Though Sarasota seems to be in a state of constant development, the Sarasota Architectural Foundation seeks to preserve and honor its historic modern homes.
It all started with a phone call. In March, Dr. Larry R. Thompson, president of the Ringling College of Art and Design, left a message with the board of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF). He said the pedestrian canopy adjacent to the historic Sarasota High School, which was in the process of construction for the college’s new Sarasota Museum of Art/SMOA, would be demolished to make room for construction equipment. The canopy, which runs from the foot of the historic Sarasota High School to the middle of the campus of the current high school, isn’t your normal walkway — it was designed by mid-century modern architect Paul Rudolph. And, for SAF, that made all the difference.
Members of SAF’s board of directors, including Chairwoman Janet Minker and Dan Snyder, contacted their approximately 300 members and thousands of social media connections and sister organizations, such as Docomomo International (a European nonprofit dedicated to preserving modern-designed buildings) with a call to action: email Thompson or call his office. That spurred a wave of correspondence along with a protest by SAF members in front of the canopy. After discussion between Ringling and SAF, the canopy was saved and will serve as a part of the future of SMOA’s design.
“If you want to save buildings and other structures, you can’t do that unless people are aware of them and understand their value,” says Snyder. “We need to always create awareness and appreciation so that way if we need to save something like we did with the canopy, we have this body support.”
SAF and Ringling College remain on good terms, despite the incident. In fact, later that same week in March Thompson called Minker for a favor. He asked if she could give six art college presidents, who were visiting Sarasota for a conference, a tour of the Rudolph-designed buildings throughout Sarasota. Minker acquiesced, but what was originally six turned into a busload of 20 college presidents, all of them ready to devour Sarasota's plentiful examples of modern design.
SAF seeks to preserve the Bauhaus-inspired structures built in the area in the 1940s to 1960s. The Sarasota School of Architecture, founded by Ralph Twitchell, counts among its scions as Rudolph, Edward "Tim" Seibert, Phillip Hiss and Carl Abbott, among others. What makes Sarasota's take on modernism unique is its incorporation of Southern architecture, such as patios, verandas and modular construction to allow for greater ventilation in the pre-air conditioning days. The style allowed for a play of light and shadow and softened the typical hard lines of the Bauhaus. The designs blurred the line between the indoors and outdoors, allowing each structure to blend in seamlessly with the Florida lifestyle.
The almost 300 members of SAF don't just support modern design — they surround themselves with it. Both Minker and Snyder have extensive careers in design. Minker still works in graphic design, and Snyder, now retired, designed the iconic nutritional food pyramid that has been plastered on public school walls for decades.
The Lido Shores neighborhood in Sarasota plays host to modern residences with names such as the Umbrella House, Hiss Studios and the Martin Harkavy House that have been designed by influential mid-century architects such as Rudolph and his contemporaries.
Minker, who lives just down the street from many of the houses of which she gives tours, lives in a modern-designed, all-white house created by contemporary architect Jonathan Parks. Her walls and shelf space are dominated by modern art (a giant tapestry photograph of the model Kate Moss holds court in the living room) and books on Sarasota's architectural history. Minker's house is a recent addition to Lido Shores' constellation of modern residences.
The Umbrella House (1300 Westway Drive) could be the face of the SAF. Built in 1953 and designed by Rudolph, it kicked off real estate developer Hiss’ mission to make Sarasota a modern getaway and destination for people to vacation and live. The two-bedroom home is a cube designed to feel open to Sarasota’s sun and breezes. The interior is a love letter to modern ideas of design with an emphasis on unorthodox arrangement and prolific use of lines. The dresser is built into an office wall and goes through that wall and becomes a table in the living room. The hearth and fireplace is a step down from the rest of the living room to encourage comfort and sitting. And, out back, though the titular umbrella (a sun canopy that extends from the roof to the backyard over the swimming pool) is no longer there, photos show a rectangular umbrella awning that leaves space open for the perimeter of the swimming pool just below it.
"I’m passionate about these buildings because I grew up in the 1950s, and it was a time when the war was over and people were optimistic about the future," Snyder says. "Aesthetically, I think the people who walk into these houses feel like it was designed last week. It’s not at all what you think a Florida home will look like. It’s crisp and very cool. It’s timeless."
SAF's roots can be traced to a symposium conducted almost 15 years ago. It was an offshoot of a five-day symposium in 2001 on Sarasota’s modern build aesthetic. Titled “An American Legacy: The Sarasota School of Architecture Tour and Symposium,” the design-driven event, sponsored by the Fine Arts Society of Sarasota, included lectures, bus and boat tours, a documentary screening, exhibitions and dinner and receptions. An estimated 1,000 design professionals and design-lovers attended the event. From the success of that event, Minker says design aficionados Martie Lieberman and Thomas Luzier helped form the nonprofit organization to continue the mission of the weeklong symposium. And even though Lieberman and Luzier are no longer a part of SAF’s leadership, board members actively fulfill their mission: Preserve Sarasota's modern homes for future generations.
And, now, Minker and Snyder along with their five other members and advisory board of registered or retired local architects organize several tours, meetings, seminars and social events that celebrate the love of Sarasota’s modern architectural heritage. The culmination is SAF's own architectural and design summit: SarasotaMOD Weekend.
The piece de resistance at this year's MOD weekend in November will be a home of SAF's own. The organization found that many visitors wanted to see all of the mid-century buildings in Sarasota but many are private residences. So, the board decided to build a recreation of Rudolph’s Walker Guest House, known as the "Cannonball House," built in 1952 in Sanibel. Constructed by architect Joe King, with Old Cyprus Construction, the home is built in convertible pieces on King Ranch in Bradenton. King's team of four started in March and are just now adding the final touches. Once completed the home will be disassembled and stored until the MOD festival, where it will be on display just behind the Searing Wing of the John and Mable Ringling Art Museum on the grounds of The Ringling. The exact replica (built at an estimated cost of $200,000) will also include modern furniture and magazines from the 1950s to give visitors and Rudolph-files an almost Disney-esque experience. Admission into the guest house will be free.
SAF plans to turn the model home into a traveling show at museums and festivals around the country, including the Walker Art Center, the Building Museum in Washington, D.C., Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas and Art Basel Miami. The organization hopes that the house, the largest project it has undertaken in scope and finances, will inspire design- and art-lovers not only in Sarasota but also around the country.
“SAF is a connector for like-minded people,” says Minker. “A lot of these people were VIPs in their own communities and they came here to retire and that wasn’t just to play golf. Our members are passionate, curious, knowledgeable and educated, and Sarasota is so lucky to have this constant influx of new people coming in bringing new ideas and resources.”
One of the numerous roles that the Sarasota Architectural Foundation plays is tour guide to architecture-loving tourists. Though most of the modern-designed buildings are private property and closed to the public, below are a few that are public or whose owners are active members of SAF.