SRQ Magazine | January 2014
After more than two years of planning,fundraising and construction, the Sarasota Architectural Foundation’s Walker Guest House Replica made its triumphant debut on the grounds of The Ringling Museum on November 6, 2015, showcasing the ingenuity and design of acclaimed architect Paul Rudolph in his early Sarasota days and affording architecture fans everywhere the chance to experience a Rudolph space firsthand. Within the first two months, more than 9,000 visitors answered the call.
“Paul Rudolph is definitely a name Sarasota and its visitors should know,” says SAF Board Chair Janet Minker. As a defining part of the Sarasota School of Architecture, Rudolph was instrumental in bringing the region into focus during the midcentury modern movement, using broader design principles to fashion singularly Floridian creations such as the Umbrella House on Lido Shores and the Sarasota High School extension. Enlisting the local arts scene to help fund a recreation of one of the artist’s more hidden accomplishments came easily, says Minker, recounting a chilly January morning driving Ringling Executive Director Stephen High out to Sanibel Island to see the original Walker Guest House. “That really sold him on the whole project and we were able to continue.”
“Rudolph was an innovator, a very creative architect,” agrees Joe King, the architect tasked with figuring out how to build Rudolph’s design anew. A 24-by-24-foot interior space, the small size belies the architect’s ability, using novel design elements such as the floor-to-ceiling screened openings and minimal room separation to enlarge the space. In the absence of solid walls, wall-sized shutters hinge at the roof, to be raised or lowered according to the owner’s needs or preferences. Left to gravity, they balance at mid-level, exhibiting no architectural bias toward privacy or publicity. “Rudolph is characteristic of a very disciplined design,” he says, “a very orderly way that is used to make architectural space coherent and intentional.” Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the complex but precise rigging system controlling the shutters with pulleys, cleated ropes and red bobbing counterweights. “Even though it’s rational and clear,” King says, “there’s always a sense of mystery—‘How does it work?’”
The recreation was “challenging,” King admits, but with Rudolph’s original blueprints for reference and measurements and photographs from the original for comparison, the project went smoothly. Construction took only about six months, ending in October, and the hardest part seemed to be finding appropriate materials, such as wooden beams for the outriggers and proper ropes and counterweights for the rigging. Three-strand polyester rope may be out of vogue now, but “that was the latest and greatest in 1952,” reminds King. Unable to find the desired spherical red counterweights, the project resorted to fastening two steel hemispheres with a bolt and using epoxy and other materials to recreate the proper 8-inch diameter.
The crew only actively deviated from Rudolph’s design in two important ways, each angled at allowing a greater number of people to enjoy the project. Creating an exhibit instead of a habitable living space, the bathroom was removed in favor of a lift, making the exhibit handicap-accessible. And looking to make the exhibit a traveling one, the replica was created to be easily broken down, transported and then rebuilt, with King crafting custom-made palettes for just such purpose. Already put to the test, the replica was first constructed in Manatee County before being brought to the Ringling grounds, where it was reassembled without a hitch. With the replica residing on Ringling grounds until October* this year, Minker and SAF already look to the next stop, in talks with such places as the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. “People are intrigued,” she says. “Architecture is getting its due in recent years.” [*Editors Note: The Ringling Museum extended the Replica’s stay until April 30, 2017. Over 59,000 visitors have toured the house since opening on November 6, 2015 during SarasotaMOD Weekend.]
Every Item Tells a Story – Sourcing the Furnishings
REBUILDING IS ONE THING AND REFURNISHING QUITE ANOTHER, as Dan Snyder can attest. Using interior photographs from a 1953 magazine shoot by architectural photographer Ezra Stoller for guidance, Snyder and his SAF team have done their best to replicate the interior design with the same exactitude as the architecture. With doggedness and a wee bit of luck, Snyder searched the globe (and the internet) for just the right items to recapture the Walker Guest House in its original 1950s décor.
Biggest Change Flooring Gone are the grey linoleum floors, replaced by painted plywood. “We tried to get it,” says Snyder, “but it’s out of production.”
That Wasn’t So Hard Pole Lamp circa 1953 Snyder thought this one would be tough, singling it out immediately when asked. The fashion of the time, he says, favored floor-to-ceiling setups, making the model in the Stoller photos outside the norm. But a quick stop to see a friend at Braden River Antiques in Bradenton was all it took. Snyder told him what he was looking for, “and he thought for five minutes,” recounts Snyder, before heading into the back and returning with the lamp. “Just like that.”
Time Stands Still Deck Chairs “They still make the same chairs,” Snyder says. They used to call them “director’s chairs,” he says, but the same upstate New York company that made the chairs in the original Walker House all those years ago, Telescope, still makes those same chairs. The only real difference is that the older models had rubber knobs on the feet, “like the rubber tips of a cane.”
SOMETHINGS GOTTEN IN DENMARK CERAMIC BOWL An interesting item, but not so much for its relationship to Rudolph or Walker as that with Stoller, and how it seems to pop up in so many of his photos. “Because he had a station wagon,” says Snyder, “he carried props around in the trunk.” Without much of a lead, Snyder put out the call to his friends, attaching the images. One responded from Copenhagen, purchasing a piece from Danish ceramicist Ditte Fischer that fit the bill and donating it to the project, along with a Danish candleholder designed in 1962 by Mogens Lassen. Neither is identical to the items in the Stoller photograph, admits Snyder. “It’s the same spirit.”
INDIGENOUS LOCAL PRIDE Not one to limit himself to architecture, Rudolph designed all of the furniture in the main room—excepting the chairs—himself, including a table, bookcase, daybed and cocktail table. To recreate these one-of-a-kind furnishings, Snyder turned to local artisan cabinetmaker Dale Rieke, who, after measuring and sketching the originals on Sanibel Island and paired with a local metalworker, crafted them anew. Snyder accents the mise-en-scene with period-appropriate Time and Fortune magazines, an ashtray with a few L&M butts and flowers from his own garden. “And all the magazines are from 1952,” he assures me. “Incredible covers.”
ONLINE AUCTIONEERS EBAY Snyder’s search through EBay helped him bring in items as wide-ranging as an Egyptian-themed wall-quilt to the surprisingly plentiful Hallicrafter S-38 shortwave radio. He found the desk designed by Paul McCobb, identical to the desk from the Stoller photograph, as well as the Lettera 22 typewriter designed by Marcello Nizzoli, which won the Compasso d’Oro in 1954, complete with carrying case, that sits upon it. But the biggest catch has to be the General Electric refrigerator, circa 1948, found from a seller in Connecticut.