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Demolition Nears for Paul Rudolph’s Riverview High School

May 18, 2009

By David Sokol

On Saturday, May 23, students, teachers, and admirers of Riverview High School in Sarasota, Florida, plan to spend the day meandering among its rooms and hallways, paying their final respects to the Paul Rudolph–designed building. The gathering was prompted by a May 5 decision by the Sarasota County School Board to approve funds to demolish the structure, which will take place some time during summer break.

Photo © Ezra Stoller/Esto
On May 5, the Sarasota County School Board approved the funds to demolish Riverview High School.
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The decision and pending teardown culminates a years-long debate over the merits of the Rudolph building and the likelihood of its rescue. When it was completed in 1958, Riverview High School was hailed in the design and mainstream press as a paragon of regionally specific, modern architectural principles and progressive educational space. Yet school officials subsequently handled the advent of air-conditioning, as well as maintenance, clumsily—some would say maliciously—and tacked upgrades onto the building with little sensitivity to Rudolph’s design. A visit last December revealed dark hallways that were once open to daylight and breezes; only shading devices edging the U-shaped entry courtyard appeared unchanged.

A small number of Sarasotans, many of whom own homes designed by Rudolph or other Sarasota School architects like Bert Brosmith, Gene Leedy, Victor Lundy, and William Rupp, looked past the decades of neglect when, in early 2006, the school board announced its intention to build a larger school designed by BMK Architects and to plunk a parking lot on the site of the original. These concerned residents set up the nonprofit organization Save Riverview and enlisted champions in the architecture community like Toshiko Mori, FAIA, to raise awareness of the threat.

Their advocacy work culminated in a National Trust for Historic Preservation charrette in April 2007 and, the following year, a design competition to reuse the school. The winning concept by New York–based Diane Lewis, AIA, imagined the building as a campus for professional musicians as well as the high school’s own highly regarded music program. Yet the so-called Riverview Music Quadrangle plan ultimately did not win over the school board, largely because the proponents of the scheme did not have immediate access to redevelopment capital. Last June, the board voted 3-2 to demolish the Rudolph building.

According to Paul Rudolph Foundation volunteer Sean Khorsandi, environmental abatement may delay the wrecking balls slightly, and Lewis is still working to raise the funds necessary to green-light the Music Quadrangle. Meanwhile, the new school, which appears to dwarf Rudolph’s structure, is nearing completion on an adjacent site.

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