said. "We do not have any resources to replace them."

The work on the first two courts included replacing flooring, replastering walls and replacing light and bathroom fixtures, said Burr, facilities manager since 2013.

Students have reported moisture intrusion and mold issues over the years. "It is usually the old stormwater system" that causes such problems, Burr added. "It is a unique thing with Pei's design. In some places, the patios drain water into a catch basin underneath the buildings, where it is pumped out. We have restructured some of those areas to drain away from the building."

"Pei's buildings are very high-maintenance," longtime Sarasota architect Carl Abbott said. But from an aesthetic standpoint, "they are wonderful."

Last summer, some of the original ceramic courtyard tiles were replaced with concrete pavers. The old tiles were "slippery and falling apart," Burr said. "They were past their useful life. We will be replacing those as we can afford to, as well."

"We will continue to work on renovations of the Pei community," Mark Stier, the associate dean of student life, told the Catalyst, the college's student newspaper, this year.

The history

Ieoh Ming Pei was 46 when New College, which was founded in 1960 but did not admit students until 1964, selected him from among an international slate of architects to design the campus.

Such noted designers as John Carl Warnecke, the man who designed President Kennedy's grave site, and Louis Kahn were considered, Abbott said.

Phil Hiss, then chairman of the Sarasota County School Board, oversaw New College's formation as chairman of its board of trustees. For years, Sarasota's civic leaders had said the city was "a college town without a college" and yearned to get one. The city even made a bid to get the Air Force Academy in the late 1940s. Instead, it was built in Colorado on land provided by Dallas Dort, who later became a New College trustee, donor and acting president, according to "New College: The First Three Decades," by Furman C. Arthur.

Hiss chose then Herald-Tribune publisher David Lindsay Jr. to chair the trustees' architecture and building committee. Given the college's high academic goals (Hiss wanted its educational quality to be the equal of Harvard, Yale or Stanford), the board felt that a world-class architect must be chosen. Hiss also served on the architecture committee.

Hiss was a champion of the midcentury modern design movement that decades later would be known as the Sarasota School of architecture. As school board chairman, Hiss hired architects such as Paul Rudolph, Victor Lundy, Bert Brosmith, Ralph and William Zimmerman and Jack West to design public school buildings. …

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