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Bookshelf - SSA
  • The Sarasota School of Architecture, 1941-1966
    The Sarasota School of Architecture, 1941-1966
    by John Howey
  • Paul Rudolph: The Florida Houses
    Paul Rudolph: The Florida Houses
    by Ezra Stoller, Joseph King
  • Sarasota Modern
    Sarasota Modern
    by Andrew Weaving
  • Florida Modern
    Florida Modern
    by Jan Hochstim
  • Paul Rudolph: The Late Work
    Paul Rudolph: The Late Work
    by Roberto de Alba

ARCHITECTURE - FLORIDA: Mid-Century Modern & Beyond

 

SARASOTA SCHOOL: The Early Years...

Sarasota, FL, known for its world-class beaches, circus heritage, focus on the arts, and ground-breaking modern architecture...beaches, yes; circus, yes; and arts, yes; but architecture? Well, maybe fancy Mediterranean Revival stuff, but modern? Mention the Sarasota School of Architecture and most people will wonder - a school completely devoted to architecture? In Sarasota? Never seen it...where is it?

To a relatively few folks, mostly in the local area, the Sarasota School of Architecture is better and more accurately known as a distinct period of mid-century modernism advanced by a group of architects who practiced in Sarasota beginning in the early 1940's and is continued today by some of the originators' professional progeny. The Sarasota School is not only a convenient place to start this project, since access to still-existing projects is relatively easy for me, but also because it offers a point in time from which to examine the preceding roots of modern architecture as well as its influence on ensuing activity.

Sarasota's transformation from a rather primitive fishing village to a destination-of-choice in the late 19th century resulted in newly paved roads, schools, and an influx of wealthy northerners who built residences as seasonal, winter homes. Never having to experience the summer heat and humidity of the subtropical locale, their choice of Mediterranean-styled homes, sometimes Spanish-influenced, resulted from an impractical adherence to more familiar, yet foreign designs. Had they been year-round residents, perhaps the preponderance of homes of that poorly suited style would have been halted early in its life.

The Ca D'ZanNot unlike what is occurring in 2009, Florida experienced financial difficulties in the late 1920s - buyers for properties disappeared, banks shut down, tax revenue diminished, and tourists stopped coming - which curtailed growth and development. In spite of the down-turn, John Ringling, known by most as a circus magnate, was also a prominent real estate developer and initiated several large projects in Sarasota. One of those was the construction of a mansion, in the form of a pseudo Venetian palazzo called the Ca D'Zan (House of John), for himself and his wife.

Pertinent to this project, an architect who assisted on the Ringling project was a fellow named Ralph Twitchell (1890-1978). Through his participation in the Ca D'Zan project as the local representative of the architect of record, Dwight James Baum, Twitchell gained the reputation of a hard working, resourceful person and in turn maintained a working relationship with the Ringling group following the Ca D'Zan's completion in 1926. Unfortunately, continued economic problems, combined with natural disasters which impacted the State, caused sufficient hardships that Twitchell left the area to pursue projects in New England.

In 1936, Twitchell returned to Sarasota and set up his own design/build firm. This time around, Twitchell took a more context-appropriate approach to design, responding to local climate and light conditions. He improvised with construction methods and developed systems incorporating small-diameter pipe columns, steel beams, poured-concrete slab-on-grade systems with monolithic turned-down edges for footings. Joining with builder John Lambie, they designed a system termed "lamolithic", which consisted of cast-in-place, steel reinforced concrete slabs, walls, and roofs that were thought to be indestructible and resistant to bugs, fires, and hurricanes, quite appropriate to the region.

Coincidental with Twitchell's Sarasota work in the late 1930s, Frank Lloyd Wright was completing Falling Water (1937), starting work on the Florida Southern College campus in nearby Lakeland (1938), and working on the Rosenbaum residence in Alabama (1939). Twitchell was familiar with all of these projects, either through press releases or due to their proximity, and his work was influenced by Wright's site-specific approach to design.

Although Ralph Twitchell is considered its founder, if there is a recognizable name associated with the Sarasota School, it is that of Paul Rudolph (1918-1997). Rudolph joined Twitchell in Sarasota in 1941 as a recent graduate of Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now known as Auburn). Together, they had 5 houses designed and under construction in the first 5 months of their partnership. These new designs had similar features, including flat or slightly gabled roofs, exposed beams and columns of 2x6 wood members, broad overhangs, large plate glass window panels, and a horizontality that echoed Florida's flat landscape.

Rudolph left the firm in Fall, 1941, to attend Harvard Graduate School of Design, while Twitchell continued with existing projects. However, the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, and the commitment of the United States in World War II cut short Twitchell and Rudolph's activities as both men enlist in the Armed Services.

Twitchell returned to Sarasota in 1945 and Rudolph went back to Harvard in 1946, post-war. While at Harvard, Rudolph was taught by Walter Gropius and became familiar with the work of Charles Eames and Mies van der Rohe, who had left left Germany in 1937 for Chicago, through exhibits in New York. During breaks between school terms in 1946-47, Rudolph assisted Twitchell in the design and construction of the Miller Residence and guest house on Casey Key (FL), as well as the Denman residence on Siesta Key, which continued their simple, exposed-post-and-beam approach and created "...an informality of appearance which is disarming...It has a certain regional character and seems to belong in Florida," according to Hugh Stubbins in Progressive Architecture (No. 31, August, 1950: 68-69).

In 1947-48, they continued with designs of a studio for photographer Joseph Steinmetz and the Finney Residence (unbuilt). It was this project that gained the firm significant recognition for its design which was specific to the Florida climate and included views directed by walls and changes in raised platform levels, slatted storm shutters for shade and hurricane protection, and it light perch on the landscape. The drawings that Rudolph produced were widely publicized and helped generate interest in the designs the firm was producing. In 1948, Twitchell offered Rudolph a full partnership in the firm, which he happily accepted.

Twitchell and Rudolph's Revere House was one of a few projects in 1948 that gave them further recognition and was the forerunner to the later, classic Florida residence of the 1950s. Characteristics of the design included:

  • Flat, concrete roof planes
  • Concrete slab on grade, with terrazzo floors
  • Steel columns at the perimeter, allowing great flexibility with interior partitions
  • Concrete, non-loadbearing exterior walls with high ribbon windows
  • Narrow, mostly one room wide rectangles for efficient cross-ventilation with glass jalousie windows
  • Wide roof overhangs
  • Top-lit, screened interior courts
  • Attached service buildings or carports

Four other, similar homes were designed for a development project John Lambie put together, but these and the Revere House were determined to be too expensive for the Florida market at the time and successive projects used a more economical wood and light steel framing system instead. The Siegrist residence, built in Venice, FL, was an example of a project utilizing the modified system.

Because their designs seemed radical to many, family and friends were the most persuadable clients for their innovative ideas. Twitchell's in-laws, Mr. & Mrs. Healy, were the clients for a guest house designed for a canal-front property on Siesta Key in 1950, also known as the Cocoon House. This project was more an experiment than a house project, as they applied construction methodologies learned during Rudolph's Navy days. In spite of technical problems and detail issues that didn't work out as well as planned, the project received significant criticism along with a great deal of publicity for the firm.

With a growing work load, Jack West joined the firm in 1949. Other architects came to Sarasota both to investigate what was taking place as well as to work, including Gene Leedy who joined the Zimmerman team, and Mark Hampton replaced Jack West in 1950 when West struck out on his own.

To accommodate inventive design ideas, new and improvised products and techniques were developed. A lighter weight panel system for walls, beams, and roofs was created by assembling a "plywood and paper-honeycomb sandwich" by local contractor Harold Pickett. Sarasota's Woody Witte, a glass contractor, pioneered the technology that made the desired expanses of sliding glass feasible. Although movable glass walls had been used earlier by Le Corbusier and Richard Neutra, among others, Witte refined and vastly improved the system by replacing wooden frames with extruded aluminum which resulted in the now ubiquitous sliding glass door. Accordingly, spectacular tropical views that people had never had before were achievable. As air conditioning had yet to be made available for residential use, enhancing ventilation using generous expanses of movable glass was highly beneficial, and the concept of bringing the outside in was now achievable.

Contemporaries of Twitchell and Rudolph, with insight to the interactions between the two men, suggest that the pair had talents that were not equivalent, but complemented each other. Rudolph was recognized by others in the field as the designer, having developed a personal style while absorbing what Gropius brought with him from Europe to Harvard. Gropius' belief that for the International Style of the Bauhaus to suit the thinking in the United States it would need to fit with the time as well as particular contexts was something that influenced Rudolph. He brought that thinking to Sarasota and developed an approach that fit the local climate and topography.

Rudolph produced the designs and the drawings (working and renderings) while Twitchell handled aspects that he was more adept at, including the management and construction of projects, as well as client relations. Their differences in talents, interests, and personalities eventually caused the relationship to be strained to the point where, following the Revere House project when Twitchell accepted the AIA's award for its design without crediting Rudolph, it came apart.

In a span of two years, Twitchell and Rudolph had put Sarasota on the architectural map and created an identity all its own. Other architects were to follow and the recognition grew as the work evolved.

 

More to come... In the meantime, please visit additional sections, including Defining Moments and Early Thoughts...