Max Strang, a Winter Haven native who made his architectural reputation in Miami,
turned some heads when he returned to his Polk County hometown to design an elegantly bold, contemporary downtown apartment building called Raingarden Lofts.
The town is known for the progressive modernism of architect Gene Leedy. But still, the lofts, completed in 2015, stand out. Winter Haven is not Miami.
The façade of the building evokes Paul Rudolph‘s 1958 Deering House on Casey Key. That is not by chance. In 1980, when he was 10, Strang’s parents bought a rundown house on Casey Key next to Leedy’s restored beach house, which was a few houses up the beach from the temple-like Deering House. Although now largely hidden from street view by a new house on the site, it has become an icon of the Sarasota School of architecture.
“My father purchased a decrepit old shack next door to a house Leedy had renovated for his own use,” said Strang, whose firm is known as [STRANG], complete with the brackets. “I used to go shelling there all the time.”
He also used to visit the Leedy-designed Syd Solomon House on the south end of Siesta. No longer standing because of beach erosion, it was “a powerful space, too,” Strang recalls.
These childhood experiences shaped the architect’s outlook. And he firmly believes Florida’s midcentury modern architecture still has plenty to teach the designers and clients of today.
“A good Sarasota School of Architecture house blurs the indoor-outdoor (divide) so well – the walls of glass, the light coming in from different directions,” Strang said Monday in a telephone interview. “For me, it is a sense of peace when you are inside one of those homes.”
He should know. His childhood house in Winter Haven was designed by Leedy, who got his start in Sarasota in the early 1950s before heading to Polk County.
After graduating from the University of Florida, Strang worked for Leedy as an intern. “He sent me to Tampa as free labor for John Howey, doing drawings” for Howey’s 1995 book, “The Sarasota School of Architecture.” He later worked in the firm of the late Pritzker Prize-winner Zaha Hadid. His firm has offices in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Telluride, Colorado, where he lives.
For the Raingarden Lofts (shown above) and the under-construction Tuckman House (shown below) in Fort Lauderdale, Strang and his bright young staff took some clues from Paul Rudolph in considering the site and climate. Both structures have vertical exterior “fins” that help control sunlight, without blocking it. Rudolph showed how this could be done at the Deering House (its beefy beachside columns cast shadows on the interior), Sarasota High School, the Umbrella House , the Milam House on Ponte Vedra Beach and other structures that sought to tame the sun without blocking it completely. “The fins on the second floor, those are in response to climate and privacy in the same way Rudolph’s Milam House did with the staggered squares and the sunshades,” Strang said of the Tuckman House. “The architecture is performing a role to address the climate. The style just comes with it.”
Strang is often approached by clients who want the delicacy of the midcentury modern houses, but the luxury and size of today.
“All the time, I get a new commission to do a house, and the client will bring me reference images of Sarasota School houses, or (1940s) Case Study houses in Los Angeles, yet they are asking for an 8,000-square-foot house,” he said with a laugh. “I think there is a nostalgia for the smaller scale of these things,” a scale that is hard to achieve when flood-zone requirements mandate the elevation of waterfront homes.
“And, there are the strict product approvals in South Florida,” Strang said. “It is hard to get the sizes of the windows that we would prefer. The Florida Energy Code says you can only have so much glass in the house, too. So it is a struggle to match the delicacy and transparency of those early buildings.”
But, the ideas of Rudolph, Leedy, Tim Seibert, Victor Lundy and others endure, and can be reused, if not reproduced, he said. Those ideas include clarity of design concept, the honest and innovative use of materials, using structure to define space and not compete with it, and blending indoors with outdoors.
“It is the repurposing of the ideas, not repurposing the exact iteration of the building,” Strang said. “It underscores the timelessness of the Sarasota School. The modern movement probably got overtaken by schlocky modern buildings too quickly, and the good stuff wasn’t appreciated. Its time ended prematurely. So I am happy to help share the ongoing relevance of midcentury modernism.
“There can be very schlocky modern architecture, too. When someone does a traditional building poorly, it is not as bad as when someone does a modern building poorly.” SAF
In the preservation world, the term “recent past” most commonly refers to historic places younger than 50 years old. Modernism, which is another term often associated with the recent past, is generally defined as a style that began to flourish in the United States in the 1930s. Both describe places and cultural resources that are among the most under-appreciated and vulnerable aspects of our nation’s heritage.
You may already know about our country’s recent past story through architectural icons like the Farnsworth House or Glass House (both National Trust Historic Sites), designed landscapes like Lawrence Halprin’s Freeway Park, and nationally significant historic sites like Lorraine Motel, associated with the civil rights movement.
But this story is also told in less prominent places that are equally important to local communities and reveal much about who we are and where we’ve come from—early fast-food restaurants, drive-through branch banks, post-war housing projects, and suburban developments. And, often, these lesser-known places are the ones at risk, perceived as expendable, unattractive, or unworthy of preservation.
Here are 10 things you can do to help save a place from the recent past in your community:
Special events, such as workshops and lectures by experts, can help to raise public awareness of the significance of a historic property. Shown: Sarasota High School Addition (1960, architect Paul Rudolph) Rehabilitation Community Charette.
1. Form a volunteer group. Gather fellow residents who care about preserving your community’s recent past places. Working together, you can research and nominate buildings for landmark designation; become your community’s advocate for the recent past and Modern design; create a website and maintain a discussion board; and host tours and other special events (see the next tips).
Example: The Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF) is a volunteer group that was formed in 2002 in response to the rapid destruction of Sarasota, Florida’s midcentury modern heritage, referred to as the Sarasota School of Architecture.
SAF gives periodic tours of the Umbrella House (1953, architect Paul Rudolph, restoration 2015).
2. Offer tours. Tours are a tried-and-true method for building a community’s appreciation for its historic resources and significant architecture. Put together a bus tour that takes guests past Modern structures throughout the neighborhood. Create a self-guided driving tour accompanied by a booklet that visitors and residents can continue to use. Or set up docent-led tours of noteworthy buildings from the recent past. Visit SAF for upcoming tours.
3. Host special events. Special events encourage those interested in mid-century architecture to connect with like-minded people. These can include fundraising events; special exhibits (complete with opening night parties) that feature the architecture and modern heritage of your community; or a lecture series that features local historians, architects, or professors to speaking about the area’s modern architecture. SAF presents the third annual SarasotaMOD Weekend, a midcentury modern architecture festival in Sarasota, Florida on November 11-13, 2016. This year, MOD celebrates renowned architect Victor Lundy FAIA and the Cit of Sarasota has declared November 7 – 13 Victor Lundy Week. Featuring a special guest appearance by Mr. Lundy with trolley and house tours, Lundy’s art exhibition, Lifetime Achievement award presentation, film screening, panel presentation, parties, and dinners. In partnership with Sarasota Museum of Art, a division of Ringling College of Art + Design. Click to purchase tickets.
4. Submit a nomination to an endangered places list. When a site is threatened by demolition, alteration, or neglect, nominate it to a local organization’s endangered list. This is an excellent way to generate publicity, raise awareness of threatened Modern and recent past places, and explain to a broader audience why these types of places are significant and worthy of protection.
Tip: If you know of a significant and endangered mid-century site, consider submitting a nomination to the National Trust’s annual America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list.
Being listed on the National Register for Historic Places can help in planning for federally assisted projects and in getting tax breaks. Shown: Sarasota High School Addition, 1960, architect Paul Rudolph, restoration 2015. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places June 27, 2012. Photo ©Anton Grassl, Esto
5. Conduct community workshops. Workshops and seminars can be useful ways to educate specific audiences about buildings and cultural sites from the recent past. These classes can help teach participants the basics of historic preservation, give them an overview of the history of post-war architecture, offer tips on how to identify threats or problems, find appropriate replacement materials to keep mid-century homes looking true to their original architecture, and more. Contact a local preservation group for help or partnership opportunities.
6. Educate those involved in the decision-making process. It is equally important to educate state and municipal historic preservation officers, local planning agency staff, and preservation commission members about the importance of mid-century resources. Contact these groups and encourage them to attend local training programs.
Tip: Some state historic preservation offices have created training programs to educate historic preservation commission members. These programs can also help real estate agents realize the potential of the post-war market and promote these properties to their clients.
7. Survey resources from the recent past. Identifying which recent past sites merit protection is one of the first steps toward preserving and protecting them. But surveys should involve more than just identification—they should also work to establish historic context, educate and involve the community, and identify areas for future research.
Resources: National Register Bulletin No. 24: Guidelines for Local Surveys: A Basis for Preservation Planning will give you the basics of cultural resource surveys. The Secretary of the Interior’s Guidelines for Identification offers information and guidelines on one approach you can take when conducting a survey.
8. Evaluate the property. Once an area has been surveyed, it needs to be evaluated to see if it meets the criteria for National Register listing or local designation. The evaluation process includes steps such as determining historic context, using time or association with living persons to establish significance, and researching whether the site is located in an historic district.
Resource: The National Register Bulletin No. 22: Guidelines for Evaluating and Nominating Properties that Have Achieved Significance Within the Past Fifty Years outlines eight guidelines to help evaluate resources.
Cocoon House (aka Healy Guest House), 1948, architects Ralph Twitchell and Paul Rudolph. The house was locally designated by the City of Sarasota in 1985. The Cocoon House was selected in 1953 by the New York Museum of Modern Art as one of the 19 examples of houses built since World War II as a pioneer in design for the future.
9. Make the case for the site’s importance. Before nominating a recent past property to the National Register or other local designation, it’s critical to prepare a clear, compelling, and well-documented case that establishes its importance. Establishing significance does more than just help your nomination, though; it contributes to the wider argument for saving Modernist and recent past places.
Tip: Refer to previous nomination forms for recent past properties that have been successfully listed in the National Register of Historic Places as examples when preparing your case.
10. Pursue National Register listing or local historic designation. While National Register listing does not provide properties direct protection from privately funded actions, it does often trigger consideration in the planning for federal or federally assisted projects, and can pave the way for potential tax benefits. When pursuing local designation, be aware that many communities may follow the “50-year rule,” creating an obstacle for historic designation of recent past resources. If amending the rule is not an option, remember that National Register listing can raise awareness of the importance of the site and help garner public support while the property comes of age for local designation.
From sketchbook musings to inspired design, Lundy’s work showcased the genius of an eclectic thinker
“When I think thoughts, I draw thoughts.”
The career of architectural iconoclast Victor Lundy took many shapes over decades of designing buildings: the grand, imposing rectangles of the United States Tax Court Building in Washington, D.C. (1974), a deconstructed cube that redefined the limits of government architecture; the tree-like columns clustered around the entrance of the Warm Mineral Springs Motel in Sarasota County, Florida (1958), concrete umbrellas beckoning travelers; and the bold, angular forms of the Church of the Resurrection in Harlem, New York (1966), a powerful collection of simple shapes. But no matter the creative solution or inspired design, any building usually started as an idea sketched on a piece of paper with an ebony pencil. Lundy was an inveterate artist and drawer, constantly creating and communicating his artistic and architectural visions on endless sheets of paper.
“When he traveled, he sketched buildings in order to figure them out,” says Donna Kacmar, an architect and architecture faculty member who is currently working on a book about Lundy. “He is really curious about the world, the way people live, and the buildings that he visits. He doesn’t sketch to record, but to understand, to grasp how the building was crafted.”
United States Tax Court Building
Drawing, so central to Lundy’s creative process, also serves as a potent metaphor for his career. An adventurous believer in progressive architecture, Lundy had an artist’s bent for redefinition and exploration, rarely repeating himself, and always letting the site and situation determine his drawings and designs (he was even an early experimenter with pneumatics and inflatable architecture, before the avant-garde began popularizing the form). His vision, and desire to maintain a small, hands-on practice, has made him a lesser-known member of the Modernist canon, one without a signature aesthetic. But his versatility and vitality, which filled up stacks of “brain books” with idea and observations about the built and natural world, suggest a creative force worth studying and emulating.
“With every problem I make these images out the blue—initial responses—and then I fuss with them, refine, change, and discard,” Lundy told Dwell magazine. “I work towards the irreducible.”
Born in a New York City brownstone in 1923 to a Russian immigrant family, Lundy was recognized for his drawing talent early on, a gift which played a significant role throughout his life. Encouraged by his mother, he developed his artistic talents, and eventually attended New York University, where he would begin to study architecture and learn the Beaux Arts method. When he enlisted in the Army Special Training Program and was sent to the European front during WWII, a surgeon noticed his sketches while Lundy was getting treated for his war injuries (he filled up more than two dozen sketchbooks overseas, eight of which survived), and recruited him to sketch a new medical procedure he was developing, allowing him to miss eight dangerous months on the front..
Drawings from Victor Lundy’s wartime sketchbooks (top row) and Rotch travels
But perhaps the most impactful drawing he made, at least early on in his career, was a watercolor that earned him one of his first commissions. After returning from WWII (with a Purple Heart for his wounds), Lundy attended the Harvard Graduate School of Design, learning from modernists such as Walter Gropius, then set out for Sarasota, Florida, to make a name for himself. A local group searching for a designer for a new chamber of commerce building saw one of Lundy’s pictures, a watercolor of Notre Dame Cathedral, and asked him to create a sketch. The resulting Blue Pagoda Building, topped with celadon blue roof tile, became one of his early classics.
Blue Pagoda Building, photo ©Jenny Acheson
Discussions of the Sarasota School of Modernism often focus on Paul Rudolph, another Modernist working in the Gulf Coast community. But Lundy’s varied body of work was hard to match. In addition to the Chamber of Commerce, he created a celebrated drive-in church for a congregation in nearby Nokomis that was featured in Life magazine. His playful Warm Mineral Springs Motel, while not a standout in his body of work, according to Lundy, provides a bit of personality on a drab roadside stop, as well as an experiment in precast concrete paraboloids. To Lundy, the unique shape symbolized the fountain of youth.
Where other modernist architect, who didn’t have an artistic or Beaux Arts background, would create stark, geometric blueprints, Lundy’s sketches leapt off the page, showing an inherent sense of color and creative expression.
“Sarasota was a great place for a young architect trying to get work, and do the best job he could with the projects that he had,” says Kacmar. “He found ways to do a lot with a little, but it also created a drive to innovate and figure out unorthodox ways to solve problems. He also has a great respect for structural engineers.”
Lundy experimentation also earned him church commissions, a type of building naturally imbued with symbolism, and perfect for his poetic approach to design. St. Paul Lutheran Church Fellowship Hall, a swooping grace note of laminated lumber, became one of a number of adventurous creations he made for congregations around the country. The Unitarian Meeting House in Hartford, Connecticut (1964), envisioned as a lotus blossom, contains a singular worship space separated by a series of concrete fins, and a roof held aloft by a unique system of steel cables. The First Unitarian Church in Westport, Connecticut (1965), was covered by a series of parabolic arches meant to symbolize a set of praying hands.
St. Paul Lutheran Church Fellowship Hall, photo ©Jenny Acheson
“Lundy tended to work with younger congregations, and each building featured one idea done beautifully,” says Kacmar. “His religions is architecture and art.”
Lundy’s scrappy start in Sarasota set a tone for the rest of his career. He kept his practice small, hiring just a handful of employees, and focused on just a handful of projects. He also followed projects without just focusing on the bottom line. He went for a client meeting to submit a design a church in Harlem, and when he arrived, discovered he had won the job because no other architect bothered to show up. The result, his powerful Church of the Resurrection, has since been demolished, but offered a monumental, almost Brutalist interpretation of sacred space.
As architecture shifted in the late ‘60s and ‘70s away from the classic definitions of Modernism, Lundy would have appeared perfectly poised to seize more of the spotlight, with his knack for sculptural, unorthodox designs and experimentation. Lundy’s small office never produced the same volume of work as his some of his peers, and despite certified late-career masterpieces, including the bold United States Tax Court Building in Washington, D.C., and the Sri Lankan Embassy, his work isn’t as well known as it should be. A later position as design director at the firm HKS resulted in few built works.
Retired and living in Houston, Lundy still spends his days painting and sketching, continuing to fill up notebooks with ideas and thoughts, as he’s done his entire life. He’s disappointed that some of his built work hasn’t been as well preserved as it should be, that the end results of his inventive sketches haven’t been protected. It’s perhaps the unfortunate result of an eccentric creative career. Lundy’s life has been filled with a number of unique projects and career milestones—having his work features in an exhibit in Moscow during the Cold War or designing futuristic space flowers for the 1964 New York World’s Fair—that make him tough to pin down. While that diversity makes Lundy harder to classify, it often makes his work all the more striking.
“He didn’t spend time creating a marketing package,” says Kacmar. “He focused on his design work. Everything he did was singularly developed.”
The third annual SarasotaMOD Architecture Festival celebrating artist and architect Victor Lundy takes place in Sarasota, FL November 11-13, 2016. Featuring the opening party in the iconic Blue Pagoda building, Lundy art exhibition, legacy presentations and film documentary at Ringling College of Art + Design, trolley tours of Lundy and Sarasota landmarks and midcentury homes tours. SarasotaMOD is presented by Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF) in partnership with Sarasota Museum of Art, a division of Ringling College of Art + Design. Click to Buy Tickets