Architectural Lessons from the Sarasota School

Join SAF for a tour of the Cooney House on Sunday, August 4, 2013 from 2 – 4 pm. The featured speaker is Sam Holladay, AIA, principal of Seibert Architects, with special guest Tim Seibert, FAIA. $10 SAF Members; $15 Public – join SAF and admission to this event is free. Click to reserve online. info@saf-srq.org

The following article was originally published August 25, 2001 in the St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

The founder of an award-winning design firm reflects on the exciting creative community of a half-century ago and its continued influence.

On Aug. 4, 2001, Seibert Architects of Sarasota received its second Test of Time award from the Florida state chapter of the American Institute of Architects. In 1999, the firm was honored for the 1966 John D. MacDonald House on Siesta Key, the home of one of Florida’s most distinguished writers and the creator of Travis McGee, detective, rough diamond and defender of the state’s ruined natural beauty.

The 2001 award, presented at the Florida AIA convention at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort Cooney House Tour August 4, 2013 from 2-4pmin St. Petersburg, recognized Seibert’s design for the 1965 Cooney residence on St. Armand’s Key. The award honors works that, by the timelessness of their design, have influenced a particular building variety.

The Cooney house, occupied for a third of a century by its original owners, is an outstanding example of the Sarasota School of architecture. This school, active between 1941 and 1966, is characterized by horizontal lines, open plans, large expanses of glass that merge indoors and out, bArchitect Tim Seibert, FAIAroad roof overhangs and a lack of ornamentation.

Seibert Architects’s founder, Edward J. “Tim” Seibert, now retired, offers these thoughts on the Sarasota of half a century ago, an incubator for design creativity, and on the state of architecture today.

For more on the Sarasota School of Architecture, visit www.saf-srq.org/sarasotaschool.

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by Architect EDWARD J. SEIBERT, FAIA

Clarity of concept and meticulous detail and workmanship, using ordinary materials, are what make this design work. Thirty-five years ago this house was built on a 50-foot lot as simply and inexpensively as we could make it. It had bearing block walls, a flat roof, stock windows and stucco and drywall finishes.

What was special about the house was the pavilion living area with its 10-foot ceiling, full-height glass walls, and visual extension to the outdoors. We took advantage of the heavily planted neighboring lots for the view from the living pavilion and porch, but the remainder of the four-bedroom house turns inward, providing a contrasting experience in the more intimate bedroom and service spaces. On one end, the master bedroom wing opens to a private, walled courtyard, while the opposite end of the house contains two bedrooms, a bath, family room, kitchen, laundry and garage.

The simplicity of form required perfect detailing. A successful flat-roof design requires clean flashing and perfectly straight gravel stops and a way for the water to leave the roof without staining white walls. Both interior and exterior walls had to be perfectly fair and flat so that the spare geometry would have perfect shadows in the strong Florida light. “Less is more,” but the “less” must be flawlessly done.

For a third of a century the house has served its owners well. It was featured in the summer 2000 issue of Echoes magazine, for 80 years a key resource for 20th-century modern design. Last January it was on the Sarasota tour of the Southern California Society of Architectural Historians. In November it will be included on the “American Legacy” tour and symposium sponsored by the Fine Arts Society of Sarasota. The Florida Chapter of the American Institute of Architects has now recognized the Cooney house with its 2001 25-year “Test of Time” award.

The Modernist work being produced 35 years ago by a number of architects in our community is what later became known as “the Sarasota School of Architecture.” This architecture is about the enclosure of space and capture of light. Clarity of geometric and structural concept, economy of means, and honesty in the use of materials were also the signatures of this native Sarasota architecture. While the basic theories had originated in Europe with the Bauhaus in the 1920s, Paul Rudolph and others of us adapted European Modernism to Florida’s landscape and climate to make a new regional architecture.

I believe this was the appropriate architecture for our times in Florida, a unique new heritage for this special place offering fresh social, economic, political and historical ideas. It was a time for new ideas, in Sarasota and all over America. Ours was a premonition of a new way of life, not only in architecture but also in literature, art, furniture, tableware and politics.

Paul Rudolph, today acknowledged around the world as one of the important architects of the last century, started his career right here in Sarasota. I believe most of the principles of the Sarasota School (so named in 1982) originated with him. Nearly 50 years ago, as a young draftsman, I heard him discuss with Henry-Russell Hitchcock (who named the International Style in his book) the idea that lesser talents in architecture needed an academy, with a set of design principles and standards for those of less godlike talents to follow, as had been the case once for those trained in the Beaux Arts school.

Listening carefully to this and other conversations, I divined that I was to be one of these lesser mortals, and that Paul Rudolph was to be elected master and teacher, a new Vitruvius. I decided to learn my lessons from the master, and I remember now with joy those lessons. Like some others, I believed I had found the answer. This, for many of us of the school, was our beginning. Those of us who have worked hard and are especially creative sometimes successfully break the rules, as Paul did, quite often.

I opened my own office in 1955, and for about a dozen years I lived in an architect’s paradise, although I didn’t realize this at the time. I thought it must be like this everywhere! Sarasota abounded then in people who understood a new architecture, and wanted to be part of it.

It is difficult to explain the ambiance of the Sarasota of that time. By the start of the 1950s, the county had about 25,000 people. It was a small and pristine place, and its unsullied beauty attracted writers, painters, sculptors and intellectuals of all sorts. There were real artists, famous writers, professional bohemians, fakes, people with independent incomes, bums and some with brains who did menial labor to stay in this small-town natural paradise.

Sarasota was alive with ideas about art and architecture then, and we spent our bibulous nights talking about it. It was a happy and exciting place to be in those times. There was camaraderie of optimism among us who believed we were the inventors of new art forms.

Looking back 35 years, I am confronted with huge changes that have taken place in architecture. In the last several decades, goofy Post-Modernism has done its damage to architecture, and I believe to all art. Now science is developing so quickly that it is difficult to see what direction architecture will take.

The computer makes it possible to design buildings of complexity formerly impossible. Now buildings are made with shapes that once could not have been described on paper, much less built. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, is such a building. Are its spaces friendly to humans? Does it work for the display of paintings? Or is it simply a huge advertisement, a tour de force symbol for a city, as the Eiffel Tower is for Paris? How will its titanium skin weather? One must see the building to make any real judgment, because most of the architectural press is full of blather and hype. This architecture could be the future. I hope it is. Computer design will require more talent and good judgment than we used before.

For most of the architects who must produce the everyday work of the world, those who are not media stars, architecture’s lack of an accepted modern direction is a cultural flaw that drives architects to do meaningless, irrelevant work, as evidenced by our disturbing commercial corridors. Many architects become plan services for the unknowledgeable. The results can be seen all about us in the creation of whatever badly crafted “style” the client may have thought he or she wanted. Some 60 years ago the schools quit training in the classics (the so-called Beaux Arts approach), so the formal discipline which once attended Mediterranean-style buildings, say, or Georgian, or whatever, is today gone.

So now we see “McMansions,” a sort of pastiche of what the untutored think is classical. Some governments want to solve the strip mall aesthetic by assigning a “style” to a community, not understanding that now no one is trained to do “styles” well, or that in today’s world doing “styles” right is unaffordable, for to do the detail and proportion correctly is enormously expensive.

That’s the reason modern architecture was invented in the last century, and that’s the architecture anybody under 70 is trained for today. It is sad to see young architects betray their training and ideals to earn a living. I look back 40 years ago to the joy we had here then, doing our best work, our pleasure in the work, making it not labor at all, but a way of life. We weren’t getting rich, but we had a hell of a fine time, and we thought we were rich.

There are more fine young contemporary architect-designers in Sarasota now than ever before (the community is, after all, some 15 times as large as at the time of which I write), and Sarasota certainly reaps more than its share of architectural awards these days. The Fine Arts Society is raising public awareness of design with a symposium in November 2001. The designers in my former firm delight me with their work on my weekly visits. The Sarasota School of Architecture lives!

For more information, please visit www.saf-srq.org to learn more about Sarasota’s architectural legacy and the Sarasota School of Architecture. Email: info@saf-srq.org

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Sarasota School of Architecture Building in Peril

June 11, 2013 Frank Folsom Smith 1962 office buildong
Sarasota Historical Preservation Board Meeting

Michael Saunders, owner of the Lawyers Professional Building at 2051 Main Street, offered to donate the building to anyone interested in moving the structure. If the building is not relocated it will be demolished to make way for a parking lot. 2051 Main Street is part of a proposed trade being offered to Sarasota County for their property at 301 Main Street and Washington.

2051 Main Street, designed in 1961 by architect Frank Folsom Smith, an original member of the Sarasota School of Architecture (SSA), is one of the few SSA public buildings remaining in Sarasota, Florida. The building is listed in the Florida Master Site File which is a statewide database of potentially significant historic resources. According to the surveyor’s evaluation the building is potentially eligible for listing in the local and national registers of historic places both individually and as a contributing resource to a national register historic district. The Demolition Application’s* (download PDF at end of post) description of the property: A one-story, Ocala Block, Sarasota School of Architecture, structure with a Tar & Gravel flat roof with cantilevered steel beams. photo by Frank Folsom Smith

There is an existing bid of $235,200 from R.E. Johnson & Sons, Inc. to move the building within 10 miles of its current location. Ms. Saunders offered to donate the first $10,000. Interested parties should contact Paula Rees, Vice President of Operations at Michael Saunders & Company, for further discussion. Her contact information is: paularees@michaelsaunders.com, 941-953-7900.

The Preservation Board put a 30-day time period — deadline July 10, 2013 — for discussions regarding interest in the building.

Click to download the Demolition Application* #13-FMSF-22: 2051 Main Street Survey Report

Photos: Top – 2009 by Greg Wilson; Bottom – 1962 by Frank Folsom Smith

March 29, 2013 email from the Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF) board members to Randall Reid, Sarasota County Administrator, regarding the proposed land exchange:

“[2051 Main Street] is an excellent and significant example of the Sarasota School of Architecture (SSA) applied to a public commercial building. Just like Paul Rudolph’s Sarasota High School Addition, 2051 Main is very significant because most SSA buildings are private residences and this is one of the few remaining public buildings.

In the 2009 “TOUR SARASOTA” booklet, the building is described by architect Greg Hall: “In this example of commercial architecture in the regional modern style, a central courtyard leads to individual office suites. Simple building forms, intricate detailing, and a “floating” roof plane are the building’s dominant design elements.”

Breaking these comments down:
• “simple building forms” = one story, cubic repetitive blocks, flat roof
• “intricate detailing” = stacked block-work (where the joints line up to make a grid appearance rather than traditional “brickwork” jointing), exposed steel columns and beams conforming to this same grid
• “floating roof plane” = roof appears to float because of its thinness and the clerestory windows in the office blocks

In addition, the building contains the outside corridors and center courtyard that are only possible in a climate similar to Sarasota Florida’s.

SAF would not like to see this building destroyed but understand that this downtown County property is valuable. We hope the building could be re-purposed in a way that would retain it’s unique architectural features perhaps through incentives to the new owners.”