One of the finest Boomtime buildings in Sarasota, Florida, is at risk of demolition after years of vacancy. Sound familiar? In the 1990s, it was the John Ringling Towers, which was razed in 1998. This time it’s the Belle Haven Apartments.
Designed by revered local architect Dwight James Baum in the Mediterranean Revival style, the Belle Haven debuted in 1926 as the El Vernona Apartments, luxury accommodations for seasonal residents on Sarasota Bay just north of downtown. Rooms featured linen and silverware, and guests could pass those frigid Sarasota winter days on the dock that stretched into the bay. The site was intended to be the centerpiece of the Central Broadway development, but the those plans were quashed in the 1927 land bust. The Belle Haven was converted into offices in 1984, and the building closed about a decade ago. Yet the building has remained relatively untouched in its nearly 90 years, surprising considering its location on such a visible and desirable tract. It was locally landmarked in 1984.
The Belle Haven’s surroundings sure have changed a lot in the past 90 years though. Sarasota went from winter getaway to thriving small city after World War II, and buildings sprouted up near the bayfront to reflect its heightened status. The bay itself is now farther away from the Belle Haven after fill was added in the 1960s. Next door, the hulking Quay entertainment complex rose in the 1960s and then came crashing down in 2007 when a $1 billion project was planned for the site. That project died during the financial crisis, and nothing has been built to replace it, so the Belle Haven sits idle amid a sea of scraggly grass lots.
Change is on the horizon. A developer bought the former Quay property and Belle Haven last year with plans to build a hotel, commercial space, retail, and residences. As of now, the Belle Haven is to be integrated into those plans. But that could quickly change. Or the Belle Haven could be left vacant and not maintained. It’s up to preservationists to remain vigilant and remind the developer and public officials of the building’s architectural significance. Sarasota doesn’t need another loss like John Ringling Towers.