One early November morning, a group of colorful kayaks glide quietly through a canal on the north end of Sarasota’s Siesta Key. This kayak tour isn’t organized to see manatees, dolphins, or other local wildlife of Florida’s Gulf Coast, but to capture a distinctive, almost exclusive view of some of the Sarasota School of Architecture’s most noteworthy private residences. Nearing Paul Rudolph’s 1955 Cohen House, the group is treated to a voyeuristic view into the house’s sunken living room as the light reflects off the mahogany interior. Steadying her kayak, tour guide and Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation President Lorrie Muldowney describes the house’s 2005 restoration, which included recreating the original front door from historic photos and uncovering original terrazzo floors underneath contemporary tile.
This kayak tour is the first event scheduled for Architecture Sarasota’s 2023 MOD Weekend. Now in its tenth iteration, MOD Weekend brings together symposia, panel discussions, and tours—which also occur on land—that explore the past, present, and future of the Sarasota School of Architecture. Balancing their kayaks, the group bobs chaotically between a second Paul Rudolph design, the 1948 Cocoon House, and the 2016 Butterfield House by Carl Abbot. The crisp white linear volumes of the three-story Butterfield House are a direct contrast to the Cocoon House’s wooden louvers tucked under a cozy, one-story catenary roof. The kayakers are sitting between two moments in time, but also within a continuum of the Sarasota School of Architecture that prepares for the climate (and its changes) with design, materials, and radical exuberance. While starkly different, the Butterfield House wouldn’t have happened without the ideas that Paul Rudolph cooked up across the canal. In a way, the Cocoon House proved transformative so the Butterfield House could fly.
It is this continuum that Architecture Sarasota honors. In addition to the new architecture highlighted during MOD Weekend, the organization is working with the New College of Florida, a public liberal arts college, to reimagine the school’s 1965 residence halls designed by I.M. Pei through an open design competition. Architecture Sarasota also recently launched “Moderns that Matter,” an initiative looking to crowdsource a list of notable buildings, both historic and contemporary, that will represent Sarasota, guide future landmarks, and establish a core catalog of one hundred impactful buildings.
As regional styles of modernism like the Sarasota School of Architecture were emerging, the preservation movement was gaining broad public support nationwide, at times coming out to wrestle with the threat the new forms, materials, and functions posed, either indirectly through the stark difference in the aesthetics of “modern” versus “traditional” architecture, or directly, through the demolition of older buildings for the construction of new ones. As modernism aged enough to attract the attention of preservation, modernism in Sarasota has joined the ranks of the Classical and Colonial Revival architecture of the early twentieth century that have been designated as local landmarks. The paradigm of a movable timeline in terms of what architecture is considered historic is one that is central to Architecture Sarasota’s principles.
“We should be thinking about how the buildings we are building today will fit into the preservation efforts of the future,” shared Architecture Sarasota president Morris (Marty) Hylton III in a phone interview following the kayak tour. Hylton sees similarities between the rapid post-World War II growth in Sarasota that delivered the Sarasota School of Architecture, and the explosive growth Sarasota is seeing today that drives an interest in building new, but also demolishing the existing.
“Sarasota always has been an improbable community, its past filled with improbable characters,” wrote developer Philip Hiss for Architectural Record in 1967.1 At the time, Hiss was one of those improbable characters. Hiss’s influence on the development of Sarasota was multifaceted. He believed in the functionality of Tropical Modernism as a vernacular style for Sarasota and used his resources to bring the style to civic, residential, and commercial development projects. Acting as developer, Hiss purchased land off north Lido Key and began developing Lido Shores, which became Sarasota’s home for exceptional Tropical Modern residential architecture in the 1950s, a legacy that continues with the cool contemporary pavilions and prismatic light boxes built in the community today.
In 1955, Hiss was elected to the Sarasota School Board, where he would work to ensure that Sarasota’s schools would be as noteworthy for the education they delivered as they would be for their exceptional architecture. Hiss would also work to establish the New College of Florida and choose I.M. Pei as the designer for the new campus. While the Pei campus-wide design went unbuilt, the dormitories convey a command of both Gulf Coast vernacular and the communal spaces necessary for college life.
Hiss’s “improbable community” has grown exponentially. Fortuitously, Hiss’s article, titled “What Ever Happened to Sarasota,” criticized the capitalism he saw around the city’s development. “Today, Sarasota has almost completely surrendered to the big developers and to East Coast [of Florida] money. There are a number of multimillion-dollar projects under way—all of them concerned with profits, none of them with architecture.”
According to US Census data, Sarasota County grew by over 54,500 new residences (an average of fifteen new residents per day) between 2010 and 2020—an explosive 20% increase in population in just a decade.2 While Sarasota sees its share of sandhill cranes, construction cranes abound. “Sarasota is experiencing rapid growth,” added Hylton. “It’s important in this moment of time to consider how that building and expansion can serve to enhance what Sarasota has come to be known for.”
This year’s MOD Weekend highlights the work of Sarasota School architect Victor Lundy, FAIA, who celebrated his 100th birthday this year. Lundy’s “Sarasota Years” set a creative bar at the tail end of the 1950s for the style and allowed Lundy to take his talents across the country. A tight timeline of commercial and religious projects led Lundy to zig-zagging façades, undulating bricks, and a signature architectural move—laminated plywood beams that could be formed into soaring, swooping roofs that created drama inside and out. Yet, the most fascinating work of Lundy’s career is one hidden behind a banal shell, waiting on its next act. In 1959, Lundy designed the Galloway Furniture Store in organic laminated roof beams enclosed by glass walls, creating a terrarium for Galloway’s stylish Midcentury Modern furniture. The building was purchased by optical retail company Visionworks in the 1970s, which significantly altered the design—enclosing its glass skin and covering its round laminated roof with a large plaster cap—transforming the formerly airy structure into a nondescript jelly jar. Yet architectural investigations revealed that the organic form of the original store was still extant underneath. Undeterred by the building’s low integrity, it was acquired by the Sarasota Museum of Art, which intends to restore the building back to its 1959 appearance. When restored, the Galloway Furniture Store will provide an undeniable proof of concept for the restoration of works of Midcentury Modern architectural heritage, particularly when that work has been subject to an alteration that lowers its value from an aesthetic standpoint.
Back on the canal, tour guide Laurie Muldowney gestures towards a cantilevered roof looming above the vegetation. This is the twenty-first-century companion house to the midcentury Revere Quality House, a historic building with local designation and a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Designed by Guy W. Peterson, FAIA, the companion house was completed in 2007. The three-story building, absent living areas on the first floor to meet FEMA flood-zone regulations, sits perpendicular to Ralph Twitchell and Paul Rudolph’s original, designed in 1948, and barely visible from the canal. The Revere Quality House was constructed with modular steel forms and affordable, regional materials, like local shell over distantly acquired gravel. The house was intended to drive a long-term interest in demonstrating how industrial materials could be used in residential buildings, and to convey how those materials could resist moisture, termites, and even hurricanes. On land, the two buildings are impressive—a combination of old and new where the seams are visible but complementary, where twenty-first-century stewardship and design respond in kind to a historic building. The house could have been demolished, but instead it inspired the new.
The Companion House stands as a new building not inspired by but continuing the Sarasota School of Architecture. This continuum doesn’t just occur when a new building interacts with a historic one, but as projects are planned, designed, and built—even at the civic level.
In a prototype design for Sarasota’s beachside fire stations, Sweet Sparkman Architects have used the continuum of the Sarasota School of Architecture to deliver the kind of building that has a kinship with the work of Rudolph, Twitchell, Lundy, and Pei. Sarasota County Fire Station 13 was completed in 2021, following many of the same core principles of sustainability developed through the 1950s and 1960s, decades before coastal resilience and sustainable design became buzzwords, decades before FEMA regulations went into effect. Sarasota County Fire Station 13 was also built to withstand a Category 4 hurricane. This consideration perhaps ensures that when preservation begins evaluating the buildings of the 2020s, Sarasota County Fire Station 13 will still be around for the appraisal.
“It’s that ethos of good design that is timeless here in Sarasota, but it is also resilient, and we are doing our best to represent it,” concluded Hylton.
Recognizing good design at work in acts of preservation, adaptation, reuse, and building new as the criteria for future landmarks opens up preservation to embrace a full continuum, be it in cities across the country or the canals of Sarasota, where new, old, and someday future, will coexist.
The author would like to thank Morris (Marty) Hylton, III, President of Architecture Sarasota; Lorrie Muldowney, President of the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation; and André Carlos Lenox at Cultural Counsel.