Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center’s Fourth Season Draws to a Close
The Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center has had an amazing season, and now there is more great news for the Davis and the community. On Tuesday, April 17, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Florida’s $70 billion budget, and that budget includes a $650,000 State of Florida Cultural Facilities Grant for the historic treasure that has been transformed into an art center.
“I would like to thank especially Senator Benacquisto, City of Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson, and former Mayor Jim Humphrey for their tireless efforts to get this grant program funded,” says Jim Griffith, CEO at the Davis. “One hundred percent of these funds will go towards construction and restoration of the upper floors of the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center. Once completed this space will be a spectacular asset for the entire community.”
The two upper floors will be used for art classes and music lessons, as well as additional meeting and gallery space. It will take about $2 million to complete the restoration of the building, but the state money will allow construction to begin again. A new elevator is now almost completed, which will allow easier access to the second and third floors. When finished, the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center will be one of the largest multidisciplinary cultural arts facilities in southwest Florida.
The stately building and its surrounding site are part of the local heritage. The site on which the building now stands was a Native American (Calusa) settlement hundreds of years ago. In the mid-1800s, it became the officers’ quarters of the original fort of Fort Myers.
In 1933, four years into the Great Depression, the building opened as a post office. Designed by prominent Florida architect Nat Gaillard Walker, it is one of only a few masterpieces of Neoclassic Revival architecture in Florida. The winter homes of leading figures like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone were mere minutes away from the post office.
The building was converted into a federal courthouse in the 1960s and was then vacated in 1998 after a new courthouse was built nearby. The vacant building suffered deterioration from water infiltration adding to great wear from public use and deferred maintenance while it was serving the community. Many of the original fixtures were removed or destroyed.
In 2003, Jim Griffith and Florida Arts, Incorporated, the operator of the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center, acquired a 99-year lease on the building from the City of Fort Myers. Florida Arts, Inc. agreed to restore the building to its original magnificence while creating a modern arts facility. A Division of Historical Resources grant in the amount of $350,000 was awarded in 2004 to stabilize the building and stop water infiltration. This grant provided a new roof and complete restoration of the decorative steel cased windows throughout the building. Matching funds came from individual and corporate donors and the City of Fort Myers. Philanthropist and long-time Fort Myers resident Berne Davis provided major funding for the refurbishing project and, in 2005, the building was dedicated to Sidney & Berne Davis. The Davis Art Center opened to the public on September 10, 2007, and is just completing its fourth season of world-class arts programming, arts education, and community outreach, bringing over 80,000 visitors to the Center annually.
The construction of the building back in the early 1930’s provided greatly needed jobs to the community. It was a Reconstruction Finance Corporation project under President Herbert Hoover which evolved into the better known Works Progress Administration (WPA) under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Further restoration of the building not only will allow the expansion of arts and education programs but will again provide much needed jobs to area residents. The Davis Art Center is hoping to match funds from the state grant through individual and corporate donations.