St. Armands gem refreshed for a new era



It’s the Knapp House now.

The narrow white house with the red garage door at 44 S. Washington Drive on St. Armands Key has been known as the Cooney House since 1966, when it was designed by architect Tim Seibert and built by Frank Thyne for then-school board attorney Richard Cooney and his wife, Elizabeth.

coon2It is now the home of Bill and Jane Knapp, newcomers from Long Island, New York, who recently completed a year-long updating of the modernist structure. And the architect approves.



“Dear Jane & Bill,” Seibert wrote to the Knapps in January after touring the house with his wife, Lynne. “We enjoyed the tour of what I will now always think of as the Knapp House. All of your decisions were in keeping with the architecture. I am grateful that you have saved one of my favorite houses. Certainly your restoration came at the right moment.”

The note is framed and on display in the “Knapp House.” Certainly it will be shown around on Sunday, March 22, when the house is the scene of a cocktail party from 4 to 6 p.m., sponsored by the Sarasota Architectural Foundation. Tickets for the party are $150 per person. Admission is limited; register by March 19 at

Party guests will be briefed on the status of SAF’s Walker Guest House project at The Ringling Museum of Art, and hear of a $25,000 matching grant — the group’s final push to the project’s fundraising goal of $200,000. The Seiberts will be guests of honor.

Object of desire

For the Knapps, “happily retired” Sarasota newcomers, it will be a debut of sorts. They have not allowed photography of their refreshed residence until now, and the cocktail party is the first event there.

And they fully expect that more requests are coming to make the iconic house available for home tours.

“It really is not easy to live in an icon in that regard,” said Jane Knapp. “Of course, everybody wants it. I wanted it, too!”

The Knapps bought the house from Vienna & Naples Inc., a real estate investment firm run by part-time Venice residents Ursula Kohl and Peter Bartos. Aficionados of midcentury modern architecture, they own the Victor Lundy-designed Herron House in Venice.

Kohl and Bartos had intended for her daughter to live in the house, but plans changed.

The Knapps bought it in November 2013 and almost immediately began a 13-month renovation project that proved much more complicated than they imagined.

They did not change that much. The gardens are new, but they replaced concrete stepping stones with shellcrete.

The footprint of the house is original. They enclosed a patio to make a larger great room, where they keep the Steinway piano upon which both are taking lessons.

“We didn’t want a lanai,” said Jane Knapp. “We pushed the glass wall out there (to the south), and we kept the steel structure for two reasons — we thought it was a great architectural element, and two, it holds up the roof.”

A kitchen wall was pushed back into a utility room to create a niche. A secondary bedroom was converted into a walk-in closet, with the existing tiny closet brilliantly becoming Jane Knapp’s shoe rack.

What had been the master suite has been converted into a sitting room. The Cooneys’ his-and-hers dressing dressing rooms on either side are now small offices. The sitting room looks out onto an open-air patio that still has the off-center Buddha as placed by Seibert. But the Knapps added wooden slats atop the patio walls to filter the harsh afternoon sunlight.

The Cooneys installed Mexican tile on the floors, a questionable choice for a midcentury modern house. The Knapps pulled the tiles and wanted a polished concrete floor, but pipes beneath the slab had disintegrated to the point that trenches had to be cut through the slab to facilitate replacement. Once that was done, the scars were covered with large gray porcelain floor tiles.

The original windows — off the shelf in Seibert’s effort to meet the Cooneys’ $38,000 budget — have been replaced with impact-resistant glass. But the Knapps kept the wooden-louvered side entry doors.

“They are in perfect condition, and the louvers work beautifully, so we didn’t want to take them out,” Jane Knapp said. “The contractor wanted to put in hurricane-resistant doors. So we had to have hurricane screening made.”

Clyde Alstrom — “Modern houses are not his forte, but he was very sensitive to the design,” Jane said — of Bluewater Construction was the contractor. Architect Sam Holladay of Seibert Architects signed off on the plans. “We were changing so little that we didn’t really need to work with an architect,” said Bill Knapp.

“The biggest part of the job was the windows,” he said.

“We needed to get engineering for the windows because it had been just a screen wall and it wasn’t strong enough for hurricane glass,” Jane added. “Portions of roof had to be reengineered because they were not as Tim designed them.

“The project evolved because we didn’t realize how extensive this renovation was going to be. A good portion of Sheetrock was moldy.”

“Sarasota School” values

The Cooney House was one of the last residences built during the era known as the Sarasota School of architecture, which author John Howey defines as 1941 to 1966. Local modern architecture did not die in 1966, but it took ill as public opinion turned against it and fancy postmodernism gained momentum.

For his part, Seibert retains his “old School” values.

“Clarity of concept and meticulous detail and workmanship, using ordinary materials, are what make this design work,” is how Seibert, a fellow of the American Academy of Architects, has described the house.

“The simplicity of form required perfect detailing,” Seibert wrote in a 2001 article for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). “A successful flat-roof design requires clean flashing and perfectly straight gravel stops and a way for the water to leave the roof without staining white walls. Both interior and exterior walls had to be perfectly fair and flat so that the spare geometry would have perfect shadows in the strong Florida light. ‘Less is more,’ but the ‘less’ must be flawlessly done.”

Jane Knapp admires how Seibert made the house work on a lot barely 50 feet wide.

“He had a long, skinny piece of property and it was a challenge. But the house is a delight to live in.”

Seibert is impressed that the Knapps gently renovated the structure with finishes, artwork, furniture and gardens that reinforce and enhance his original design.

The house appears brand new, while retaining its original concept.

The furnishings, curated by Jane Knapp, perfectly complement the architecture.

A number of pieces are from the Knapps’ collection. But they added new furniture from Soft Square and Home Resource in Sarasota.

A love of art

Local artists are displayed on the pure white walls, including the late Syd Solomon, Elizabeth Dart and Kate Lowman and Susan von Gries.

In the front yard, providing additional visual impact for passers-by, is a new metal sculpture. It’s called “Red Rhythm No. 7,” by Rob Lorenson of Middleborough, Massachusetts. He has a sculpture downtown called “Sarasota Deco.”

The Knapps were drawn to the Cooney House because “we have always loved the Sarasota School. We owned the Cohen House and sold it to Martie Lieberman. The design is so brilliant with the cross ventilation, how they handle the light and the simplicity of the design.

“When I saw the Cooney House, I called Bill and told him, ‘We have to have that house!’ ”

So they moved from a penthouse in 100 Central, where Bill Knapp was very happy to live.

But he is adjusting.

“Bill is very happy again,” said Jane.

From our archives: Cooney House awarded AIA “Test of Time” award, online at A photo gallery is online at

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: March 14, 2015
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