Bubil: Book is eulogy for demolished Paul Rudolph homes


A most unusual architecture book has just been published. Instead of celebrating iconic landmarks by legendary designers, it is a pictorial “Taps” for three houses designed by the much revered, or reviled, Paul Rudolph.

“After You Left / They Took It Apart (Demolished Paul Rudolph Homes),” published by Columbia College Chicago Press, is a collection of 44 photographs by Chris Mottalini of the decaying Rudolph houses, taken before each was demolished in 2007.

The houses are the Micheels Residence, built in 1972 in Westport, Conn.; the Cerrito House, built in 1956 on 12 oceanfront acres in Watch Hill, R.I.; and the Twitchell Residence, built in 1941 on Siesta Key, overlooking Big Pass.

Rudolph got his professional start in Sarasota, and the Twitchell Residence, designed in tandem with his boss, Ralph Twitchell, was his first significant project right out of Auburn University.

The pictures tell a story of decay and abandonment, especially in the case of the Twitchell Residence, which was damaged by a fire contained to the carport, some years before demolition.

But beyond torn screens and broken window glass, the houses do not appear to be in all that bad a condition. Certainly, worse wrecks have been rehabilitated. Economics, though, doomed them. The Watch Hill and Siesta Key sites became just too valuable for modest, 50-plus-year-old houses. Each has a spectacular view, but the Twitchell Residence faced the Gulf of Mexico at ground level. Improving the house would have meant dealing with the “50-percent rule.” That would have required elevating the house, which was in a “V” flood zone, 13 feet to FEMA’s base-flood elevation if more than 50 percent of the structure’s value was spent on renovation. Additionally, the fire-damaged and occasionally flooded house needed a lot of work.

Too much work for architect and Rudolph historian Joe King, who bought the house in April 2005 with hopes of restoring it. He sold the Big Pass Lane property in November 2007 for $2.8 million, $150,000 more than he paid. It is still vacant six years later.

The Micheels house was a different story. Built much in the same Brutalist fashion as Rudolph’s 1958 Sarasota High School addition, it was sold by its original owner, Louis Micheels, for $3.2 million in early 2007. When the new owners sought to demolish it, the architectural and historical community revolted in a panicked effort to save the house, but it was unsuccessful. Micheels himself opposed a historic designation that could have impeded demolition. He had 3.2 million reasons.

A 6,200-square-foot house now stands on the site, at 16 Minute Man Hill in Westport.

The book includes a conversation about the Cerrito house by siblings Charles Cerrito and Marlene Cerrito Hewitt, both Sarasota residents. They lived in the house as youngsters and met Rudolph during the planning stage.

As a young architect working in Sarasota in 1952, Rudolph had designed a remodel of the family’s house in Ballentine Manor, near Sarasota-Bradenton Airport, for their father, Dr. Louis Cerrito. The original architect was Twitchell, who brought Rudolph to Sarasota in the 1940s.

The family found Rudolph so appealing that Dr. Cerrito hired him to design a house overlooking a golf course and the Atlantic Ocean on family property in Watch Hill.

“Paul flew up and they walked all over the property,” recalls Charles Cerrito, who was a teenager at the time. “Paul took pictures and then he came back (to Sarasota) and started his drawings. He visited several times. Paul was a wonderful, sweet guy. Very, very knowledgeable; serious about his work.”

“I remember liking him because he was gentle,” said his sister in a 2001 interview with the Herald-Tribune.

“What I like most about (the house) is its clean lines,” said Hewitt. “It’s easy to look at and neat and orderly, and that’s the way I am. And it’s open, so you’re not confined. You’re living with the outside coming in.”

With very few words and some powerful images, the book asks a basic question that can be asked about almost any structure, eventually. When a home no longer provides effective shelter, is it ultimately worth saving?

Rudolph’s buildings, loved as geometry in motion by some and ugly affronts to the built environment by others, must overcome their image as products of a rough concrete style now seen by many to be uninviting. In an introductory essay, Allison Arieff takes note of the wave of demolitions that have befallen midcentury buildings and calls Rudolph “one of the harder-hit modernists.”

“Too many of his buildings have met with the wrecking ball,” she wrote. “Too few people have rallied to the cause of his architecture.” She notes that architecture critic Anthony Daniels equates modern buildings to “fallout shelters” and their defenders “want to deny their past crimes against humanity, beauty and the townscape. . . . Preserve one and pull the rest down.”

That sentiment will find just as many opponents as supporters in Sarasota, where Rudolph is still a revered figure among those with whom he worked, as well as those who simply admire his work.

Rudolph died in 1997. Ten years later, the Cerrito, Micheels and Twitchell houses came down. “It’s probably a good thing,” said photographer Mottalini, “Rudolph isn’t alive to see this happen to his work.”


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: December 14, 2013
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