Sarasota’s New College launches competition to significantly overhaul an I. M. Pei dorm complex

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Sarasota’s New College launches competition to significantly overhaul an I. M. Pei dorm complex

Balcony of a girls’ dormitory at the Pei-designed residence halls, 2010s (Courtesy New College Foundation)

Sarasota, Florida’s New College will work with Architecture Sarasota to host a competition for the adaptive reuse of the campus’s I. M. Pei–designed dormitories. Reimagining Pei will seek proposals for the bayfront college’s dilapidated dorm complex through September 1.  

In February 2021 AN reported that the buildings would be extensively renovated, preserving their architectural heritage and offering housing for students for years to come. That project was never realized, and earlier this summer, some students reported that they were being relocated into the Pei dorms to make more room for student athletes and freshman. This was an issue as the dorms had been deemed “virtually uninhabitable,” with extensive mold visible in numerous rooms. 

Aerial view of Pei Dormitories under construction, June 1963 (Courtesy New College Foundation)

New College was founded in 1960, with the help of Philip Hanson Hiss III, who pioneered much of Sarasota’s now-famous modernist architecture. As Chair of the Sarasota Board of Public Instruction, Hiss oversaw the development of nine modernist education buildings, and in the development of New College, sought to bring internationally significant design to campus. New College opened in 1964, with the Pei complex, Bates, Rothenberg, and Johnson Residence Halls, opening a year later. 

Pei’s brutalist design for the buildings stood in contrast to Sarasota’s tropical modernism, and to the architect’s other dorm projects, like the glassier Spelman Hall at Princeton University or the more vertical Hale Manoa at the East–West Center. The tightly-constructed dorms are organized around three interior courtyards, all of which are centered around a Palm Court, which offers a more communal, palm tree-lined space. Stairs and bridges connect buildings in each complex, with many buildings offering shaded exterior spaces with covered balconies. Pei’s full plan was never realized, but the completed dorm clusters are the architect’s only built work in Florida.

Aerial view of Pei Dormitories and Palm Court (New College Foundation)

New plans will scrap the residential aspects of Pei’s design entirely, and work the complex into a larger redevelopment of the eastern section of campus into an athletic, retail, and restaurant center. New College Interim President and Ron DeSantis–appointee Richard Corcoran said that “New College values what these structures represent to thousands but also recognizes that the current condition of the dorms makes complete renovation costs prohibitive if not impossible.” Corcoran himself was at the center of a scandal over his $699,000 salary, amid other plans to shift the traditionally open-minded college’s curriculum—for which Pei was designing—into a bastion of conservative thought. 

Morris “Marty” Hylton III, president of Architecture Sarasota, said that “this shared initiative between Architecture Sarasota and New College of Florida demonstrates the power of collaboration to help ensure the continuity of the Sarasota community’s architectural legacy.”

The competition says that “New College anticipates a significant intervention and alteration of the structures,” with the Palm Court and facades targeted for preservation. On September 8, the college, with advice from Architecture Sarasota, will select three entries from the competition to award $10,000 for further development including structural analysis, site visits, and design concepts. The college and Architecture Sarasota will work with the three firms to understand projected costs and resolve potential concerns, and announce a competition winner on November 17. 

Palm Court of Pei Dormitories, December 2015 (Chip Litherland/Courtesy New College Foundation)

Reimagining Pei came out of the school’s New College Challenge, “a bold design endeavor created to excite and engage the college and community in envisioning a more vibrant campus and campus life.” Seeking input from Kean University, Syracuse University, the University of Florida, the University of Miami, the University of South Florida, and Yale University, New College solicited design suggestions for the campus’s future growth, which are currently on view in an exhibition hosted by Architecture Sarasota.

While other focuses emerged from larger campus master plans, including better connections to the waterfront, the transformation of the Pei buildings will be significant for a city that has traditionally held its midcentury design close to heart. As New College seeks to radically shift its educational prerogatives to the right, how will architects incorporate Pei into an overtly classical mission?