Municipal Auditorium: Sarasota's enduring landmark

SARASOTA, Fla. – In the latest of Linda Carson’s looks at historical Suncoast buildings, we take a close-up look at the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium.  It was built at the tail end of The Depression, a sure sign that the people of Sarasota were preparing for celebrations and prosperity, even in the darkest days.

The Depression was raging, that's why Sarasota got a real deal when they bought the land for the Municipal Auditorium. "This is 37 acres of property, and the city bought it for $15,000 in back taxes," says Jeff Lahurd, history specialist with Sarasota County.

Before the crash, a developer had had big plans for the site. "This was supposed to be the sight of the Adair Hotel, which was a 15-story proposed hotel. And when the real estate crash hit, that dream disappeared."

Sarasota was able to build the auditorium through the WPA, the public works project designed by the federal government to help put people back to work. "At that time, Sarasota was in the throes of the Great Depression, so the WPA projects we had really helped a lot to boost the economy," says Lahurd.

Municipal Auditorium vintage aerial

Sarastota mayor A.B. Smith and city leaders believed an auditorium would attract tourists. "They wanted to offer every conceivable recreational activity, so they had lawn bowling, basketball, tennis, shuffleboard, baseball diamond, horseshoe pitching…everything they could think of was here on the grounds."

The auditorium opened on February 24th, 1938.

Architect Thomas Martin designed it in the Art Deco style. His son designed the fountain in front.

Municipal Auditorium with fountain

During World War 2, the auditorium was turned into an Army Navy Club for the hordes of service men stationed here. "They had boxing matches and dances and places for them to write letters home."

Municipal Auditorium vintage interior

After the war it went back to its original purpose. All kinds of shows were held there, from stamp shows to garden shows to stage shows. "When I was a kid, I saw Louie Armstrong here," says Lahurd.

It went through changes through the years. A facade was put on once to modernize it. "Then about 20 years ago it was removed to reveal the intricate work of the old design."

The Municipal Auditorium was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on February 24, 1995.  The auditorium is still in regular use today, regularly hosting events and trade shows nearly every weekend.