Sarasota is noted for its modern architecture, with more than its share of famous houses — the Cohen House, the Hiss House, the Umbrella house. But one of the town’s finest modern homes virtually is unknown. True, from the street it does not look like much. But, once you enter through the gate and look down a long axis of tropical outdoor rooms to a secluded lagoon, then you know that the residence famed-designer Ben Baldwin built for himself in the mid-1970s may well be the most stylish home in town.
Its present owners, Brad and Sandy McCourtney, bought it from Baldwin’s estate at the urging of the designer’s sister, Mary Holbrook. She wanted to pass it on to someone who would appreciate its subtle genius, and the McCourtneys turned out to be the perfect choice. Now, as the house is poised to enter its fourth decade, it remains almost exactly as Baldwin designed it. And with good reason. “It’s impossible to improve,” Brad Mc Courtney states. “We’ve thought of doing this or doing that, but it turns out that Ben always got it right the first time.”
Ben Baldwin (not to be confused with Billy Baldwin, a prominent society decorator from the same period) was a collaborator of I.M. Pei and Louis Kahn, who called him “the classic interior designer.” His circle of friends was a who’s who of mid-century design — Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Calder, and Eliel Saarinen, just to name a few. His clients, including Richard Avedon and Leonard Bernstein, were the era’s intellectual and artistic elite. But when it came to designing his own home, Baldwin’s talents as architect, interior designer and gardener came together as never before.
He knew few people in town when he decided to move here. His home was meant to be a winter sanctuary, a private retreat, and Sarasota’s biggest attraction — in his mind it was competing with North Africa and the Caribbean — was the fact that he could grow tropical plants. His wish list when he started his property hunt was specific: privacy, southern exposure, water on at least one side of the property, gardens he could manage himself and a simple house he could remodel.
He found it on north Siesta Key. The lot itself is long and narrow and bordered on one side by a street, but at the southern end is a lagoon surround by mangroves and bamboo, with not another building in sight. Astonishingly, this one-of-a-kind location remains so today. Lush tropical vegetation still surrounds the lagoon, providing the peace and privacy Baldwin craved, though the immediate neighborhood just beyond the protective screen of vegetation has gone from simple beach homes from the olden days to the McMansions of 21st-century Florida.
The original home on the property was not very promising. The living room had ill-proportioned cathedral ceilings, a pool table, dirty shag carpeting and an unpleasant smell. An enormous fireplace of brick, stone, and concrete dominated the space. It was, as Baldwin described it, “a designer’s nightmare.”
But after only five weeks of hard work, with Baldwin there every day, measuring, supervising, refining —a new house had emerged. It was simple and clean-cut, with white walls and sliding glass doors that open to the narrow gardens on each side. The living-room ceiling was now trayed and the ungainly fireplace had been tamed and simplified.
Today, the living room remains as Baldwin designed it, with all of his trademark features. On three of the walls are the narrow counters with recessed lighting above them, which can function as a place to serve a buffet supper or to display art. The room is focused toward the view of the lagoon, with a simple wooden deck surrounded by tropical plants set in low cypress tubs. Latticed screens of natural wood are set several feet in front of the wall of glass to diffuse the sunlight.
The McCourtneys have even kept the kitchen intact. “That’s Ben’s stove,” Brad says, pointing to the well-designed range that still radiates a 1970s elegance. “And it works great.” A frieze of Matisse prints, protected by Plexiglas, runs along the wall over the work counter, a testimony to how a simple design element can make such a lasting and timeless impact. “The only things we’ve replaced are the some of the lighting fixtures,” Sandy says. “After 30 years they were starting to rust.”
Gardens play an important part in the Baldwin design philosophy. He was one of the first designers to consider them outdoor rooms, with the use of pergolas, paved flooring and outdoor furniture. In his book, “An Autobiography in Design,” he devotes more time to writing about his favorite plants than his favorite houses. He particularly loved bamboo and used four different kinds in his Sarasota garden. “I don’t know of any plant more beautiful. The segmented design, the extraordinary color of fresh green, even the dead leaves covering the ground underneath,” he wrote.
Today taking care of the garden falls to Brad and it can be a daunting task. Though Baldwin wanted a garden he could manage himself, what he really meant was “manage himself with the help of a full-time gardener.” On a typical day, Brad spends several hours tending and trimming the plants, most of which are the descendents of the ones Baldwin planted. “Ben was always changing things,” Sandy says. “He’d want all white flowers. Then, three months later he would take them all out and replace them with yellow flowers. We keep things much simpler.”
The McCourtneys — he is a prominent local photographer and she is a Realtor with ReMax Tropical Sands — raised their two sons, Matt and Wilson, in the house. Today they’re empty nesters, with grandchildren coming for visits. Their art, including Brad’s photographs and a self portrait by artist John Chamberlain (a gift from the artist with whom Brad worked) mix well with pieces they collected while living in Brazil when Sandy was on a Fulbright Fellowship.
Brad still paddles his canoe in the lagoon where he and Wilson used to shoot mullet with a bow and arrow. Sometimes a stray manatee comes to visit. And twilight still finds the couple relaxing on the terrace, watching the flocks of birds from up North heading down to the Everglades for the winter, just as the original owner did.
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Ben Baldwin was definitely not a part of the Sarasota School of Architecture. He knew many of its members and there are stylistic similarities they share, but his style was more individual, with its emphasis on simplicity, an easy and comfortable lifestyle and, of course, his beloved gardens. Though he designed buildings and interiors all over the world, his only other Sarasota project is the home of Dennis and Graci McGillicuddy, located just down the street from the McCourtney home. In appearance and feeling, the two houses could be brother and sister.
But his legacy is worldwide. His furniture designs are part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art and the Louvre in Paris. He was a charter member of the Interior Designer Hall of Fame. He was a designer’s designer, with his innovations and style filtering down through others to create what we now recognize as the mid-century modern look. But his masterpiece remains his own home on Siesta Key, private, subtle and timeless, just like the man himself.
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Daylight Saving Time starts 2 a.m. Sunday, so be sure to set your alarm accordingly.