Sarasota MOD Weekend, Oct. 9-12: Origins of architecture's Sarasota School


Sarasota’s morning rush hour was cloaked in a dense fog on Dec. 1, 1958, as a 1957 Chevy headed north on East Avenue.


Inside were two thirtysomething men and three small children. Their destination was Alta Vista Elementary School, where a structure with a roof that looked like the wings of a bird had just been built to accommodate a student body that was growing with the city.

Two of the children had arrived on Thanksgiving Day by train from Newport, Rhode Island. They shared the rear seat with a cousin, whose father was driving.

As the car made its way, a partially constructed building with a bold facade of concrete rectangles appeared through the fog. The two children’s father turned to his brother, the driver, and asked, “What’s that?”

“That’s that modern architecture,” the brother replied, a strong note of derision in his voice.

The brother’s harsh opinion of the design schemes that became common in Sarasota after World War II likely was shaped by his experience with them.

He owned West Coast Waterproofing on Central Avenue, and it was his job to go up on roofs and keep them from leaking.

And leak they did. The “flat” roofs the modern architects favored did have a tendency to leak.

But the roofline was considered part of the art form. The prevailing attitude among many architects could be summed up by Le Corbusier, given name Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, whose Villa Savoye in France began to leak a year after its completion in 1928. In essence, his indifference to the owner’s complaints translated to, “This is art — it’s never been done before. Fix it.”

In Sarasota, the job of waterproofing sometimes fell upon Richard Bubil, this reporter’s uncle.

He didn’t respect roofs that leaked. Many others felt the same, and by the 1960s, the architecture that had brought national attention to Sarasota and its designers began to fall out of favor. By 1966, modernism was comatose in Sarasota, for reasons that went beyond leaky roofs.

As the years passed, though, a newfound appreciation grew.

Midcentury architecture has become the new nostalgia for baby boomers and their elders who grew up with it. The too-thin columns. The movable walls of glass. The precise rectangles. The occasional crazy roofline.

“Architecture matters here,” said architect, author and developer Joe King.

The “Sarasota school of architecture” began in:

(a) 1941

(b) 1967

(c) 1983

(d) 1995

The correct answer is (e), all of the above. The regional adaptation of International Style modern design that took root in and around Sarasota in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s has several key dates.

In 1941, Ralph Twitchell designed his first “midcentury modern” house, with help from a 23-year-old Rudolph. That began the period of modernism that stretched for 25 years and remains influential today.

But it was not until 1967 that the phrase “Sarasota school of architecture” was used. It appeared in an article by developer Phil Hiss in Architectural Forum, in which he decried the decline of modernism in Sarasota. Developers, he wrote, cared much about profits and little about architecture.

In 1982, at the convention of the American Institute of Architects’ Florida chapter in Tampa, the phrase reemerged. Architect Gene Leedy, who broke into the business in Sarasota in the early 1950s and eventually moved to Winter Haven, chose it as a theme and reunited architects Victor Lundy, Bert Brosmith, Bill Rupp, Tim Seibert, Jack West, Rudolph and Leedy.

Seibert, 87, is something of the elder statesman of Sarasota school architects. He offers opinions and recollections like a retiree who doesn’t fear offending people.

In 1995, Tampa architect John Howey wrote “The Sarasota School of Architecture,” a historical account of midcentury modernism and its practitioners in Sarasota and beyond.

Then came November 2001, when Martie Lieberman led the Fine Arts Society of Sarasota in presenting the “American Legacy” program of tours and symposia, celebrating the Sarasota school legacy.

Using profits from that event, Lieberman, attorney Tom Luzier and others formed the Sarasota Architectural Foundation to promote modernism through tours and lectures.

This week, the SAF will present the inaugural Sarasota MOD Weekend Oct. 9-12, with lectures; trolley, bus and walking tours; and even a tour of Sarasota real estate by boat.

The Sarasota school, and especially Rudolph, have been the subject of numerous books, films and events over the past two decades.

All focus on how modernism was intended to build on a style developed in Europe after World War I. In a continent of dark, dank stone buildings, it was aimed at fostering a brighter and cleaner alternative.

“A machine for living,” Le Corbusier said.

In Florida, the modern movement — some of its proponents trained by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius at Harvard — was considered a better choice for the state’s sunny and hot climate than the masonry Spanish-styled houses popular in the 1920s.

Modernist houses, by contrast, were designed to allow breezes to pass through and permit views to outside gardens. And with wooden and glass walls, they had very little thermal mass and did not hold heat as did the thick-walled, small-windowed masonry residences.

Modernist residences utilized new building materials, too, such as plywood, plate glass and terrazzo floors, which allowed for big roof overhangs, views of the water, cross ventilation and, in some cases, vaulted roof forms.

Some of the best-known Sarasota school structures still standing include the Healy Guest House (Cocoon House) on Siesta Key, the Umbrella House in Lido Shores, the I.M. Pei Dormitories at New College, Sarasota City Hall and the 1958 addition to Sarasota High.

Phil Hiss, chairman of the Sarasota school board in the 1950s, commissioned the various architects to design school buildings, including Rudolph’s Riverview High School, which was demolished in 2009 after a long, contentious public debate.

Collegial competition

The Sarasota school architects may have been bunched together, but they were fiercely independent — and competitive, said Seibert.

Rudolph and Lundy, despite being Harvard classmates, were rivals and distant acquaintances, if not enemies, Seibert said in a recent interview.

Seibert, Leedy and others tell the story of Lundy and Rudolph approaching each other on Main Street, where Rudolph had his office at the site of today’s Coffee Carrousel diner.

“Lundy would cross the street so he wouldn’t have to acknowledge Paul,” Seibert said.

Rudolph has his critics still, in part because his buildings do tend to have maintenance challenges, but his reputation has grown in the 14 years since his death.

But Philip Hiss stands out for making the Sarasota school a success.

The developer of Lido Shores, an enclave of modern architecture on the northern tip of Lido Key in Sarasota, was a world traveler from a wealthy family.

Lido Shores was basically a spoil island and devoid of vegetation when Hiss bought it. In 1950, he started developing and hired the firm of Twitchell and Rudolph to design houses.

The 1953 Umbrella House, one of the most important residences there, still stands. It is basically a rectangular box, but with a shading structure over the top. A storm wrecked the “umbrella” in the 1960s, and the house went without it until 2010, when the owners rebuilt part of it.

Next door, Hiss hired the young Seibert to design a library and studio for the developer, who designed his own house across the street, on the waterfront. It was torn down a decade ago to make way for a mansion, but the studio remained. It will be seen by tour-goers during Sarasota Mod Weekend.

These and other houses of the Sarasota school, as well as buildings like Rudolph’s Sarasota High School addition, bring in countless archi-tourists every year.

Hiss had a major hand in that, too. As chairman of the school board, he instituted a major building program in Sarasota County that resulted in new buildings at Riverview High, Brookside Middle, Brentwood, Fruitville, Alta Vista and Amaryllis Park (now Booker) elementary schools, and Building 4 at Sarasota High.

Rudolph left Sarasota in the 1950s, just after designing Sarasota High, and became dean of architecture at Yale. Lundy left, too, and eventually settled near Houston, where he paints and gives interviews about his career. Joe Farrell went to Hawaii, Mark Hampton to Miami and Bert Brosmith to New York.

But Seibert, Frank Folsom Smith, Carl Abbott and other members of the Sarasota school stayed and had success, although without the fame, or criticism, heaped upon Rudolph.

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 5, 2014
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