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. 

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Chick Austin’s Art World Legacy

SAF's Chick Austin EventOn March 21, 2015, SAF will host a very special event in honor of Chick Austin, The Ringling Museum’s first director from 1947 to 1956. Mr. Austin’s Sarasota home, built in 1925, will be the site of a lecture, house tour and garden party. Ron McCarty, curator and keeper of Cà d’Zan, will present a talk on the house known as“Villa Cirque.” Columnist Bob Plunket, of Sarasota Magazine, will discuss the social history of Sarasota in the 1940s and ’50s. Eugene Gaddis, author of Austin’s biography titled “Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America”, will present “The Baroque and the Modern: Chick Austin’s Extraordinary Architecture.” Gaddis is the archivist and curator of the Austin House, owned by the Wadsworth Atheneum museum in Hartford, Connecticut. Austin, then in his mid-40s, came from the Wadsworth in 1946 to head the Ringling.

Sponsored by The Community Foundation of Sarasota County, Sarasota Magazine, and Amore by Andrea.


The following article appeared in the March 14, 2013 Issue of the Observer.

Home of the Month
Glorious Past, Glorious Present
By Robert Plunket

This is where it all started. Even more than the Cá d’ Zan, the Austin House is the birthplace of the modern Sarasota lifestyle. This is where the arts were established as the driving force in local culture, where money and politics collided with creativity, and where the town’s love of entertainment blossomed into the razzle-dazzle that continues to this day. Bette Davis slept here. So did Dame Edith Sitwell, Prince Rainer, and Gypsy Rose Lee — although, one hopes, not all together or at the same time.

Austin House_Sarasota Garden
A. Everett Austin — known to everyone as “Chick” — was the first director of The Ringling Museum, from 1947 to 1956. He remains a legend in the art world. During his previous job at the Wadsworth Antheneum in Hartford, Conn., he was celebrated as the man who introduced modern art to America. His vision embraced all the arts —music, film, theater, architecture — and he worked hard to ensure that both museums under his care became the crown jewels of their communities. His personal style was the epitome of sophistication. He had a penchant for impeccable tailoring and Rolls Royces. The home he designed in Hartford, part Baroque, part Bauhaus, is now a museum.

His home in Sarasota, scarcely less remarkable though much less well known, is now on the market. And its current owner Jerry Chaplain turns out to have been the perfect heir to the Austin legacy.

***

The house was originally built in 1925, in the Mediterranean Revival style of the time. It belonged to the Whitfield family, one of several homes they owned in the area now called Whitfield Estates. Designed by Thomas Monk, architect of Sarasota High, it was a large home for the era—five bedrooms, a small guest cottage, and a large garden set on the western side, with nothing between it and the bay.

The first thing Austin did was eliminate three of the bedrooms and turn that space into two spectacular rooms — a 40-foot ballroom for his famous parties and an adjoining porch done in the Chinese Chippendale style, with green fret work framing a view of the gardens. Both of these rooms remain virtually intact.

When Chaplain gives visitors a tour, he is proud to point out the many original details that date back to Austin. The living room is lined with Scalamandre fabric and the anteroom to the ballroom contains 18th-century Italian hand painted wallpaper, originally from the Asolo Theatre, which Austin brought over from Italy and had installed on the grounds of the museum. (The earliest Asolo rehearsals and play-readings took place out in the garden.)

But, perhaps the most remarkable artifact is not original to the house, though the story it tells perfectly reflects the house’s glamorous appeal. Upstairs in the guest bedroom is a portrait in oil of a graceful female nude, who, upon closer examination, turns out to be Bette Davis. She and Austin were great friends. He even gave her second husband, painter William Grant Sherry, a one-man show at the Ringling. But what her husband perhaps did not know was that Davis’ attraction to Sarasota was due to more than her friendship with Austin. She was here to visit her long-time lover, Stanley Woodward, a well-known painter and a professor at Ringling College. Chaplain purchased the portrait — along with a cache of love letters — from Woodward’s daughter, who was very glad to be rid of them.

***

It takes a certain kind of person to take on the responsibility of such a remarkable home, but Jerry Chaplain is more than up to it. A private art dealer originally from Indiana, he bought the home in 1997 and has lavished time and attention, not to mention money, on this all-consuming project.

He kept the look of the major rooms intact, but modernized the kitchen with an eye toward large-scale entertaining. Most of the major changes have been outside. Chaplain added a pool — a lap pool that doubles as an ornamental reflecting pool, complete with a classical sculpture punctuating the axis. Beyond the pool is a patch of green lawn lined with more statues and, at the very farthest point, a Chinese temple set over a koi pond filled with 36 fish, all of which have names and some of which are up to 3 feet in length.

“Every thing you see is set up for a surprise,” Chaplain says. “You turn a corner and there is something totally unexpected.”

There is so much to see in fact, that only when you look up do you see the biggest surprise of all — a tri-level tree house set in a seven-story banyan tree. Climb the winding stairs to the top and you see a spectacular view of the neighborhood, with the bay a short distance away.

Chaplain spent years decorating the house in a formal, antique-filled style appropriate to its elegant architecture. Then, in May, he sold the home’s entire contents to a single dealer. Since then, he’s been busy refurnishing it in a witty blend of eclectic styles, part outsider art and found objects, part mid-century modern, part industrial, plus a unifying underlay of baroque. Art work is everywhere. A full size ceramic cow (by Longboat Key artist Joan Feder) grazes in the ballroom, and in the library, two friezes of frisky maidens (by Siesta Key painter Viktorija Bulava) face each other from opposite sides of the room. In fact, virtually every object in the house has been found locally, many from Crissy Galleries, Sarasota Architectural Salvage and Elliot Bernstein’s famous Sunday afternoon auctions.

“I’ve done everything I can possibly do,” Chaplain says of the home, with a wistful tone in his voice. Now he’s moving on. He’s purchased a home on a lake in his native Indiana and is already at work designing and remodeling. Thus, the famous Austin House will soon have a new owner and a new life with — hopefully — its magnificent past still intact.


The home, 227 Delmar Avenue, is currently for sale at $869,000. For more information, contact Dyrk Dahl of Coldwell Banker at 941-320-7373.