Bert Brosmith, a Rudolph protege, left impression on Sarasota architecture


n the annals of Sarasota architecture, hidden in the shadows of names like Paul Rudolph, Victor Lundy and Thomas Reed Martin, are lesser-known talents such as Bert Brosmith.

Educated at the University of Pennsylvania by Rudolph and later trained by him as an employee, Brosmith ran the latter’s office in Sarasota from 1955 to 1960 while Rudolph was moving on to Connecticut as newly appointed dean of Yale’s architecture school.




rBrosmith01cBrosmith was Rudolph’s boots on the ground for the construction of Riverview High School and his addition to Sarasota High School.

Eventually, talented architects start their own firms, and, by 1960, Brosmith had done same. In 1962, he drew a residential addition to the Tim Seibert-designed Hiss Studio in Lido Shores. He also designed a juvenile detention facility on 17th Street with Frank Folsom Smith and worked with I.M. Pei on the design of the New College dormitories.

In the mid-1960s, he moved to New York, working for Perkins and Will until 1969, and then as a partner in Juster, Brosmith, Levine Architects and Planners before establishing his own practice in Pound Ridge, N.Y., which he is just now winding down.

In 1964, as the Sarasota school’s International-style modernist boxes were falling out of local favor, Brosmith designed his final Sarasota project, a house for Dorotha Dawson, which she shared with longtime friend Julia Coe. Dawson was a retired librarian from Detroit.

While it had many characteristics of a modernist house, from the open floor plan to the expansive windows and a clever and honest use of materials, its outward appearance was not at all like the low-slung midcentury moderns with flat roofs and walls of glass.

Martie Lieberman, the Coldwell Banker Realtor who specializes in selling modern architecture, calls the Dawson house “contempo.”

“It was very much of the 1960s and ’70s,” she said, “with shed roofs and wood construction that gave the interior tall, voluminous spaces. It turns its shoulders to the street, which is very much like what Carl Abbott does.” Incidentally, it is for sale after six years of ownership by Vicky and Richard Burkhart. Pat Taylor of Coldwell Banker has the listing at $850,000.

Brosmith had one employee in his Sarasota office then — Carl Abbott.

In a 1967 St. Petersburg Times article about the house, Abbott described the house not as modern, but as “an outstanding example of the mainstream of contemporary American architecture.”

Fort Myers architect Joyce Owens, who has studied and written about Brosmith’s career, described the house as “California contemporary” in a recent interview with the Herald-Tribune.

“People couldn’t decide if it was a church, a funeral home or a temple,” said Taylor. “The last thing they though it was, was a house.”

The extensive use of wood, particularly western cedar, gives the house a warm and distinctive look that has survived many alterations over the years. Specifically, the galley kitchen has been updated, and a porch has been enclosed to create a dining space for the expanded kitchen.

“I gave Mr. Brosmith quite a bit of freedom in designing the house,” said Dorotha Dawson in a 1967 Herald-Tribune interview, “but then, too, I found that may have been a downfall to a degree since some of the things I’d wanted were left out and had to be added later.

“I am guilty of the uncommon task of building the house around the furniture, and I knew what I must have in order to be happy.”

Brosmith wrote then, “Miss Dawson was explicit only in terms of how she intended to live in Sarasota. She didn’t try to design the house herself, as so many clients do.”

The house, with Abbott-esque windowless walls facing the street, has an entry courtyard that is surrounded by the house’s separated sections and punctuated by an imposingly tall brick chimney. Inside the demure front door, an intricate interplay of spaces unfolds. For the first-time visitor, it is more of an exploration than a tour. Passages between some rooms are framed by wood planks set vertically.

“He was obviously influenced by Rudolph,” she said. “I don’t think Brosmith is the genius that Rudolph was, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. He did a nice job of carrying on and interpreting the ideas, and in a more simple way than Rudolph did. Rudolph was so able to integrate space, and move from one space to the next, it was almost confusing in a way.

“Brosmith’s designs are very simple and elegant for that reason.”

The living room, though, in modernist devotion, is a voluminous space with built-ins and a wrap-around window that once had a better view of Sarasota Bay before a neighbor planted a row of areca palms.

In a nod to Rudolph’s Umbrella House, the Dawson house has an intimate conversation area around the fireplace, although it is not sunken.

“His detailing was excellent,” said Tampa architect John Howey, who chronicled Brosmith’s career in his book “The Sarasota School of Architecture.”

“Bert was a very talented guy. The house is very enclosed, almost antisocial. It is nicely proportioned and split into the three units.”

John Hartenstine was the builder of the house, which cost about $40,000. “He was a contractor’s contractor, because he worked right alongside his people,” said Pat Taylor, the listing agent who lives across the street. “He was a perfectionist, so I am sure that house has very good bones and was built to stay there.”

Taylor recalls homeowner Dorotha Dawson’s sense of dignity.

In the 1970s, “We had just moved in,” remembers Taylor, “and she thought it was just the most awful thing in the world that my husband and my son did our yard work. Oh, she had never heard of anything like that. She came over and invited us to interview her caretaker.

“But we just continued to do our own work.”

Vicky Burkhart remembers her decision to buy the house.

“We looked at it three times,” she said, one of them an open house held by Taylor in which Richard Burkhart was particularly enamored. The Burkharts lived in St. Petersburg at the time.

“We were coming down to Sarasota on the weekends, and we had been to a museum. Richard pulls into the driveway and says, ‘This is probably going to be a short visit, but I’d really like to see this house.’

“I am not very modern; I am very Victorian. And in we trot, and we walked around and walked around. At the end I was pretty much sold, except for the kitchen. It was a little alley kitchen, Frank Lloyd Wright-style, that was dark, and you could reach out and touch both sides. I though, ‘Oh my gosh, how am I going to cook in here?’

“We hemmed and hawed, and we came back again, and again, and the sellers had opened up the kitchen and added a much different bathroom upstairs.”

They were sold.


Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: September 1, 2013
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