Campus Attractions at New College of Florida
By Florence Beth Snyder
Arts and smarts fill the air at New College of Florida, where 800 of the most academically gifted students in Florida’s state university system study in breathtaking winter palaces built by the family behind the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Florida’s flagship honors college, in Sarasota, signaled its grand ambitions right from the start, with the purchase the former Charles Ringling estate on Sarasota Bay, followed by a campus dedication ceremony in which earth from Harvard was mixed with soil from New College. The school quickly became a magnet for scholars and students seeking to pursue a life of the mind in the midst of one of Florida's most exquisite environments.
Today, New College is one of the prestigious Princeton Review’s “Top 50 Colleges That Pay You Back.” Students benefit from soothing waterfront views and a flourishing academic partnership with the Ringling College of Art & Design, the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, the State College of Florida and the Florida State University’s satellite arts program at the historic Asolo Theater. This Consortium of Colleges of the Creative Coast (C4) offers an embarrassment of tourist riches along a three-mile strip of U.S. 41 known as the North Tamiami Trail.
New College straddles U.S. 41 and is informally divided into three “campuses.” The Pei campus is on the east side and is linked by a pedestrian bridge to the eponymously named Bayfront campus. The Caples campus also sits on the west side, next door to what is now the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Caples is home to the FineArts Complex, which includes the acoustically perfect Mildred F. Sainer Art & Music Pavilion and the PepsiCo Arcade and Forum.
New College uses all of these venues and more for New Music New College (NMNC), an annual series of concerts and conversations that showcases “all new music, all the time.” The program reaches well beyond Top 40 and richly rewards concert-goers who are up for the challenge of engaging with world-class musicians on the cutting edge of contemporary music.
The Pei campus takes its name from architect I.M. Pei, who designed New College’s original residence halls and earned international acclaim for his innovative designs. Pei used clustered construction and communal spaces to encourage friendship and fellowship among students. How well he succeeded can be seen at the outdoor Palm Court around which the Pei buildings are grouped, and which is now the festive center of student life.
Palm Court is named for the stately royal palm trees which were part of Pei’s design. The students who took up residence when the dorms opened in 1965 declared Palm Court to be the Center of the Universe.
The name stuck, and traditions developed. Students dance and decompress there on Friday nights at gatherings known as “Walls.” Center of the Universe Parties (COUPs) are convened on Halloween, graduation, and other occasions which require louder music and more opulent decorations.
New College’s student union, also designed by Pei, is formally known as Hamilton Center and affectionately known as the Ham. The building functions as the campus living room with places to eat and places to play. The Ham was renovated in 2010 and now houses the 75-seat Black Box Theater. The venue can be configured for theater in the round as well as conventional seating; student art work is featured in the Black Box lobby, and also at the Betty Isermann Gallery in the Caples Fine Arts Center.
“We fix bikes ‘cause we like it … and it’s a great way to pick up a date,” is the motto and mission statement of The Bike Shoppe, New College's oldest continuously running student organization. Squeaky brakes, balky chains, seat adjustments and flat tires are all in a day’s work for volunteer students who can do whatever it takes to nurse unicycles, quadricycles or garden-variety two wheelers back to health.
There is no better place to watch a Florida sunset than New College’s Bayfront. Pack a picnic and sit under the beloved Camphor tree, and don’t be surprised if you stumble on to a professor teaching class there.
There are more trees — and built-in benches — on “The Lawn,” a sunken green at the base of the Four Winds Sculpture.
Four Winds — as much of a school mascot as this alt campus enjoys — is also the name of New College’s student-operated vegetarian Cafe. The Café is located in a converted barn once used to house Ringling’s elephants. There’s indoor and outdoor seating and WiFi for those who need to stay in touch with work while lingering over locally sourced taste treats. The Cafe regularly spices things up with art exhibitions and music events.
When you go…
New College of Florida
5800 Bay Shore Road
Sarasota, Fla. 34243