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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.
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.
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
December 11, 2016
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
535 Serata Street (1947)
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.
425 S. Nassau Street (1959)
Featured in Atomic Ranch Magazine’s Renovation Issue, Summer 2016
Renovation architect: Jon Barrick
Builder: Rob Dynan Construction
Landscape design: Dane Spencer
512 Valencia Road (1956)
Renovated 2008 − 2010
Architect/builder Jack Bailey
Renovation architect: Greg Hall, AIA, LEED, AP, Principle, Hall Architects, PA
616 Valencia Road (1953)
Architect: Ralph Twitchell
500 Sante Joseph Street (1955)
Architect: Jack Monteith
Photo shown above by David Ortins
This Fall, The Groundbreaking Work of Paul Rudolph Comes Into Focus with an Exhibition and a Symposium Devoted to the Great Modernist’s Architecture
By Beth Dunlop, Editor in Chief, Modern Magazine
Riverview High School, completed in 1958 in Sarasota, Florida, was one of the architect Paul Rudolph’s great early achievements. Passively cooled and instinctively green, it was at once modern and tropical, and for all its size (a high school after all), it had a surprisingly delicate presence, the kind of open and airy architecture that is anathema to school boards thinking about building fortresses resistant to hurricanes and school shootings. Against considerable outcry, the school was demolished in 2009, an act that began to focus much-needed national and international attention on the remarkable modernist architectural legacy of Sarasota, of Rudolph, and of his colleagues and followers.
Unlike some of America’s other shrines of residential modernism (Palm Springs and New Canaan, to name two), Sarasota has largely stayed out of the limelight. The reasons are many: among them, that it is not on the main tourist trails of Florida, and historically, it was settled, largely, by affluent publicity-shunning Midwesterners, though one could hardly call its most famous residents—John and Mable Ringling of circus fame—avoiders of publicity.
And yet, this Florida Gulf Coast city is one of the most important enclaves of mid-century modernism in America. Starting in the years just after World War II, when Rudolph moved there to work with Ralph Twitchell, Sarasota became home to a remarkable group of architects who worked in an idiom that one might call part-Bauhaus, part-Neutra, and all Sarasota. Much later, it was dubbed the Sarasota School of Architecture, but one can be quite sure that at the time, the architects working there simply thought they were making modern buildings. And though he stayed in Sarasota the better part of a decade before he became dean of architecture at Yale University in 1958, Rudolph was really the linchpin of the movement.
Rudolph’s Sarasota comes into focus this fall with an exhibition and a three-day conference devoted to those years and his buildings. A small exhibition entitled “Paul Rudolph: The Guest Houses” will be on view at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art from September 25 to December 6, centering on the small guest houses for which he became best known in Florida. The Sarasota Architectural Foundation has worked tirelessly to raise the funds to erect a replica of one of these, the Walker Guest House, on the grounds of the museum for the show. The Walker Guest House, built in 1952 for Dr. Walter Walker, is still standing on Sanibel Island, some one hundred miles to the south of Sarasota, and has been in continuous family use by Walter’s widow, Elaine Walker.
The guest house reconstruction will also be the centerpiece of the second annual SarasotaMOD Weekend mounted by the Sarasota Architectural Foundation. The three-day event, running November 6–8, offers an opportunity to tour, study, and celebrate Sarasota’s fine collection of houses, beach clubs and pavilions, and civic and commercial buildings. “There’s no question that Rudolph was the key, but one can’t really talk about Rudolph and Sarasota alone,” says Carl Abbott, a Sarasota architect who studied under Rudolph at Yale. “It’s not just Sarasota but the fact that Sarasota led him to the world.”
A southerner by birth, the son of an itinerant preacher, Rudolph had worked briefly in Sarasota immediately after graduating from Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University). He then headed off to graduate school at Harvard, then home to Walter Gropius and ripe with the ideas of the Bauhaus. War intervened, but afterwards Rudolph completed his Harvard graduate degree in architecture and moved back to Sarasota to work with Twitchell, with whom he’d interned as a student.
With Twitchell, and later in his own practice, Rudolph began designing a remarkable body of work, focusing primarily on small, delicate buildings that stood like fragile pavilions in the landscape, open to the sun and breezes and yet shielded from both. The Walker Guest House was among the first of these, unpretentious and yet ingenious in the way it could open to the elements or close them out— and it is the only extant example of this early work that is not in, or near, Sarasota. Simple in both form (there were some exceptions, of course) and detail, his buildings made the most of rather basic materials, allowing the structure to become part of the landscape and not dominate it. He experimented with plywood and concrete, pushing building materials to their newest and most creative uses.
Later, Rudolph’s work would change dramatically, but in Sarasota it was delicate, light, and airy—and experimental. His Cocoon House (officially the Healy Guest House of 1950) has a concave (or catenary) roof made of a spray-on vinyl building material developed by the U.S. armed forces and called Cocoon (thus the house’s name), and jalousie walls that can open and close. Rudolph’s 1953 Umbrella House has a second roof suspended over both the structure and the backyard, again a response to light and heat. The Tampa architect John Howey, who wrote a major volume on Sarasota architecture (“The Sarasota School of Architecture”), looks to the beginnings of the movement citing “respect for the land and the climate, appreciation for what was good from the past, eye for local materials, and use of new construction techniques.” After Rudolph connected with Sarasota’s great design patron of the time, Philip Hiss, he went on to design the two high schools, the late and still lamented Riverview and the Sarasota High School, actually a large addition to a small existing building.
Those underlying ideas—both the philosophical and the pragmatic—would guide not just Twitchell and Rudolph but those who followed. Rudolph and Twitchell were joined in their modernist mission by a singular group of architects, including (and not limited to) Victor Lundy, Gene Leedy, Jack West, Tim Seibert, William Rupp, Bert Brosmith, Frank Folsom Smith, John Howey, Mark Hampton, and the aforementioned Carl Abbott. Some came and stayed, while others moved on but not without leaving a mark.
In a 1995 talk in Los Angeles given just two years before his death, Rudolph spoke of the driving forces behind his work; he called them “the DNA of architecture, the essences” that he said had guided his work since the early 1950s, his years in Sarasota. For Rudolph these principles were “consideration of site, of space, of scale, of structure, of function, and of spirit,” a list that provides enormous insight into his approach to architecture.
The legacy of the whole Sarasota school was explored at last year’s MOD Weekend, and is of course the overriding preoccupation of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation, but as Abbott has pointed out, Rudolph was the foundation. This year’s program features a line-up of speakers including Joe King and Christopher Domin, authors of “Paul Rudolph: The Florida Houses”, and Timothy Rohan, whose “Architecture of Paul Rudolph” was published last year. The Los Angeles architect Lawrence Scarpa will moderate a panel entitled “We Knew Rudolph” that will feature Abbott, as well as Roberto de Alba, author of “Paul Rudolph: The Late Work”.
SarasotaMOD’s biggest draw, however, is an almost full day of tours that will take in some of the city’s fine modernist houses and will include a visit to an immaculately restored Rudolph masterwork, the Umbrella House and the remarkable and also just-restored Sarasota High School, which was saved through the efforts of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation and others—and really is not a consolation prize for the loss of Riverview but a triumph on its own.