In my 25 years at this newspaper, I have received the equivalent of a few more college degrees, especially in history and the arts.
And as the Gondolier moves toward its 75th anniversary in March, it has been fun to look back at stories I have covered, places I have visited and sadly, even a few that have gone.
At least part of the old Cypress Gardens remains at Legoland, which even replicated its ladies in hoop-skirted gowns but made entirely of Legos. The old Banyan Theatre Company and MOSI (Museum of Science and Industry in Sarasota have both come and gone. While I wasn’t here for its arrival, the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre dropped its curtain for the last time after about 40 years but with the title of longest-running dinner theater in the country.
But nothing has captured my interest as much the creation of the Hermitage Artist Retreat on Manasota Key.
It was created from a collection of buildings on a 3.5-acre site in 2000, when the Sarasota County Arts Council spearheaded the move with other cultural institutions, area residents and county officials who had plans to seek grants from the Venice Foundation (now the Gulf Coast Community Foundation) and the state.
When my first article about the site on Manasota Key appeared on this page on July 8, 2000, the founders hoped for a 2002 opening and the arrival of their first resident artist.
The site consisted of the main house, The Hermitage, which was built in 1905-06 by Carl G. Johanson, a Swedish immigrant; two rusty cisterns; the Whitney house, built in 1941 by naval architect Dr. Alfred H. Whitney; a beach cottage; a pump house; and a garage.
The Whitney house was ahead of its time with elements that would help it to withstand hurricanes, yet it was the older main house that was selected as the first house to renovate. It was closest to Manasota Beach Road and owned by Sarasota County, another key participant.
For a few years, the house had been rented by Ruth Swayze, mother of Englewood artist Carroll Swayze. I had met Ruth about that time and learned how much she had loved living in the house for a few years. She hoped it would be saved for some special purpose — perhaps even an artist retreat, she said at the time.
Patricia Caswell was director of the Sarasota Arts Council in those days and to this day has been a driving force for the creation and growth of the Hermitage.
The late Syd Adler was another of the prime movers and shakers and Sarasota County historical resources manager Dave Baber was a key helper, providing historical facts about the various parcels making up the initial campus.
The state contributed a $13,500 grant to fund blueprints on ways to stabilize buildings such as the beachfront cottage, which was closest to the gulf and was the last building to be renovated.
One of the first additions was a handicap ramp leading up to the Hermitage cottage, even though the floorboards in the cottage would not be able to support a person in a wheelchair at the time.
A new foundation for that house was the first step in the multi-year project that would finally lead to the arrival of sculptor Malcomb Roberts from Scotland in 2004, two years after the hoped-for 2002 opening.
As work progressed toward the lofty goal of creating a major artists retreat, Baber would oversee ensuring that the integrity of the historic site and structures would be maintained.
If ever there were proof that “it takes a village” to create something akin to The Hermitage, that was and remains very much the case.
By 2003, work was progressing on the main house and also on the development of the eventual operation of the retreat, selection of artists and even what they would be asked to contribute to the area for what they would receive. While the selected artists work on their chosen projects, they are asked to contribute something to the community. It could be a musical concert, a talk about their project or even a sample of their work.
Artists receive six weeks at the Hermitage, which they can do all at once or break up into two or three segments. It is a gift of time in which they can concentrate on a specific project in that special place and often, gain inspiration from other artists who might be in residence at the same time.
They represent art in all its many media, music and literature. Since sculptor Malcomb Roberts of Scotland, they have included poets and playwrights, artists and musicians.
After a few years in operation, a summer program was added to invite five Florida teachers in the arts to come for a two-week stay at the Hermitage. They come at the same time to share ideas about arts education.
Hermitage fellows can stay in the main house, Whitney house, beach cottage or former pump house. The former garage can be used as a studio or gallery. Even the cisterns have been restored and a few years ago, a neighboring property was added to enlarge the overall site and also provide space for an office for the director.
Bruce Rogers left his position as associate artistic director of the Asolo Theatre Company in 2004 to become the executive director of the Hermitage.
With a tiny staff, an active board, the continuing support of Patricia Caswell and the Arts Council, plus neighbors and friends, restoration grew and so did the numbers of Hermitage scholars, the impact on the community and then with the addition of the Greenfield Prize, its international reputation.
In 2019 Rogers was succeeded by Andy Sandberg, a director, writer, and at the age of 35, a Tony Award-winning producer on Broadway. He has a strong interest in new work and artist development
At the same time, the Hermitage site on Manasota Beach has become a sort of time capsule of Florida architectural history with its historic buildings.
While the site is not open to daily visitors there are many opportunities throughout the year to visit the site for concerts at the beach, readings in the former garage or other events. Hermitage artists also have gone out into the community to present programs such as the late playwright Romulus Linney (father of actress Laura Linney) who, with Venice Theatre executive producing director Murray Chase, spoke about playwriting and theater some years ago when he was a Hermitage Fellow.
For those of us lucky enough to live in this area, the Hermitage is more proof of the kind of neighbors we have.