The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation-designed Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on Sarasota Bay is the world’s only purple seashell-shaped theater.
When the City of Sarasota embarked on the first major renovation and expansion of the landmark theater in its 30-year history, the challenge was to bring it into the 21st century while preserving its architectural integrity. To do so, Van Wezel leaders turned back to the original designer, Taliesin Architects of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.
Renovation lead architect Anthony Puttnam was on the original design team, working with then-lead architect William Wesley Peters, Wright’s son-in-law. He remembers Peters returning from an early site visit and excitedly emptying a pile of seashells from his briefcase. "This is it," he told his team.
Puttnam said many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s basic architectural philosophies are clearly evident in the work his son-in-law created. "It was designed based on the relationship to nature and with the site; the roof based on a seashell, opening the building to views of Sarasota Bay, the dramatic interior spaces, and use of humble materials to achieve an unexpected richness. They all add up to a ‘celebration of circumstance,’ as Frank Lloyd Wright said of other designs."
Even the bold color evokes the seashell theme. It was chosen by Wright’s widow Olgivanna, based on a seashell she found near the Sea of Japan. That seashell now is on display in the Van Wezel lobby.
Unfortunately, 33 years ago, when the city found itself short of funding, Peters had to scale back the design. He added a fold to the seashell roof-line to draw the building in, making the lobbies and bayfront Grand Foyer much smaller than originally intended. By going back to Peters’ original concept and deleting that fold, Puttnam and his Taliesin team have added 16 feet of valuable public space. The new roof will look more like the scallop shell William Wesley Peters envisioned.
Of course, many other important elements comprise the $20 million renovation and expansion. The new Van Wezel boasts a new, much larger, state-of-the-art stagehouse, first-ever elevators, quadruple the number of spaces for wheelchairs and triple the number of restrooms, a new Selby Education Center and administrative wing, as well as comfortable larger lobbies and Grand Foyer. Extraordinary measures have been taken to protect the theater’s superb acoustics, including the creation of an elaborate custom designed orchestra shell. Preserved, too, is the intimate feeling in the theater itself. With approximately 1,800 seats in a continental configuration, patrons and artists alike have long praised the hall's intimacy.
The whole building is vastly more efficient and comfortable, but the beauty of the project is that it looks remarkably the same.