Sarasota home: Is it a Twitchell?


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Ralph Twitchell made his money on the sands of Siesta Key. Known as a father figure of the “Sarasota school” of midcentury modern architecture (along with developer Phil Hiss), Twitchell built dozens of houses with large expanses of glass, slightly sloped flat roofs and plenty of yellowish “Ocala” concrete block stacked on the grid.

This house, built in 1960 on Roberts Point Circle, Siesta Key, is listed for sale at $486,000 through Martie Lieberman of Premier Sotheby's International Realty. It has two bedrooms and two baths in 1,150 square feet. If not designed by midcentury modernist Ralph Twitchell, it at least was inspired by him. (Staff photo / Harold Bubil)

This house, built in 1960 on Roberts Point Circle, Siesta Key, is listed for sale at $486,000 through Martie Lieberman of Premier Sotheby's International Realty. It has two bedrooms and two baths in 1,150 square feet. If not designed by midcentury modernist Ralph Twitchell, it at least was inspired by him. (Staff photo / Harold Bubil)

These features became trademarks of local modernist houses that populated the keys in the 1950s, so it is not a wild leap to surmise that a for-sale house, built in 1960 on Siesta Key’s Roberts Point Road, is part of Twitchell’s résumé.

That is not to say he designed them all. Some surviving Sarasota school architects say he usually left the design work to the talented Paul Rudolph, Jack West and others.

But the dashing World War I fighter pilot was a master of organization and construction, and he was a smooth recruiter of wealthy and adventurous clients on the cocktail party circuit.

“What he did for Paul Rudolph,” recalled architect Tim Seibert, 87, who knew both men, “was he provided the background. He got Jack to design for him, and Paul, and Ken Warriner.”

Twitchell came to Sarasota to supervise the final stages of construction of Cá d’Zan, the John and Mable Ringling mansion, for New York society architect Dwight James Baum.

Twitchell left Florida when the 1920s real estate boom went bust, but returned in the mid-1930s. He designed fairly traditional, ranch-style houses and also built them, using his company, Associated Builders.

Later in the decade, he took over design of the Lido Beach Casino from Albert Saxe. A blend of art deco and modern design languages, and punctuated with masonry seahorses, it became a local landmark until it was torn down by the city in 1969.

Twitchell and Rudolph

Twitchell greatly boosted his modernist credentials by hiring Paul Rudolph fresh out of Auburn University in 1941, and rehiring him after Rudolph completed his stint in the Navy during World War II.

They had a successful partnership from 1948 until 1952. Rudolph was away from the office often, making a name for himself in the international architecture community and cultivating his image with the design press. Their relationship ended after the Twitchell-Rudolph firm won a national design award.

“Twitchell gave a long acceptance speech and didn’t mention a word about Paul,” Seibert recalled. “Then he returned to his seat and didn’t say a word to him.

“Paul went to him to talk about a settlement,” Seibert said, “and Ralph told him, ‘There’s nothing to settle.’ There was no money.”

On the market

It is an increasingly rare experience to walk through a Twitchell-style house, and this one, listed at $486,000 by Martie Lieberman of Premier Sotheby’s International Realty, is no different.

Lieberman, who specializes in selling modern architecture, said she has “no documentation” that credits Twitchell as the architect, but that the signs are there.

“It feels like a house I sold by master builder Jack Twitchell, Ralph’s nephew,” Lieberman said. “The way they designed things was pretty amazing. So much of it was still original, and it was a lot like this on the inside. The drawers were one of the areas that were amazing to me.”

On Roberts Point Road, the built-ins, including the drawers in the small master bedroom and the kitchen and bathroom cabinets, are angled like wedges.

“The cabinets are cut that way for convenience,” she said. “They break away from your legs and you are free to stand there and do your work. It is very clever. But that did not last.”

Lieberman said if the house was not designed by Ralph Twitchell, “it had to be by someone who worked closely with him.

“Another reason I thought it might be (built by) Jack was the species of wood, very fine and hard to get. It is everywhere in the house. That was important to whoever built that house. I don’t see that much anymore.”

In large part, that is because Twitchell houses are an endangered species. They tend to be in good locations and get torn down in favor of large and showy new houses.

Lieberman’s listing has two bedrooms and two baths in 1,150 square feet, and it is on a less-coveted interior lot. But that doesn’t mean it is safe from the bulldozer. Non-waterfront lots throughout the Roberts Point neighborhood are being redeveloped with grand new homes.


“It is a mansion-like environment — well over $1 million; $2 million or more if it is on the water,” Lieberman said. “If the lot has enough room, it is a very desirable place to live.

“The owners love the house,” she said. “It was handed down to them by their parents. They have a nostalgia for it and left it alone (except for tile andcarpet over the original terrazzo flooring.

“They would love to see someone buy it who appreciates it; they have dropped the price quite a bit, and now it is showing a lot. But they are not opposed to selling it as a lot.”

Nearby houses on the water range from 6,000 to 10,000 square feet.

“Eventually there will most likely be a big house there,” Lieberman said. “People want it new. It is like fashion, and it does go stale. People who have that kind of money want something fresh.”

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: October 2, 2014
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