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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2017 SAF – Paul Rudolph Scholarship Winners Announced

On Monday, June 12, the Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF) announced the 2017 winners of the sixth annual SAF-Paul Rudolph Scholarships. The awards presentation took place at Ringling College of Art + Design’s Academic Center, Room 207, from 5:30 to 7 pm.

Maxwell Strauss – $5,000 college scholarship
Sarasota Christian School graduate
Bachelor’s Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, Georgia
Will attend the University of Texas, Austin

Bailey Jordan – $1,000 college scholarship
Venice Senior High School graduate
Will be attending the University of Notre Dame, IN

Emily Cain – $500 college scholarship
Pine View School graduate
Will be attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY

Morgan Ann Mulholland – $500 college scholarship
Lakewood Ranch High School graduate
Will be attending both Santa Fe College and University of Florida, Gainesville, FL

About the SAF – Paul Rudolph Scholarship Awards
Since 2012, SAF and the Michael Kalman Foundation has awarded $36,262.00 to twelve Florida high school graduates enrolled in a NAAB-accredited professional degree (5-year BA or BA + MA) in architecture. Applicants must be a graduate of a Sarasota, Manatee, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Charlotte, Lee or Collier County, Florida High School and in need of financial assistance.

About Paul Rudolph
Born in 1918, Paul Rudolph studied with Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius at Harvard Graduate School of Design and was later Dean of the School of Architecture at Yale University. Buildings of his design can be found in cities around the world, including New York, Boston, Fort Worth, Singapore, Hong Kong and Jakarta. He continued to design buildings into the 1990s, and died in 1997 at the age of 79.

Rudolph, beginning his career in Sarasota, Florida, was one of the most influential architects in all of Florida in the 1950s and was the lead figure in the Sarasota School of Architecture Movement. Among his many award-winning Florida buildings include the Walker Guest House (1952, Sanibel Island), Umbrella House (1953, Sarasota) Sarasota High School Addition (1958, Sarasota), Deering Residence (1959, Casey Key) and Milam Residence (1961, Ponta Vedra).

For more information, please visit https://saf.wildapricot.org/scholarship

2017 SAF Paul Rudolph Scholarships

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. 

Architect Max Strang interprets ‘old-school’ ideas for a new era

By Harold Bubil, real estate editor, Herald-Tribune

Max Strang, a Winter Haven native who made his architectural reputation in Miami,

Max Strang

Max Strang, FAIA, Photo ©Scott Rhea

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.

Max Strang horizontal_600px
The Sarasota Architectural Foundation presented a lecture by Strang, titled “The Evolution of Florida Modernism,” on Wednesday in the Alfred Goldstein Library at Ringling College of Art + Design.

“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 cropped

Raingarden Lofts, [STRANG] Architects, Winter Haven, Florida – Photo ©Claudio Manzoni

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.

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Tuckman Residence, [STRANG] Architects, Ft Lauderdale, Florida, 2017

“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