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Sarasota, Here I Come

Joe and Jean Volpe with Bud and Betty Shapiro at the Sarasota Ballet's fundraising gala.
Sarasota, Here I Come
By Geraldine Fabrikant

Sarasota transplants, Joe and Jean Volpe.
When Joe Volpe, the former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, decided to move South, he and his wife Jean easily gravitated to Sarasota. Mr. Volpe had come there as a child, and he is an avid boater. But his choice was more than just about the water. “Sarasota is extremely attractive because of all the performing arts,” Mr. Volpe said the other day. “There is just a tremendous amount of culture.”

Jean Volpe is a former ballerina and ballet teacher and so it is no surprise that Mr. Volpe almost immediately joined the board of the Sarasota Ballet which has gotten rave reviews not only from local papers but from the New York Times as well.

In his role at the Metropolitan Opera, Mr. Volpe certainly mastered the art of making a splash and his handiwork was evident at the Ballet’s fundraising gala in February: a tribute to Rudolf Nureyev for which Mr. Volpe underwrote a lush fireworks display over Sarasota Bay.
The fireworks display underwritten by Mr. Volpe.
Among the nearly 300 guests at the dinner were Claudia McCorkle, Bud Harris, Richard Ferrell and Laurent Hilaire, the former Paris Opera Ballet dancer.

Ballet Chairman Sydney Goldstein credits its growing reputation to director Iain Webb and his wife Margaret Barbieri. “Margaret’s brother lives in the U.S. and heard that we were looking for a new artistic director,” Mrs. Goldstein recalled. “He contacted Iain. Once we interviewed him, there was no question but he was the one. And his wife was a star dancers at Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet. Iain’s mandate was to put it on the map and he has certainly done that.”
Ballet Chairman Sydney Goldstein thanking director Iain Webb and his wife Margaret Barbieri. Jerome and Sydney Goldstein.
Bud Harris, Claudia McCorkle, and Richard Ferrell.
Jerry Genova, Sandra Miranda, Bob Evans, and Janice Kunkel.
Hillary Steele and Claudia McCorkle.
Charlotte and Charles Perret.
Ruth Barker and Betty Shapiro.
Sally Yanowitz and Hon. Carolyn Mason. Carol and Mort Siegler.
Sara Scherer, Karol Foss, and Michael Burfield.
Richard and Marsha Johnson.
Kelly Yankle.
Jessica Cohen and Daniel Rodriguez.
Ricardo Rhodes.
Terry and Susan Romine.
The ballet, like the theater, the symphony and the opera in Sarasota are extremely active and in “the season,” as people like to say, the schedule gets hectic. For ballet lovers, there are twice weekly tours of the studio where one can watch dancers taking daily class as one of the company’s ballet masters leads them through techniques. Board member Kay Delaney and I joined a group as we peaked in to watch costumes being sewn and passed by a storage room with stacks of tutus piled atop one another like so many brightly colored macaroons from Ladurée.
The tutu room.
What is rather astonishing about the city is that during a weekend when the ballet performed three times at Van Wezel Hall, the 1700 seats were virtually sold out at every performance.

The ballet is not the only art nurtured in Sarasota that has garnered national attention. Last season’s production of Maxwell Anderson’s “The Matchmaker” and Thornton Wilder’s “Both Your Houses” at the Asolo theater, elicited raves from the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout. Of “The Matchmaker,” he wrote that the “Asolo has done right by one of the sweetest and smartest comedies ever written.” Of “Both Your Houses,“ about a Congressman trying to stop graft Mr. Teachout pronounced it as good as anything on Broadway.
The room set for about 450 guests at the Asolo annual gala.
About 450 guests attended the benefit for the Asolo which followed on the heels of the ballet’s benefit, and included a performance by Grammy nominated Deborah Cox, who will star in the theater’s production of “Josephine” which opens in May. The crowd included chairmen Debbie Haspel, Jenifer Schembri and Jennifer Rust along with Faiza Kedir, whose Landsberg Bennet Private Wealth Management firm was a corporate sponsor.
Co-chairmen Debbie Haspel, Jenifer Schembri, and Jennifer Rust.
Chair Faiza Kedir. Valerie Jones.
If Eastern critics are taking increasing note of Sarasota’s cultural life, East coasters are increasingly moving into a town that has long been dominated by mid westerners and Canadians who began coming down I-75 decades ago.

Jennifer Rominiecki, the new president and chief executive officer of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, is the most recent transplant from New York where she had been the New York Botanical Gardens’ vice president for Institutional Advancement. Trustees, including local real estate titan Michael Saunders and leading lawyer Tom Luzier, are thrilled to have lured her away from New York.
Selby Gardens's new director, Jennifer Rominiecki.
Over lunch in a gazebo on the grounds of Selby that overlook the bay, we dined on tea sandwiches and scones as Ms. Rominiecki explained that her goal for the garden, which is famous for its epiphytes — or plants that grow in the tree canopy, and include many varieties of orchids — is to explore and expand the number of special exhibitions. Just a year ago, the garden opened the Anne Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden and Ms. Rominiecki, who has two children herself, hopes the use that garden to develop a larger family audience.
The Selby Gardens is famous for its orchids ...
Selby is so well known to garden aficionados that we were joined for lunch by Dr. Ethan Fried, the chief botanist, and Fallon Cartwright, the executive director of The Leon Levy Preserve in Eleuthera, the Bahamas.  That site, which collects local plants from all over the Bahamas, is the creation of Shelby White, the widow of Mr. Levy, a well known financier. In the small world department, Ms. White, who is vice chairman of the New York Botanical Garden, is a big fan of Ms. Rominiecki’s. Dr. Fried was particularly impressed with the research and science at Selby as well as its extensive library with its texts on the history of botany.  Such libraries are rare, Dr. Fried said. “In most places, the access is mostly electronic, but Selby has the real collection that lets you access the physical documents.”
At the Gardens' widely respected archives.
Sarasota may have stunning gardens, but when it comes to the architectural arts, one must concede it is no match for Palm Beach’s sprawling, elaborate Adison Mizner beachfront palaces.

But what it does have are a handful of houses that were the creation of Paul Rudolf, the leading  architect of what came to be known as the Sarasota School of architecture: an effort during the 1950s to create modern buildings that took into account the challenges of subtropical settings. Rudolf, who went on to head the Yale School of Architecture, relied on sliding doors and virtual walls of jalousies that let the breezes from the bay blow through.
Paul Rudolf's Walker Guest House on Sanibel island (Photo by Ezra Stoller/Esto via NC Modernist). "It crouches like a tiger in the sand," Rudolph once said of it.
Not many of his works still exist, but those that do have infatuated some architecture lovers.

That was the case with Bob and Ann Essner.  Transplants from New Jersey where Mr. Essner was chairman and chief executive of Wyeth Pharmaceutical, they first bought a  home on the water in Lido Shores that was created by Adrienne Vittadini, another New Yorker who spends part of the winter in Sarasota when she and her husband are not skiing in Italy.

Then the Essners fell in love with a nearby Rudolf house, complete with sliding doors and multi layers of floors.
The Rudolf house that the Essners bought and have since meticulously restored.
Restoring that house might have been the end of the acquisition trail, had not the owner of the iconic Rudolf umbrella house, just across the street from the Vittadini house, put it on the market. Built in 1953, pre air conditioning, its north and south sides are created almost entirely of jalousies to allow the winds from the gulf and the bay. To minimize the impact of the sun, Rudolf create a sort of trellis over the pool that quickly gave the house the nickname of ‘’umbrella” house. Workmen are now busily modernizing the 2000 square foot house and the Essners plan to rebuild the trellis which had virtually disappeared.
The famous Umbrella House that Paul Rudolf designed and that has also been bought by the Essners. It is currently in the process of restoration.
They even plan to stay through the summer. It may be hot in Sarasota, but “New York is hot too,’’ Ann Essner noted.

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