Welcome to SAF’s Walker Guest House Replica

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walker guest house

walker guest house dining room

SAF’s Walker Guest House Replica is open to the public, free of charge, during The Ringling Museum hours. For special tours featuring a talk by SAF, please call 941-364-2199 or email info@saf-srq.org.

Walker Guest House Replica© 2015
Presented by the Sarasota Architectural Foundation
Photography Jenny Acheson, Model Emily Shaw, Styling Canned Ham Vintage

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Modern Sarasota Looks to Its Roots

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.

Sarasota Through the Eyes of One of Its Most Outspoken Architects

The Florida city would be a much different place without Tim Seibert and the Sarasota School of Architecture.

By Debra Bruno
The Atlantic, CityLab

The Siesta Key House, architect Tim Seibert, photo by Larry Reinebach

The Siesta Key House, architect Tim Seibert, photo by Larry Reinebach

Picture a one-story wooden house shaped more or less like a box, situated along a Florida canal. Its living space opens to the outside, with wide glass doors, louvered blinds, and a glass roof covering an unadorned grass patio. Basically, Frank Lloyd Wright goes to the beach.

While that simple home on Siesta Key near Sarasota no longer exists, its designer, and one of the original members of the Sarasota School of Architecture, is very much around.

Tim Seibert, 87, helped to create what is today known as the Sarasota School of Architecture, a modernist mid-century style that makes the most of south Florida’s humid subtropical climate.

Sarasota would be a very different place without the influence of the Sarasota modernists, says Dr. Christopher Wilson, architecture and design historian at Ringling College of Art + Design and board member of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation. And while most scholars credit architects like Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell as founders of the school, Seibert “wins the longevity award,” says Wilson. His first home was built when he was 25 and he worked up until his 80s.

Seibert also stands out today because he isn’t shy about speaking out. In the new documentary “The Seibert Effect” by filmmaker and retired Chicago engineer Larry Reinebach, Seibert talks about designing condominiums that were “more like a resort and less like a place to put old people.” He told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that Sarasota’s downtown Bayfront area was an example of “cultural indigestion.”

About the site of his former home on Siesta Key, he said, “Siesta looks the way it does because so many members of the old Sarasota establishment sold their land out to developers and got big bucks.”

There’s a good deal of truth to that: Sarasota today feels more like a hodgepodge of traffic jams, retirees from Canada hunting for shells along the beach, and a mixture of Italianate, Spanish, and one-story developments that now cover land where orange groves and dairy farms once stood.

At the same time, it’s also something of an oasis in a fast-growing Florida. The modernist style that put Sarasota on the map in the 1950s and ’60s is undergoing a revival, says Martie Lieberman, a Sarasota real estate agent who specializes in mid-century modern homes and is a co-founder of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation. “There’s a resurgence—although there’s always been a cool, hip crowd interested in it,” she says.

The problem for Sarasota is how to preserve these architectural gems in a city that has not made historic preservation a priority. Just two homes—the Umbrella House built in 1953 by Paul Rudolph and the Cocoon House built by Ralph Twitchell and Rudolph in 1950—have been listed on the city’s register of historic places, says Wilson.

Seibert himself is not anti-development per se. In fact, because his work for clients ranged from luxury homes to corporate office buildings, Seibert’s influence is “more widespread through our community,” Reinebach says. But Seibert does decry helter skelter growth. “I think one of the big problems today is the automobile,” he says by phone from his home on the island of Boca Grande, about 60 miles south of Sarasota. While Boca Grande once had no bridge access, it does now, which he says means the area is “being trampled beneath automobiles.”

The biggest challenge for mid-century modern homes is probably along the beach. Many of the former modernist homes were situated along the Gulf Coast. But a home that might be as small as 1,000 square feet on such prime real estate is often replaced by a behemoth.

Walker Guest House, architect Paul Rudolph, 1953, photo by Ezra Stoller courtesy ESTO

Walker Guest House, architect Paul Rudolph, 1953, photo by Ezra Stoller courtesy ESTO

The Sarasota Architectural Foundation is trying to raise awareness of the fragility of the style by recreating the Paul Rudolph-designed Walker Guest House, a privately owned home on Sanibel Island, for a November conference [SarasotaMOD Weekend November 6 – 8, 2015] on the grounds of The Ringling Museum of Art. “It is the most perfect example of the Sarasota school,” Wilson says. Visitors will be able to enter the small wood and screen building and try out the louvers that regulate air flow, says Wilson. The foundation hopes to take the building on tour around the country as well.

Today, Seibert designs wooden sailboats and spends many of his days sailing in the Gulf off Boca Grande. His earlier home on Siesta Key had been torn down and replaced with a “McMansion,” he says. “If you want to be fatuous about life, why not do it well and be elegant?” he asks. “[the McMansions] are just awful.”