Leedy house images courtesy of Andrew Weaving
The Sarasota School of Architecture: floating geometry
While the Californian Case Study Program of housing is fairly well-documented thanks to the photographs of Julius Shulman, we know less about what was happening on the East Coast in the 1950s and ’60s. Located in a totally different environment to those in California, the houses in Florida were designed to be specific to the local conditions, with sea breezes utilised for cross-ventilation and overhanging roofs reducing exposure to the sun. Many of the houses were built with local materials; sand from the nearby town of Ocala was used to make concrete blocks, and cedar was used for beams, screens and fascias, as the timber was known to weather well in coastal conditions.
Perhaps the most famous example is the Umbrella House. Commissioned from Paul Rudolph in 1953, its north and south walls are constructed almost entirely of louvered windows. The house and pool were originally shaded from the sun by a trellis structure, known as ‘The Umbrella’; this feature was however constructed from tomato canes and therefore didn’t last long during the hurricane season!
Sarasota Modern: Buying into an architectural style
We ask mid century architecture expert Andrew Weaving , author of Sarasota Modern, how he came to buy two Florida properties in this distinct architectural style.
How did you first discover Sarasota Modern architecture?
My partner and I went on vacation to Miami and picked up a book about the Sarasota School of Architecture. I hadn’t heard of it before; I didn’t realise this architectural movement was happening at the same time as the Case Study Program on the West Coast. Even photographs of these low-slung post and beam houses took my breath away: I loved the way the structures were designed to capture the cross-breezes for cooling, with their large overhanging roofs for shade, and their use of local materials.
How did you come to own a piece of Sarasota Modern architecture?
I had long since wanted to buy a modernist property in California and I’d looked and looked, but couldn’t find anything within my budget. Following our trip to Miami, I read an article about Florida architect Gene Leedy, who had worked with the founder of the Sarasota School of Architecture, Paul Rudolph. On a whim I searched for his contact details online and found his phone number; I called him and, by the end of the conversation, I had agreed to buy one of the houses he designed in Winter Haven, just across the street from his own home. I had only seen photos of the house at this point – a simple post and beam timber construction with walls of glass – but I loved it.
When we first set eyes on it, the house was somewhat neglected, but the original fabric of the building remained intact. While we spent time restoring it and creating a landscaped tropical garden, we got to enjoy the neighbourhood; life on our street was pretty much one continuous cocktail party! We hadn’t just bought a house, we’d bought a lifestyle.
Hampton house images courtesy of Ryland, Peters & Small
How did you find your second Sarasota Modern property?
When I was researching for a book, I came across a house designed by Mark Hampton, who was the first architect to work with Paul Rudolph in the early 1950s. Located in Lakeland, the next big town to Winter Haven, the house was situated in a leafy area, amongst traditional Florida homes. It stood out in its surroundings and had been on the market for some time. When I enquired, I discovered that someone had bid on it, but that they planned to tear it down and replace it with a more conventional house. It was devastating to think that this house could be lost forever and, although at the time we had no intention of moving from Winter Haven, once we’d seen the house, we knew we had to have it. We decided to sell the Gene Leedy place in order to make this possible.
Had the Mark Hampton house retained its original Sarasota Modern style features and furnishings?
It was immaculately preserved; every little detail seemed to be original and intact, from the light fittings to the door handles. The house had been designed to a high specification: it had steel beams, walnut walls and cabinetry, terrazzo floors and marble-lined bathrooms, there were down-lighters, sliding pocket doors, cantilevered storage and an amazing cooling system that even watered the garden. The only element we added was a swimming pool, following Mark Hampton’s design for the original outdoor concrete decking, and inside the house, we reinstated the grasscloth on the fireplace wall.
Much of the original purpose-built furniture had been auctioned off by the previous owners, but luckily for us some of the items didn’t sell and were returned to the property, including the stained glass screens that divided the dining area from the main living space. We have now added our own furniture, choosing original pieces by American designers Florence Knoll, George Nelson and Charles and Ray Eames. The walnut-faced kitchen cabinets and the original white Formica worktops remain intact. Amazingly even the General Electric refrigerator still works!
For more about Sarasota Modern, see our article Sarasota Modern: Sun, Sea and Geometry in MidCentury issue 05
Click here to buy Andrew Weaving’s book Sarasota Modern
The Hampton House features in Andrew Weaving’s book Living Retro, reviewed here
For articles on the related Case Study architectural style in California, see The Making of Icons: Architectural Photographer Julius Shulman and the Case Study house program
There’s a fully illustrated article The Making of Icons: Julius Shulman and the Case Study House Program 1945-1966 in MidCentury issue 04