This is a great article by Alastair Gordon, architecture critic for the Miami Herald and editor for the Wall Street Journal! The official opening of the Walker Guest House replica @ The Ringling Museum is November 6, 2015 during SAF’s SarasotaMOD Weekend.
I set out on my auspicious little outing to Sanibel Island, driving across the lower instep of Florida, marshy light deflecting off the windshield, sheet-flow expanding incrementally as the car moves westward along the pencil-straight line of Route 75, otherwise known as ‘Alligator Alley’ (although I never spot a single gator along the way), past fences and swales and empty parking lots, the sky turning milky and oddly rippled with altocumulus clouds, sucking up moisture from the shallows of the Everglades.
I’m going to visit the Walker Guest House, Paul Rudolph’s little beach-house gem, built in 1952, just after Gordon Bunshaft’s Lever House opened in New York City and the nightmarish “Tumbler-Snapper” nuclear device was detonated in the Nevada desert. Richard Nixon gave his infamous Checkers speech that same month and the USS Nautilus, America’s first nuclear submarine, was launched in Groton, Connecticut. Indeed it was the heyday of the…
On March 21, 2015, SAF will host a very special event in honor of Chick Austin, The Ringling Museum’s first director from 1947 to 1956. Mr. Austin’s Sarasota home, built in 1925, will be the site of a lecture, house tour and garden party. Ron McCarty, curator and keeper of Cà d’Zan, will present a talk on the house known as“Villa Cirque.” Columnist Bob Plunket, of Sarasota Magazine, will discuss the social history of Sarasota in the 1940s and ’50s. Eugene Gaddis, author of Austin’s biography titled “Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America”, will present “The Baroque and the Modern: Chick Austin’s Extraordinary Architecture.” Gaddis is the archivist and curator of the Austin House, owned by the Wadsworth Atheneum museum in Hartford, Connecticut. Austin, then in his mid-40s, came from the Wadsworth in 1946 to head the Ringling.
The following article appeared in the March 14, 2013 Issue of the Observer.
Home of the Month
Glorious Past, Glorious Present
By Robert Plunket
This is where it all started. Even more than the Cá d’ Zan, the Austin House is the birthplace of the modern Sarasota lifestyle. This is where the arts were established as the driving force in local culture, where money and politics collided with creativity, and where the town’s love of entertainment blossomed into the razzle-dazzle that continues to this day. Bette Davis slept here. So did Dame Edith Sitwell, Prince Rainer, and Gypsy Rose Lee — although, one hopes, not all together or at the same time.
A. Everett Austin — known to everyone as “Chick” — was the first director of The Ringling Museum, from 1947 to 1956. He remains a legend in the art world. During his previous job at the Wadsworth Antheneum in Hartford, Conn., he was celebrated as the man who introduced modern art to America. His vision embraced all the arts —music, film, theater, architecture — and he worked hard to ensure that both museums under his care became the crown jewels of their communities. His personal style was the epitome of sophistication. He had a penchant for impeccable tailoring and Rolls Royces. The home he designed in Hartford, part Baroque, part Bauhaus, is now a museum.
His home in Sarasota, scarcely less remarkable though much less well known, is now on the market. And its current owner Jerry Chaplain turns out to have been the perfect heir to the Austin legacy.
The house was originally built in 1925, in the Mediterranean Revival style of the time. It belonged to the Whitfield family, one of several homes they owned in the area now called Whitfield Estates. Designed by Thomas Monk, architect of Sarasota High, it was a large home for the era—five bedrooms, a small guest cottage, and a large garden set on the western side, with nothing between it and the bay.
The first thing Austin did was eliminate three of the bedrooms and turn that space into two spectacular rooms — a 40-foot ballroom for his famous parties and an adjoining porch done in the Chinese Chippendale style, with green fret work framing a view of the gardens. Both of these rooms remain virtually intact.
When Chaplain gives visitors a tour, he is proud to point out the many original details that date back to Austin. The living room is lined with Scalamandre fabric and the anteroom to the ballroom contains 18th-century Italian hand painted wallpaper, originally from the Asolo Theatre, which Austin brought over from Italy and had installed on the grounds of the museum. (The earliest Asolo rehearsals and play-readings took place out in the garden.)
But, perhaps the most remarkable artifact is not original to the house, though the story it tells perfectly reflects the house’s glamorous appeal. Upstairs in the guest bedroom is a portrait in oil of a graceful female nude, who, upon closer examination, turns out to be Bette Davis. She and Austin were great friends. He even gave her second husband, painter William Grant Sherry, a one-man show at the Ringling. But what her husband perhaps did not know was that Davis’ attraction to Sarasota was due to more than her friendship with Austin. She was here to visit her long-time lover, Stanley Woodward, a well-known painter and a professor at Ringling College. Chaplain purchased the portrait — along with a cache of love letters — from Woodward’s daughter, who was very glad to be rid of them.
It takes a certain kind of person to take on the responsibility of such a remarkable home, but Jerry Chaplain is more than up to it. A private art dealer originally from Indiana, he bought the home in 1997 and has lavished time and attention, not to mention money, on this all-consuming project.
He kept the look of the major rooms intact, but modernized the kitchen with an eye toward large-scale entertaining. Most of the major changes have been outside. Chaplain added a pool — a lap pool that doubles as an ornamental reflecting pool, complete with a classical sculpture punctuating the axis. Beyond the pool is a patch of green lawn lined with more statues and, at the very farthest point, a Chinese temple set over a koi pond filled with 36 fish, all of which have names and some of which are up to 3 feet in length.
“Every thing you see is set up for a surprise,” Chaplain says. “You turn a corner and there is something totally unexpected.”
There is so much to see in fact, that only when you look up do you see the biggest surprise of all — a tri-level tree house set in a seven-story banyan tree. Climb the winding stairs to the top and you see a spectacular view of the neighborhood, with the bay a short distance away.
Chaplain spent years decorating the house in a formal, antique-filled style appropriate to its elegant architecture. Then, in May, he sold the home’s entire contents to a single dealer. Since then, he’s been busy refurnishing it in a witty blend of eclectic styles, part outsider art and found objects, part mid-century modern, part industrial, plus a unifying underlay of baroque. Art work is everywhere. A full size ceramic cow (by Longboat Key artist Joan Feder) grazes in the ballroom, and in the library, two friezes of frisky maidens (by Siesta Key painter Viktorija Bulava) face each other from opposite sides of the room. In fact, virtually every object in the house has been found locally, many from Crissy Galleries, Sarasota Architectural Salvage and Elliot Bernstein’s famous Sunday afternoon auctions.
“I’ve done everything I can possibly do,” Chaplain says of the home, with a wistful tone in his voice. Now he’s moving on. He’s purchased a home on a lake in his native Indiana and is already at work designing and remodeling. Thus, the famous Austin House will soon have a new owner and a new life with — hopefully — its magnificent past still intact.
The home, 227 Delmar Avenue, is currently for sale at $869,000. For more information, contact Dyrk Dahl of Coldwell Banker at 941-320-7373.
The 1939 World’s Fair in New York City introduced many new products and ideas about the future of the American home, promoting industrial design and new materials. But where could the average consumer touch, feel and buy modern design? And how could they learn how to choose, and use, the revolutionary new shapes, products and appliances? This lecture will demonstrate how modern design was popularized for the American consumer, highlighting the importance of designers like Russel and Mary Wright, curators like Alexander Girard and John McAndrew, and shopkeepers like Benjamin Thompsonat Design Research or Kitty Weese and Jody Kingreyat Baldwin Kingrey.
Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic. Her essays, reviews, and features have appeared in Architect, Domus, Dwell, Medium, Metropolis, New York Magazine, the New Yorker blog, and the New York Times. She has a monthly Opinion column at Dezeen. During academic year 2013–2014 she was a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She is the author of Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012), as well as the e-book The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism (Strelka Press, 2012). She has long been interested in the creation of domestic life, a theme running through Design Research: The Store that Brought Modern Living to American Homes (Chronicle Books, 2010), which she co-authored with Jane Thompson, as well as her contributions to Formica Forever (Metropolis Books, 2013) and Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future (Yale University Press, 2006). www.alexandralange.net
SAF Lecture: Modernism for the Masses
Thursday, April 23, 2015 Presented by Alexandra Lange 5:30 to 8:00 pm
Complimentary Meet-and-Greet Reception follows the lecture.
Herald-Tribune, 1741 Main Street, Sarasota, FL 34236
It’s been a rough month for architect Paul Rudolph. First, there was news of his Orange County Government Center in Goshen, NY being torn down and now, I just got word from the Sarasota Architectural Foundation that Rudolph’s elegantly minimal pedestrian canopies that extend around the side and back of his Sarasota Senior High School (1958-1960) are in imminent danger of being demolished by none other than Ringling College of Art + Design and the Sarasota Museum of Art (SMOA). Why would a museum want to tear down such an important historic artifact that was designed by the most famous architect of the Sarasota School? It truly beggars the imagination! Most cultural institutions would do anything to have such beautiful modernist structures as part of their campus.
Joseph Molitor photo of Sarasota High School showing all the Paul Rudolph-designed canopies, dated February 9, 1960.
Yes, I can see a clunky transition from parking lot to the back entry of the old brick high school building (c.1926) that the college is now renovating into a museum, but any decent architect would be able to figure out a smooth transition that incorporates the Rudolph canopies while doing a minimum of damage and still announcing “entry” to the people who are entering the museum from the parking lot side.
Sarasota High School Canopy Walkway. Photo courtesy Mary Ann Sullivan, Bluffton University.
The Sarasota County School Board did a commendable job in first saving and then meticulously restoring the Rudolph Sarasota High School Addition. Now Ringling College must follow suit and see the logic and historic necessity of saving the Rudolph canopies that extend from the high school onto their part of the property and link the two buildings as they were originally intended to do. The canopies are as important a part of the overall design as the main school building.
Sarasota High School Canopy Walkway designed by architect Paul Rudolph. Illustration by John Pirman, http://www.johnpirman.com
Please reach out ASAP and send an e-mail to Dr. Larry R. Thompson who is President of Ringling College and therefore the key decision maker in the building process. (The Sarasota Museum of Art is a project of Ringling College.)
Please don’t hesitate to voice your opinion (esp. all of my architect and arch. critic friends) and let them know how you feel about the importance of these Rudolph’s canopies! Thank you for your participation!
Alastair Gordon is Contributing Editor at WSJ Magazine, Architecture Critic at the Miami Herald and Distinguished Fellow at Miami Beach Urban Studios. He is the author of numerous critically-acclaimed books on architecture, art and urbanism including Weekend Utopia, Naked Airport, Spaced Out, Wandering Forms, Theater of Shopping, Qualities of Duration, Beach Houses, Romantic Modernist, and Think or Swim, an in-depth biography of R. Buckminster Fuller. alastairgordonwalltowall.com
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The Siesta Key House, architect Tim Seibert, photo by Larry Reinebach
Picture a one-story wooden house shaped more or less like a box, situated along a Florida canal. Its living space opens to the outside, with wide glass doors, louvered blinds, and a glass roof covering an unadorned grass patio. Basically, Frank Lloyd Wright goes to the beach.
While that simple home on Siesta Key near Sarasota no longer exists, its designer, and one of the original members of the Sarasota School of Architecture, is very much around.
Tim Seibert, 87, helped to create what is today known as the Sarasota School of Architecture, a modernist mid-century style that makes the most of south Florida’s humid subtropical climate.
Sarasota would be a very different place without the influence of the Sarasota modernists, says Dr. Christopher Wilson, architecture and design historian at Ringling College of Art + Design and board member of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation. And while most scholars credit architects like Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell as founders of the school, Seibert “wins the longevity award,” says Wilson. His first home was built when he was 25 and he worked up until his 80s.
Seibert also stands out today because he isn’t shy about speaking out. In the new documentary “The Seibert Effect” by filmmaker and retired Chicago engineer Larry Reinebach, Seibert talks about designing condominiums that were “more like a resort and less like a place to put old people.” He told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that Sarasota’s downtown Bayfront area was an example of “cultural indigestion.”
About the site of his former home on Siesta Key, he said, “Siesta looks the way it does because so many members of the old Sarasota establishment sold their land out to developers and got big bucks.”
There’s a good deal of truth to that: Sarasota today feels more like a hodgepodge of traffic jams, retirees from Canada hunting for shells along the beach, and a mixture of Italianate, Spanish, and one-story developments that now cover land where orange groves and dairy farms once stood.
At the same time, it’s also something of an oasis in a fast-growing Florida. The modernist style that put Sarasota on the map in the 1950s and ’60s is undergoing a revival, says Martie Lieberman, a Sarasota real estate agent who specializes in mid-century modern homes and is a co-founder of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation. “There’s a resurgence—although there’s always been a cool, hip crowd interested in it,” she says.
The problem for Sarasota is how to preserve these architectural gems in a city that has not made historic preservation a priority. Just two homes—the Umbrella House built in 1953 by Paul Rudolph and the Cocoon House built by Ralph Twitchell and Rudolph in 1950—have been listed on the city’s register of historic places, says Wilson.
Seibert himself is not anti-development per se. In fact, because his work for clients ranged from luxury homes to corporate office buildings, Seibert’s influence is “more widespread through our community,” Reinebach says. But Seibert does decry helter skelter growth. “I think one of the big problems today is the automobile,” he says by phone from his home on the island of Boca Grande, about 60 miles south of Sarasota. While Boca Grande once had no bridge access, it does now, which he says means the area is “being trampled beneath automobiles.”
The biggest challenge for mid-century modern homes is probably along the beach. Many of the former modernist homes were situated along the Gulf Coast. But a home that might be as small as 1,000 square feet on such prime real estate is often replaced by a behemoth.
Walker Guest House, architect Paul Rudolph, 1953, photo by Ezra Stoller courtesy ESTO
The Sarasota Architectural Foundation is trying to raise awareness of the fragility of the style by recreating the Paul Rudolph-designed Walker Guest House, a privately owned home on Sanibel Island, for a November conference [SarasotaMOD Weekend November 6 – 8, 2015] on the grounds of The Ringling Museum of Art. “It is the most perfect example of the Sarasota school,” Wilson says. Visitors will be able to enter the small wood and screen building and try out the louvers that regulate air flow, says Wilson. The foundation hopes to take the building on tour around the country as well.
Today, Seibert designs wooden sailboats and spends many of his days sailing in the Gulf off Boca Grande. His earlier home on Siesta Key had been torn down and replaced with a “McMansion,” he says. “If you want to be fatuous about life, why not do it well and be elegant?” he asks. “[the McMansions] are just awful.”