Veteran Sarasota architects reunite for inaugural mid-century design festival on Florida Modernism
By Mike Singer
Gene Leedy, FAIA, started his career as Paul Rudolph’s first employee in the mid-century master’s Sarasota office when it opened in the 1950s. Decades later, at the 1982 AIA Florida annual conference in Tampa, Leedy coined the phrase “Sarasota School” to frame a special sort of design ethos that Rudolph’s firm spearheaded.
“In those days, they used to refer to the architects in Chicago as the ‘Chicago School,’ so I called us the ‘Sarasota School,’ and it stuck,” he says.
Leedy, now 86, returned to Sarasota last month, joining four other AIA fellows, all now in their 70s and 80s, who recalled the Sarasota School’s bright lights—Victor Lundy, FAIA; Paul Rudolph, FAIA; Ralph Twitchell, FAIA; and other Modernist pioneers—and their impact on the subtropical Gulf Coast of Florida, as part of the city’s first-ever SarasotaMOD Weekend, a four-day celebration of mid-century design.
“During the 1950s, Sarasota was probably the greatest place in the world to be an architect,” Leedy said. “To me, it was like Paris after World War I.”
Tropical Modernism and Trying Times
Today, Sarasota’s community preservation leaders are capitalizing on the city’s rich architectural legacy with renewed vigor. The Sarasota Architectural Foundation, SarasotaMOD’s sponsor, hopes the festival will deepen public understanding of an important regional center of Modernism—this year and in subsequent years—and propel architectural tourism and preservation.
From an alfresco dinner at Rudolph’s Sanderling Beach Club (Image 1) to tours by trolley, boat, and foot around Siesta Key and Lido Shores, design enthusiasts got a rare chance to tour privately owned mid-century gems and learn how a town with fewer than 25,000 residents in the 1950s became a hot-bed of Modernism.
“A more informed, motivated and stimulated audience will ultimately result in a better built environment—one that is both respectful of our buildings and our history,” said Carl Abbott, FAIA, chair of SarasotaMOD. “As lovely and architecturally significant as Sarasota is, many of our own mid-century buildings face enormous [preservation] challenges.”
If those challenges can be boiled down to some critical factors, certainly the long-term effects of climate on materials are on that list, as are the technical aspects of maintaining and restoring older Sarasota buildings. Above all, however, those things are made easier by widespread public awareness—not only of important local architectural legacies, but also stewardship of physical buildings and important design principles exemplified by those buildings.
SarasotaMOD panelist John Howey, FAIA, interviewed 22 architects active in the school, from 1941–1966, almost two decades ago for his book The Sarasota School of Architecture (MIT Press, 1997). In the book, he outlines five key principles advanced by Rudolph—largely adopted from Walter Gropius at Harvard—for what a regional school of architecture could mean.
“Clarity of construction, maximum economy of means, simple overall volumes penetrating vertically and horizontally, clear geometry floating above the Florida landscape, and honesty in details and in structural connections,” recalls Howey, “are the guiding principles of the Sarasota School.” Howey, 88, continues to utilize those principles in his Tampa-based practice.
“What happened here in Sarasota was very unique,” says Abbott, 78, a former student of Rudolph’s at Yale University whose work such as the Putterman House (1986, Image 2) continues to draw from the native Kentuckian’s formal experiments in massing and in section.
For Abbott, though, the Sarasota School represents two distinct influences that made it a unique expression of modern architecture: Rudolph and that of Ralph Twitchell, an Ohioan who opened his Sarasota office in 1936 and hired a 23-year-old Rudolph, fresh out of Auburn University, in 1941.
“There were two places in the world where both the Bauhaus School and the Organic School took root together,” says Abbott. “One was in Los Angeles and the other was here in Sarasota. Rudolph studied under Gropius at Harvard, and Ralph Twitchell favored the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Together, Twitchell and Rudolph designed two important projects before Rudolph’s departure for graduate school at Harvard: their catenary-roofed Healy Guest House and the lattice-encased Umbrella House (Image 3, Image 4). Both projects received positive reviews in the architectural magazines of the day. Upon Rudolph’s return to Sarasota, the two architects formed Twitchell & Rudolph in 1946, a firm that had a productive five-year run before disbanding in 1951.
“Many people don’t know this, but Rudolph was a great merchant,” said Leedy. “He gave the magazines a little package with his beautiful drawings, a story, the whole ball of wax—all they had to do was sign their name to it. Paul made it so easy for all of them.”
Widespread publicity about the early Twitchell-Rudolph experiments attracted other young architects.
Frank Folsom Smith, FAIA, took a leave from his architectural studies at the University of Virginia in the late 1950s to apprentice with Sarasota’s other rising architectural star, Victor Lundy, FAIA, for $75 a week. But, as Smith reports, Lundy and Rudolph were never friendly, despite being classmates in graduate school.
“I always thought about Paul Rudolph and Victor Lundy as fire and ice—because Paul was cool and Victor was hot,” said Smith. “Victor was much more competitive [than Rudolph] and an excellent mentor. He could sit down and start a drawing on butcher paper, never miss a stroke, and end up with a design. He’d hand it to me and say ‘draw this.’”
For Smith, “this” included two landmark buildings: St. Paul’s Lutheran Church complex and the Waldman Building (Image 5, Image 6).
Edward “Tim” Seibert, FAIA, was just 25 in 1953, and a draftsman for Paul Rudolph, when he designed the stilt-raised Hiss Studio (Image 7). Philip Hiss, a visionary Sarasota developer and modern design advocate, sold Lido Shores properties from the office Seibert’s firm designed—including the speculative Umbrella House designed by Rudolph next door.
“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,” Seibert, a panelist at SarasotaMOD, recalled. “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.”
Today, however, the question is: How can preservationists encourage Sarasotans to see that once-new architecture as part of their futures?
Preservation and Expansion: Sarasota’s New Frontier
Sarasota has seen the same rapid growth and development as other Sun Belt cities, and preservation has not always been the rule of the land. Rudolph’s Riverview High School, completed in 1958 (the year he left to accept the deanship at the Yale School of Architecture) and the center of strong local preservation support, was razed in 2009 to make way for a parking lot (Image 8).
“The Building Itself Teaches,” the current exhibit at the Sarasota County Visitor Information Center and History Center Museum, tells the story of nine public schools constructed when Hiss served on the Sarasota Board of Public Instruction from 1953–1960. Hiss’s leadership transformed the county’s public educational environment, marrying modernist design with progressive pedagogy and setting a precedent for school design in postwar America.
Schools featured open floor plans and movable partitions and furniture that allowed for team teaching. “A lot of ideas that are common now about students working with other students, kids teaching kids, team teaching,” said Lorrie Muldowney, Assoc. AIA, manager of the Sarasota County History Center, in an opening-night speech at SarasotaMOD, “and these concepts informed the designs of schools such as Englewood Elementary by Jack West.”
Jack West, FAIA, who worked for Twitchell and Rudolph, started his own firm in 1951, and ultimately formed West and Conyers/Architects and Engineers in 1966, which he led through the 1990s.
Today, only four of the nine schools commissioned by Hiss still stand. However, in a major preservation victory, the façade of Rudolph’s Sarasota High School, 1958, is now undergoing restoration as part of a $42 million campus overhaul (Image 9). Jonathan Parks, AIA, principal and founder of Jonathan Parks Architect, an 11-person firm based in Sarasota, helped guide restoration efforts. Other pioneering schools on the other hand, such as Jack West’s Englewood Elementary School, have been demolished.
Elsewhere in Sarasota, the University of Florida recently launched CityLab-Sarasota, which is on track to offer an M.Arch degree program in the coming year. In a city that never had a school of architecture, Sarasota School examples will become a living lab for graduate students. The new academic program will be housed in a former 1960s furniture showroom designed by Sarasota School modernist William Rupp, AIA, and share the space with the Center for Architecture Sarasota, which opened in 2013.
Even Rudolph’s first solo commission, the Walker Guest House (Image 10), will live on in a new context. While the original, privately owned home still stands in nearby Sanibel Island, the Sarasota Architectural Foundation plans to reconstruct it on the grounds of Sarasota’s Ringling Museum of Art and ultimately take it on the road as a traveling kit of parts and mobile education studio.
“This is a very unusual ‘preservation’ project because we are building fresh from scratch, from the original drawings,” says Joe King, a Sarasota architect, co-author of Paul Rudolph: The Florida Houses (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), and construction manager for the Walker Guest House reconstruction.
Once completed, the 580-square-foot house will be installed on the grounds of the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, where attendees to SarasotaMOD in 2015 will have the opportunity to tour it, learn about Rudolph’s use of jalousie windows, and experience period furniture and fixings.
“[The client] Elaine Walker is very enthusiastic about the project and wants it to travel to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis after its run at the Ringling,” says Joyce Owens, AIA, who moderated a panel at this year’s event and helped guide the reconstruction plans based on Rudolph’s original drawings. “After all, it was always one of Paul Rudolph’s favorite buildings.”
Decades may have passed, but the legacy of Rudolph and his trailblazing contemporaries still shines brightly in this southwestern Florida city.
Mike Singer is a frequent contributor to AIArchitect.
Photos shown above: Image 1: The Sanderling Beach Club cabanas, 1952, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, were Paul Rudolph’s first major non-residential project. Photo by Jenny Acheson. Image 2: Putterman House, 1986, designed by Carl Abbott. Abbott studied under Rudolph at Yale and used his mentor's guiding principles of “simple overall volumes penetrating vertically and horizontally” in this monolithic street façade. Photo by Steven Brooke. Image 3: Healy Guest House, aka the Cocoon House, 1950, designed by Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell. Notable for its cantilevered roof and water bank overhang, the house generated widespread national publicity for the two. Photo by Greg Wilson. Image 4: Umbrella House, 1953, designed by Paul Rudolph. The home's original umbrella latticework was blown away in a 1996 hurricane and replaced in 2008. Photo by Bill Miller. Image 5: St. Paul's Lutheran Church (Fellowship Hall 1959, Sanctuary 1968), designed by Victor Lundy. With a soaring roof suspended by steel cables, the church's simple exterior encloses a sculpturally curved wooden ceiling. Photo by Greg Wilson. Image 6: Waldman Building, 1958, designed by Victor Lundy. It once served as a studio in which the dancers appeared to roadside observers as suspended in space. Photo by Greg Wilson. Image 7: Hiss Studio, 1953, designed by Edward J. "Tim" Seibert. A glass box raised on 14 slender steel columns, this was the 1950s sales office where developer Philip Hiss sold his Lido Shores modernist houses. Photo by Greg Wilson. Image 8: Riverview High School, 1959, designed by Paul Rudolph. Designed in the International Style, Rudolph's first public high school building was torn down in 2009 following a highly contentious preservation battle. Courtesy of Sarasota County Historical Resources. Image 9: Sarasota High School Addition, 1960, designed by Paul Rudolph. Rudolph's last project in Sarasota, the exterior of the building is being restored and the interior repurposed as part of a $42 million rebuild of the Sarasota High School campus. Photo by Greg Wilson. Image 10: Walker Guest House, 1952, designed by Paul Rudolph. Rudolph's last project in Sarasota, the exterior of the building is being restored and the interior repurposed as part of a $42 million rebuild of the Sarasota High School campus. Photo by Greg Wilson.