Can the historic Towles Courthouse survive the real estate boom?
Walking around Towles Court, the historic district located at the northeast corner of Laurel Park in downtown Sarasota, the average visitor might not think that much has changed since the community was founded as an artists’ colony in 1995. Unlike other nearby neighborhoods, change is taking over. The shape of demolished homes, cleared lots, and boxy new construction, Towles Court still looks much as it did decades ago, with colorful old Florida cottages and a lush canopy of mature oak trees.
But with real estate values rising and demand for downtown real estate at an all-time high, it’s hard not to wonder whether a historic community like Towles Court can survive as a modern city grows around it. The truth is that the neighborhood is indeed changing, but not in ways that are easy to see.
Towles Court—bounded by Adams Lane to the north, Morrill Street to the south, Washington Boulevard to the east, and Osprey Avenue to the west—was originally developed in the 1920s by William B. Towles, who built bungalow-style homes for professionals and residents Seasonal. By the 1970s, many of the homes were abandoned and had fallen into disrepair, and the area was considered a slum until the 1980s, when NJ Olivieri began purchasing and renovating abandoned homes in an attempt to revitalize the area. Encouraged by friends and artists from around the country to turn the neighborhood into an artists’ colony, he successfully petitioned the city to secure mixed-use commercial and residential zoning for the neighborhood, which enabled artists to purchase homes for their use. as live workspaces.
Anna Bryan, president of the Towles Court Neighborhood Association, and her husband, Henry, bought their 1924 bungalow in 2005 because they were drawn to the unique character and history of the neighborhood. When the Bryans moved in, there was an active homeowners association that had been in existence since 1995. The original deed restrictions required that a certain percentage of each property in the neighborhood be dedicated to art. If homeowners wished to sell their property, they were required to sell to someone who would commit to maintaining it as an art space.
As Sarasota’s real estate market boomed in the early 2000s, property values in Towles Court also began to rise. According to Jan Pollard, an interior designer who has kept a studio at Towls Court since 1997, things began to change in 2007, when a landlord sued the city so she could sell to whomever she wanted, and the city eventually released her from the bonds of the deed. “Other landlords started following suit, and once the artists started selling their properties at top dollar, the other artists couldn’t afford to move back into the neighborhood,” Pollard says.
In 2020, the Towles Court Homeowners Association was formally dissolved by a majority vote of its members, removing all restrictions on landlords. In response, some residents banded together to create a new neighborhood association that included artists and business owners, as well as homeowners; This organization was eventually recognized by the city. Its focus is on maintaining a safe neighborhood with a high quality of life and continuing the community’s historic focus on the arts.
“There’s a false narrative that just because the homeowners association is gone, the neighborhood is gone,” Brian says. “We’re still here. The artists are still here. History is still here. You can’t take away history.”
The neighborhood’s premier property is the Towles Court Arts Center, a stately two-story old building with a wraparound balcony. The center currently provides studio and exhibition space for 11 artists and two interior designers, and also houses Baby Brie’s Café & Wine Bar. Corey Cockerall and his wife, Sarah, opened the café (named after their daughter) in 2022. Cockerall also serves as vice president of the neighborhood association and is excited about his commitment.
“It’s a great community and it’s ready to go to the next level,” he says. “I’ve been all over the country and in Florida, and what we have here at Towls Court, with mixed-use residential and commercial buildings, and history — well, you can’t find that anywhere.”
In the artists’ colony’s early years, Towles Court became known for its monthly Friday evening art walks, when artists opened their studios and visitors could wander from gallery to gallery, sipping wine and enjoying live music in the courtyard. The Arts Center continues to hold open studio nights on the third Friday of every month, from October to May. These events are no longer called “art walks” because when property restrictions were lifted, many of the common easements in the area, including the sidewalks and central courtyard, became private property and were closed, making the neighborhood less walkable. However, open studio nights still include live music and artisan vendors on the veranda.
Peter Jaron, an artist and architect who owns a studio in the Arts Center and is now president of the Towls Court Artists’ Association, says there is still a lot of interest in events. “We have a good mix of people attending – regulars as well as newcomers who have just found us, and a mix of different age groups,” he says. “We have some really good, professional artists here, and there’s good, positive, creative energy. Even when things aren’t going well, it’s still creative.”
“This is the perfect destination when guests come from out of town and you want to show them something unique to Sarasota,” says Maggie Kreuger, another artist at the center. “It provides an unusually immersive experience where people can ask questions, interact, and learn about the art process.”
Some Towles Court business owners express mixed feelings about the state of the neighborhood. Steve Phelps, whose popular restaurant Indigenous has been a fixture in the area for 12 years, says he remembers when the monthly art walks were raucous events that brought in hundreds of visitors, some of whom would sometimes wander into his restaurant thinking it was another gallery.
“When I opened the store, I felt there was more vibrancy and a sense of community here,” he says. “Unfortunately, this world is changing very quickly. People buy property and want to do what they want with it. It used to be Towls Court artists’ colony. Now it’s just Towls Court.”
Kathryn Kettinger owns The Garden Room Café in Shoogie Boogies, a private reservation-based property that’s been in the neighborhood since 2005. “It no longer exists,” she says. “I love this neighborhood, but over the years I’ve seen it develop into mostly a small business district.” Other businesses include hair salons, beauty studios, an acupuncture clinic, and a financial advisory firm.
Stephanie Peters, owner of Stephanie’s Hair Design Studio, says she believes the city’s decision not to enforce the rules that kept the neighborhood as an artists’ colony was the catalyst for the changes that have occurred.
“The city didn’t look at the bigger picture, and they didn’t see what would happen if they did it to one owner, and how everyone else would want to do it, too.
“Then we no longer had an artists’ colony,” she says. “To me, it represents what’s happening in development in Sarasota right now. The city is opening up all these new areas and changing density requirements and they’re increasing the population, but they don’t understand that it’s not about now. It’s about what happens 20 years after the decision One. This single decision changed the entire Towles court.
Despite the changes, many in the neighborhood insist that Towles Court remains a hidden gem. “This area has continued to attract artists and art enthusiasts, even though it is no longer an art colony,” says Pollard, the interior designer. “I think the more they tear things down in Sarasota, (the more) the future of Towles Court is secured, because it preserves something that is disappearing.”
“Towles Court is getting better,” says Kokral. “It’s never dead. The question isn’t ‘How has the neighborhood done?’ It’s ‘Where can it go from here?’