Architecture should speak of its time and place, a famous practitioner once noted. The house I’m in does just that — and I’m pretty sure it asked how I’d like my martini.
I’m standing downstairs in the airy main room of the Umbrella House, one of hundreds of homes and other structures in and around Sarasota, Fla., that helped define America’s iconic midcentury modern style. Or, as I’ve explained to friends from out of state, “Mad Men” with white-sand beaches.
Architecture lovers from around the globe have long regarded this Gulf Coast town as a shrine. But recently this mecca of the Sarasota School of Architecture movement has begun finding fresh fans among us more casual admirers of cool.
To be fair, I’ve enjoyed frequent, if haphazard drive-by viewings of Sarasota School homes over the more than two decades I’ve been coming to Sarasota, after moving from Washington, D.C., to Tampa with my then-girlfriend, now-wife.
But today is the first time I’ve been inside any of these famous houses. The Umbrella House, like most of these original homes, is privately owned. Janet Minker, chair of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation, has literally opened the doors of this home to me, offering a sneak peek of the organization’s second annual celebration of the Sarasota School, which is slated for the following weekend.
The Umbrella House is one of a handful of private homes and other buildings in this style open to the public during this event, called SarasotaMod. As if reading my mind, she says festivities will include cocktail parties. These houses “make you want a martini and a cigarette,” she says with a laugh.
Lauded as “one of the five most remarkable houses of the mid-20th century” by Architectural Digest, the Umbrella House was in essence a highfalutin model home, Janet says.
Developer Philip Hiss tapped architect Paul Rudolph to design a spec house on then-vacant Lido Shores. The house showcased many of the features that would come to define the Sarasota School of Architecture, including big, boxy open spaces, wide roof overhangs to provide shade in this semi-tropical clime and windows big enough to need Windex by the gallon.
As I gawk out the large windows, I imagine the impression the house must have made on contemporary passers-by, especially its two-story-tall so-called umbrella, a post-and-beam structure with slats that provides shade for the house and swimming pool directly below. Only the presence of workmen busily restoring the house to its original 1953 state breaks my period-perfect reverie.
Next door is the Hiss Studio, built that same year. A far cry from your typical developer’s digs, the studio is a glass-lined rectangle perched atop slender steel columns. It was among the first air-conditioned spaces in the area.
A few minutes’ walk away is the Martin Harkavy House, another Rudolph design. Here I’m joined by fellow foundation board member Dan Snyder, who moved here from Washington, D.C., because he “fell in love with the architecture.” Both Janet and Dan live in Sarasota School-style homes, natch.
Here at Harkavy, among other nifty flourishes, sliding floor-to-ceiling wooden doors open to reveal massive screens facing the outdoors. “It’s like a giant screen porch,” Janet says.
Harkavy, like many Sarasota Schoolmates, has been changed since it was built in 1957, including the addition of second-story bedrooms and air conditioning. “Everyone wants more space these days,” Dan says with a shrug.
As we stroll down the street to our next stop, I marvel aloud at how artsy and cosmopolitan Sarasota is. Forged from the formidable wills — and wallets — of early transplants such as circus magnate John Ringling, the town’s wealth and weather also attracted many artists and architects, Janet explains.
“Sarasota was sort of a beachy Bloomsbury Set,” she says.
Janet admits that architecture-minded tourists in years past tended to be older, urbane types. “Architecture freaks like us,” she says. But fans are steadily trending younger.
Take Grier Ferguson, a recent college grad who’s helping SAF with the upcoming event. Her grandmother lives in a Sarasota School house on nearby Siesta Key. Grier has volunteered to show me some of her favorite Sarasota School spots around town. Our tour starts with the Rudolph-designed Sarasota High School, from which she graduated. The exterior, which looks like it’s made of delicate white Lego blocks, was recently restored. “It’s so rare to have a public high school look and feel this great,” she says.
Nearby Alta Vista Elementary School, designed by Victor Lundy, is even more daring. With its futuristic butterfly-wing roof made of laminated wood trusses, it appears to be ready for takeoff. A few minutes’ drive away are St. Paul’s Lutheran Church Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall. With their tall, swooping roofs, they look like futuristic upside-down ice cream cones. Grier and I marvel how much roomier each seems inside.
She next shows me her favorite, the Healy Guest House. As soon as I catch sight of it at the end of a tree-lined lane, I can see why. Perched partly over the bayou on Siesta Key, it’s the tiniest of the area’s Sarasota School homes. A downward curved roof saves it from being just a cute box. You want to hug it. Then steal it. I’m badly tempted to knock on the door and ask the owner to open the now-shuttered jalousie walls and otherwise let us snoop around. Among its other novelties, Grier says, is super-light insulation fashioned from material once used to mothball U.S. Navy ships.
The Sarasota School may officially be history, but its influence is very much alive. Indeed, next door to the Revere Quality House, finished in 1949, a new home is being built, also in Sarasota School style. The new home’s architect, Carl Abbott, was a student of Rudolph.
This being a weekday, I decide to head home before evening. But not before I swing by the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. On the museum’s sprawling grounds, the SAF has built a full-size replica of Rudolph’s famous 1952 Walker Guest House. Like the Healy House, this one’s small. Set among the Italianate pizazz of nearby buildings, this bleached-white beach cottage seems like a boxy spaceship. I especially like how its walls are panels that can be raised or lowered by wires, pulleys and cannonball-like counterweights.
As I head home, I wonder how expensive it would be to re-create such a house in Tampa.
Something to think about tonight over a martini.
Abercrombie is a writer in Tampa.
More from Travel:
Sarasota Architectural Foundation
The oracle of all things Sarasota School of Architecture, the foundation organizes SarasotaMOD, an annual weekend of events celebrating the design movement. It also runs group tours once a month of area properties. Reservations required, about $20
Sarasota County Visitor Information Center
14 N. Lemon Ave.
A free booklet with a map of dozens of area examples of Sarasota School of Architecture properties is available for self-guided tours.
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
5401 Bay Shore Rd.
A full-size replica of the 1952 Walker Guest House is open to the public from through October 2016. House admission is free. Open daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Thursdays until 8 p.m.