In the early 1940s, a group of Florida architects created a regional modern style now known as the Sarasota School of Architecture. Their designs incorporated new materials, such as terrazzo, as well as local materials like cypress, and numerous features, such as wide roof overhangs, louvered walls and shutters, were employed to withstand the subtropical climate.
Back then, Sarasota was a sophisticated city, with an art museum, several theaters, a symphony orchestra. A group of wealthy residents and intellectuals patronized them, exactly the sort of people who want the most modern, groundbreaking architecture.
Here, we’ll take a look at three of the Sarasota School’s most iconic buildings, all of which were designed by Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell. Although both Twitchell and Rudolph were architects, they had a unique relationship where Rudolph generally produced conceptual designs, while Twitchell translated them into buildable plans and managed the construction. All three properties are managed by Architecture Sarasota; the New York Times recently noted, “Architecture Sarasota is a new organization founded to protect and promote the most spectacular concentration of modernist buildings east of the Mississippi.”
Built in 1948 and known as the Revere Quality House, the first house (below) is the pair’s earliest collaboration. The house was jointly commissioned by the Revere Copper and Brass Co. — if you’ve seen Revereware pots and pans, you know them — Architectural Forum magazine, and builders Lamolithic Industries. The idea was to show how copper could be used in residential design, plus a plan to meet the housing needs of returning World War II veterans.
The house blends elements of the International Style with site-sensitive design for tropical home construction. Rudolph’s plan was similar to Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion: a 1,000 square foot, linear, flat-roof, single-story structure, to be constructed almost entirely of concrete and glass. Supported by steel columns, the low roof extends well beyond the house to create deep overhangs for shade; the overhang was extended even farther to serve as a carport. The exterior walls are made of lamolithic (reinforced concrete) panels, with floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors opening to patio areas.
Extensively restored 2004, the interior showcases poured terrazzo flooring, while interior wall dividers, some of which feature built-in cabinets and drawers, are fabricated of plywood. Originally, the ceiling in the great room was painted a bright blue, to represent the sky, while the bedroom and kitchen walls were painted yellow.
The house was an unmitigated success. Many visitors toured it, and it won numerous awards. In fact, Twitchell liked it so much he married the owner, Roberta Finney, and lived there until his death in 1978.
The small, original house has since been extensively restored, updated and expanded to include a three-story “sister structure.”
The next house is the Healy Guest House, also known as the Cocoon House (above). It was designed by Rudolph and Twitchell for the latter’s in-laws, Mr. and Mrs. W. R. Healy.
The building is small, just 735 square feet, with a simple rectangular floor plan complemented by a small porch and a deck that cantilevers over the river.
The roof, the most distinctive part of the house and for which it gets the “cocoon” name, is a catenary (curved) roof, with flat steel bars between the post-and-beam corners of the house. The sprayed plastic used to finish the roof was the same saran vinyl (yes, just like Saran wrap) polyvinylidene chloride used by the Navy to “cocoon” parts of ships from the weather following their return after World War II. The technique is much like the way boats today are shrink wrapped over the winter, and another example of these groundbreaking architects using new materials in interesting ways.
The building won many accolades. The house was named “Best House of the Year” by the American Institute of Architects in 1949, and in 1953 the Museum of Modern Art named the house a “Pioneer of Design,” one of 19 examples of houses built since World War II demonstrating the future of design.
Despite that, Rudolph wasn’t entirely happy with it. He said in 1970, “It should have been one room because of the volumes of space defined by the curving roof, but it is actually divided into four spaces, and the resultant segmental spaces are not satisfactory.”
The final house we’ll look at is probably the most famous, known as the Umbrella House. In the early 1950s, the progressive developer Philip Hiss hired Paul Rudolph to design a small colony of modern houses called Lido Shores.
Sarasota Architectural Foundation – Umbrella pool shot
Umbrella House was the model home for Lido Shores. Hiss wanted a house that would attract attention from both passers-by and the national architectural press, and that is exactly what he got. The house is now considered among America’s most significant midcentury modern buildings and was called “one of the most remarkable homes of the twentieth century” by Architectural Digest.
At less than 1,500 square feet, the house is small by modern standards. It was designed as a plain, two-story rectangular box, with windows on all sides for ventilation.
Over this Rudolph designed a large slatted pergola, a flat “umbrella” that extends over the house, the rear patio and the swimming pool. Designed to keep direct sun from heating up the home’s roof, the “umbrella” floats slightly above the house, which allows cool breezes to pass between the roof and the “umbrella.”
The house sits on a north-south axis, while the “umbrella” is laid east-west, which maximizes light during the day. In contrast to the simple exterior, the interiors are a complex system of transparent and opaque plains. Under a 17-foot ceiling, the living room has a masonry fireplace and floor-to-ceiling glass walls that frame views of Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
The Umbrella House was praised at the time (and ever since) as a groundbreaking design in modern architecture. Unsurprisingly, Lido Shores sold like hotcakes.
Today, Sarasota is still regarded as a shrine to and for architecture lovers. But, of course, all that vintage midcentury fabulousness does not come cheap. Case in point, Zigzag House, a late 1950s home designed by Twitchell’s architect son, Tollyn Twitchell. Named for its folded roofline, the house was sold earlier this year, for $3 million to a couple from New Hampshire, and is already in escrow to be sold again, with a notably higher asking price of $3.6 million.
Want to tour the Umbrella House, Cocoon House and Revere Quality House? You can! Architecture Sarasota provides guided tours. In addition to the regularly scheduled tours, they can arrange private, bespoke and VIP tours. Go for it! There is nothing like a personal visit to better understand architecture.