Lessons of resiliency from Sarasota School of Architecture

By Max Strang

Practicality underpinned the architecture scene that unfolded in Sarasota in the 1950s and 60s. As the ‘Sarasota School of Architecture’ movement was taking shape upon the shifting sands and unforgiving summers of Florida’s gulf coast… Paul Rudolph, Ralph Twitchell, and a band of “twenty-something” architects were redefining how to live by the water in America’s subtropics. According to them, the prevailing style of Mediterranean Revival architecture had no place here. Instead, a new approach of “building light and building smart” took hold. Their specific responses to site and climate contributed to a progressive new era in American architecture. In fact, today the ‘Sarasota School’ movement is internationally recognized as a high point of ‘regional modernist’ architecture. Although, the original ‘Sarasota School’ movement ended over fifty years ago I am awed by its timelessness. Many of its lessons are informing the work of my firm as we face the challenges of a changing climate.

As the seas rise and threats of localized flooding increase, coastal homes must be prohibited from using traditional ‘slab-on-grade’ construction methodologies.

At that exciting time in Sarasota, a small number of homes were raised on stilts in search of breezes and views. As a side benefit, those homes were better equipped to handle the occasional hurricane storm surge. Fast forward to today and our coastal cities are confronting compounded and existential threats from rising sea levels, Houstonesque flooding and devastating storm surges from more powerful and more frequent hurricanes. Now is the time to apply those ‘Sarasota School’ lessons and equip our homes, buildings and cities with the strategies of resiliency.

Rudolph’s Walker Guest House, a diminutive powerhouse of architectural design, hints at the strategy of raising the home above the ground. This strategy was more boldly realized with the design of the Leavengood Residence and also the unbuilt design for the Walker Main House. The first takeaway of those latter designs is the simple response of ensuring homes are built higher above the ground. As the seas rise and threats of localized flooding increase, coastal homes must be prohibited from using traditional ‘slab-on-grade’ construction methodologies. Yes, it’s more expensive, but those cost pale in comparison to the long-term financial implications of not building with the future in mind.

 

Sarasota, Florida, map

 

Currently, the Army Corps of Engineers establishes requirements regarding the minimum elevations of new structures. An opportunity exists for local municipalities to go beyond these mandated minimums. The costs associated with raising existing homes will be difficult to overcome, however, it makes sense that new construction conforms to stricter standards. Coastal cities need to encourage their residents to build higher. In the long run, the savings on insurance premiums and costly repairs will be enormous. The rewards for building higher clearly outweigh upfront costs.

The second takeaway from the ‘Sarasota School’ is the prospect of using the area beneath the home as functional and aesthetically-inspiring spaces. Current building and zoning codes prevent the effective utilization of the areas beneath a raised home. I propose that such codes be refined to allow homeowners to enjoy the full potential of these covered, outdoor spaces. A home that exceeds the minimum required height above the ground provides a much greater opportunity to create enjoyable outdoor living spaces below.

A major driver of ‘climate change’ and ‘sea level rise’ is our culture’s reliance on fossil fuels to power inefficient buildings.

A major driver of ‘climate change’ and ‘sea level rise’ is our culture’s reliance on fossil fuels to power inefficient buildings. To mitigate this issue, new buildings must become more energy-efficient.Sarasota’s early modern homes offer wonderful examples of this. Thus, the final takeaway from the ‘Sarasota School’ is the consideration of ‘passive design ’ features such as deep overhangs, sun-shading devices, evaporative cooling, daylighting and cross-ventilation.

 

Sarasota house by Paul Rudolph
Drawing by Paul Rudolph, Library of Congress

The Healy Guest House was envisioned as a small structure protected by a protective spray-on “cocoon” roofing product and wrapped with sun-shading louvers. Similarly, the beloved “Umbrella House”, one of the 20th century’s most iconic houses, resides beneath its iconic umbrella of slats. Most of the early ‘Sarasota School’ buildings featured deep overhangs and a brise-soleil. The aim was simple: to reduce the ‘heat gain’ of a building by deflecting sunlight. Aside from their inherent environmental benefits, such features often provided the architectural identity to the building. Ultimately, these ‘regional modernist’ influences informed the identity of the ‘Sarasota School’ movement as a whole.

Another innovative passive design feature was pioneered by John Lambie, a local Sarasota builder who collaborated with Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell on some projects. His “lamolithic” homes had flat, concrete roofs which were covered with a layer of crushed shells. The shell membrane was kept damp and as the water evaporated under the hot Florida sun, a cooling effect permeated into home below.

While many will opt to strategically retreat from our shorelines, the allure of coastal living will continue to prove irresistible for others. Sarasota’s architectural history offers practical insights on how we must adapt for the future.

The concepts of the Sarasota School of Architecture remain the greatest influence upon me and my firm. Our work strives to incorporate the lessons of that essential modern movement and adapt them to a changed world. I suspect that these site-driven and climate-driven design responses have fueled our firm’s success. I am committed to the idea that the architectural identity of a home should be related to its relationship to its location and environment. Many of our designs feature vertical ‘fins’ that serve to reduce the home’s solar heat gain while also providing additional privacy for the occupants. As a result, these “fins” provide a striking identity for the home. The Tuckman Residence, scheduled for completion in 2018, is derived from Rudolph & Twitchell’s Leavengood Residence in which the main volume of the home is raised a full story above the existing ground. Similarly, our design for the Ballast Trail Residence in the Florida Keys is raised substantially above the ground, a move that proved crucial to its weathering of Hurricane Irma’s recent storm surge.

In 2018, my Miami-based firm will open a satellite office in Sarasota and my family will move into one of the few remaining “lamolithic’ homes on a nearby barrier island. At only five feet above sea level, that particular home is destined to succumb to the Gulf of Mexico. I remain inspired, however, by the opportunity and challenge of building new, building light, and building smart. While many will opt to strategically retreat from our shorelines, the allure of coastal living will continue to prove irresistible for others. Sarasota’s architectural history offers practical insights on how we must adapt for the future.

 

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Dive Into MOD

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Umbrella House Swimmers_2017_650px

Join us for the fourth annual SarasotaMOD Weekend – tickets go on sale August 15th

Cocoon House on Bayou Louise

The Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF) presented homeowner Dr. Barry LaClair with a framed poster of the Cocoon House, aka Healy Guest House, signed by the illustrator and designer John Pirman. This famous Sarasota School home was designed in 1950 by Ralph Twitchell and Paul Rudolph, and is on SAF’s Top Ten Must-See List of midcentury modern buildings in Sarasota, Florida. The house will be featured on trolley tours during SAF’s fourth annual architecture festival, SarasotaMOD, November 10-12, 2017. Event tickets go on sale August 15, 2017. SarasotaMOD.com

Cocoon House PosterProceeds from the Cocoon House poster benefit SAF’s ongoing programs and will be on sale at the MOD Shop during SarasotaMOD Weekend. For sales inquiries, please email info@SAF-SRQ.org.

Did You Know: In 1953, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City selected the Cocoon House as one of the 19 examples of houses built after World War II as a pioneer design of the future.

The cantilevered roof has steel straps fastened to flexible insulation boards that maintains its curved catenary shape with a sprayed on “cocoon” roofing material.

Walker Guest House Replica Docents

SAF's Docent Volunteers

SAF wishes to thank the more than 60 docent volunteer who have led daily tours of architect Paul Rudolph’s iconic beach house for the past 18 months. Join us for the Closing Party at the Replica on Sunday, April 30th from 2 to 5 PM. Free admission, cash bar. With special guest speakers, house tours, vintage fashion show and a music and dance performance premier. Please RSVP

Enjoy the wonderful photos by Jenny Acheson.

Remaking Rudolph

Sarasota Architectural Foundation takes its mission to the streets with this traveling replica of the Walker Guest House.

Remaking Rudolph

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.

Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.

Shown: 1950’s Caloric CP Gas Range.

“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.”

Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.

Shown: The Walker Guest House is also known as the Cannonball House because of the eight counterweight balls, painted red, that raise and lower the large, wooden window shutters.

“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?’” 

Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.

Shown: A Hallicrafter S-38 shortwave radio and books from 1952 reside in the Paul Rudolph-designed bookcase recreated by cabinetmaker Dale Rieke.

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. 

Industrial Comfort

A look inside Paul Rudolph’s masterfully crafted Harkavy House.

Tour Five Midcentury Modern Houses in Venice, Florida

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December 11, 2016
1:00 to 4:00 PM
5 homes for $40
Buy Advance Tickets Online 

Join the Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF) for a self-guided tour of five midcentury modern homes in historic Venice, Florida.

Advance ticket holders may begin the tour at any of the houses on the list and receive a wristband and tour map. On December 11th, limited tickets will be available from 1 to 3 PM at 425 S. Nassau Street only.

Questions: info@SAF-SRQ.org, 941-364-2119

#1
535 Serata Street (1947) 

Magee House
Architect/builder Christopher Magee

Magee had worked under Frank Lloyd Wright building Florida Southern College, yet this house shows more influence of the German Bauhaus movement.

#2
425 S. Nassau Street (1959)

Renovated 2015
Featured in Atomic Ranch Magazine’s Renovation Issue, Summer 2016
Renovation architect: Jon Barrick
Builder: Rob Dynan Construction
Landscape design: Dane Spencer

#3
512 Valencia Road (1956)

Renovated 2008 − 2010
Architect/builder Jack Bailey
Renovation architect: Greg Hall, AIA, LEED, AP, Principle, Hall Architects, PA

#4
616 Valencia Road (1953)
Hudson House
Architect: Ralph Twitchell

#5
500 Sante Joseph Street (1955)

Renovated 2009
Architect: Jack Monteith
Photo shown above by David Ortins