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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.
The 2015 Giving Challenge is made possible by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County and The Patterson Foundation with support from the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Manatee Community Foundation, and the Herald-Tribune Media Group.
The 24 hour fundraiser will be from September 1st at Noon to September 2nd at Noon. The Patterson Foundation will match every NEW Donor’s donation between $25 to $250. A new donor is an individual who did not donate to SAF during the 2014 Giving Challenge.
To make your donation to the Sarasota Architectural Foundation, please visit: http://www.givingpartnerchallenge.org/
Your donations will support SAF’s ongoing mission to Advocate – Educate – Celebrate the Sarasota School of Architecture by awarding two annual scholarships, presenting SarasotaMOD Weekend, the November 6 – 8, 2015 midcentury architecture festival, and constructing a replica of Paul Rudolph‘s Walker Guest House to be exhibited on the grounds of The Ringling Museum of Art through October 2016.
by Nick Reichert, Observer Arts & Entertainment Editor
It all started with a phone call. In March, Dr. Larry R. Thompson, president of the Ringling College of Art and Design, left a message with the board of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF). He said the pedestrian canopy adjacent to the historic Sarasota High School, which was in the process of construction for the college’s new Sarasota Museum of Art/SMOA, would be demolished to make room for construction equipment. The canopy, which runs from the foot of the historic Sarasota High School to the middle of the campus of the current high school, isn’t your normal walkway — it was designed by mid-century modern architect Paul Rudolph. And, for SAF, that made all the difference.
Members of SAF’s board of directors, including Chairwoman Janet Minker and Dan Snyder, contacted their approximately 300 members and thousands of social media connections and sister organizations, such as Docomomo International (a European nonprofit dedicated to preserving modern-designed buildings) with a call to action: email Thompson or call his office. That spurred a wave of correspondence along with a protest by SAF members in front of the canopy. After discussion between Ringling and SAF, the canopy was saved and will serve as a part of the future of SMOA’s design.
“If you want to save buildings and other structures, you can’t do that unless people are aware of them and understand their value,” says Snyder. “We need to always create awareness and appreciation so that way if we need to save something like we did with the canopy, we have this body support.”
SAF and Ringling College remain on good terms, despite the incident. In fact, later that same week in March Thompson called Minker for a favor. He asked if she could give six art college presidents, who were visiting Sarasota for a conference, a tour of the Rudolph-designed buildings throughout Sarasota. Minker acquiesced, but what was originally six turned into a bus load of 20 college presidents, all of them ready to devour Sarasota’s plentiful examples of modern design.
SAF seeks to preserve the Bauhaus-inspired structures built in the area in the 1940s to 1960s. The Sarasota School of Architecture, founded by Ralph Twitchell, counts among its scions as Rudolph, Edward “Tim” Seibert, Phillip Hiss and Carl Abbott, among others. What makes Sarasota’s take on modernism unique is its incorporation of Southern architecture, such as patios, verandas and modular construction to allow for greater ventilation in the pre-air conditioning days. The style allowed for a play of light and shadow and softened the typical hard lines of the Bauhaus. The designs blurred the line between the indoors and outdoors, allowing each structure to blend in seamlessly with the Florida lifestyle.
The almost 300 members of SAF don’t just support modern design — they surround themselves with it. Both Minker and Snyder have extensive careers in design. Minker still works in graphic design, and Snyder, now retired, designed the iconic nutritional food pyramid that has been plastered on public school walls for decades.
The Lido Shores neighborhood in Sarasota plays host to modern residences with names such as the Umbrella House, Hiss Studio and the Martin Harkavy House that have been designed by influential mid-century architects such as Rudolph and his contemporaries.
Minker, who lives just down the street from many of the houses of which she gives tours, lives in a modern-designed, all-white house created by contemporary architect Jonathan Parks. Her walls and shelf space are dominated by modern art (a giant tapestry photograph of the model Kate Moss holds court in the living room) and books on Sarasota’s architectural history. Minker’s house is a recent addition to Lido Shores’ constellation of modern residences.
The Umbrella House (1300 Westway Drive) could be the face of the SAF. Built in 1953 and designed by Rudolph, it kicked off real estate developer Hiss’ mission to make Sarasota a modern getaway and destination for people to vacation and live. The two-bedroom home is a cube designed to feel open to Sarasota’s sun and breezes. The interior is a love letter to modern ideas of design with an emphasis on unorthodox arrangement and prolific use of lines. The dresser is built into an office wall and goes through that wall and becomes a table in the living room. The hearth and fireplace is a step down from the rest of the living room to encourage comfort and sitting. And, out back, though the titular umbrella (a sun canopy that extends from the roof to the backyard over the swimming pool) is no longer there, photos show a rectangular umbrella awning that leaves space open for the perimeter of the swimming pool just below it.
“I’m passionate about these buildings because I grew up in the 1950s, and it was a time when the war was over and people were optimistic about the future,” Snyder says. “Aesthetically, I think the people who walk into these houses feel like it was designed last week. It’s not at all what you think a Florida home will look like. It’s crisp and very cool. It’s timeless.”
SAF’s roots can be traced to a symposium conducted almost 15 years ago. It was an offshoot of a five-day symposium in 2001 on Sarasota’s modern build aesthetic. Titled “An American Legacy: The Sarasota School of Architecture Tour and Symposium,” the design-driven event, sponsored by the Fine Arts Society of Sarasota, included lectures, bus and boat tours, a documentary screening, exhibitions and dinner and receptions. An estimated 1,000 design professionals and design-lovers attended the event. From the success of that event, Minker says design aficionados Martie Lieberman and Thomas Luzier helped form the nonprofit organization to continue the mission of the weeklong symposium. And even though Lieberman and Luzier are no longer a part of SAF’s leadership, board members actively fulfill their mission: preserve Sarasota’s midcentury modern homes for future generations.
And, now, Minker and Snyder along with their five other members and advisory board of registered or retired local architects organize several tours, meetings, seminars and social events that celebrate the love of Sarasota’s modern architectural heritage. The culmination is SAF’s own architectural and design summit: SarasotaMOD Weekend.
The piece de resistance at this year’s MOD weekend in November will be a home of SAF’s own. The organization found that many visitors wanted to see all of the mid-century buildings in Sarasota but many are private residences. So, the board decided to build a recreation of Rudolph’s Walker Guest House, known as the “Cannonball House,” built in 1952 in Sanibel. Constructed by architect Joe King, with Old Cypress Construction, the home is built in convertible pieces on King Ranch in Bradenton. King’s team of four started in March and are just now adding the final touches. Once completed the home will be disassembled and stored until the MOD festival, where it will be on display just behind the Searing Wing of The John and Mable Ringling Art Museum on the grounds of The Ringling. The exact replica (built at an estimated cost of $200,000) will also include modern furniture and magazines from the 1950s to give visitors and Rudolph-files an almost Disney-esque experience. Admission into the guest house will be free.
SAF plans to turn the model home into a traveling show at museums and festivals around the country, including the Walker Art Center, the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas and Art Basel Miami. The organization hopes that the house, the largest project it has undertaken in scope and finances, will inspire design- and art-lovers not only in Sarasota but also around the country.
“SAF is a connector for like-minded people,” says Minker. “A lot of these people were VIPs in their own communities and they came here to retire and that wasn’t just to play golf. Our members are passionate, curious, knowledgeable and educated, and Sarasota is so lucky to have this constant influx of new people coming in bringing new ideas and resources.”
One of the numerous roles that the Sarasota Architectural Foundation plays is tour guide to architecture-loving tourists. Though most of the modern-designed buildings are private property and closed to the public, there are a few that are public or whose owners are active members of SAF. Visit http://www.yourobserver.com/article/sarasota-architectural-foundation-advocates-sarasotas-modern-buildings.
IF YOU GO
When: Nov. 6 through 9
Where: The Ringling, 5401 Bay Shore Road
Tickets: Available online August 14, 2015
Info: Call 364-2199 or visit sarasotamod.com
Thursday, January 10, 2013
5:30 – 8pm
Sarasota Herald Tribune Community Room
1714 Main Street, Sarasota, FL
Please join SAF for this insightful lecture on architect Paul Rudolph and the Sarasota School of Architecture, presented by architect Gregory Hall, AIA, president of Hall Architects, PA. The lecture will trace Rudolph’s career from his initial work in the office of Sarasota architect Ralph Twitchell, to his departure from the area to become Chairman of the Department of Architecture at Yale University. During that span of only 12 years, Rudolph’s work evolved into some of the most sophisticated examples of modern architecture in the post-World War II period. Rudolph is widely considered to be among the most influential architects of the 20th century.
5 – 5:30pm Check-in
5:30 – 7pm Presentation, Q&A
7 – 8pm Reception
Suggested Donations go to the
SAF – Paul Rudolph Scholarship Fund:
$10 SAF Members
$5 Students with ID
Photo: Umbrella House (1953) Paul Rudolph Architect