So Sarasota

At Sarasota Modernism Weekend Paul Rudolph dazzles—for a price

East Preservation Review
The Umbrella House, one of Paul Rudolph's seminal projects in Sarasota, Florida (Anton Grassl Esto)
The Umbrella House, one of Paul Rudolph's seminal projects in Sarasota, Florida (Anton Grassl Esto)

Sharp winter sunlight pours over the Umbrella House on Lido Key in Florida as a group of modern architecture enthusiasts begin their morning yoga class with a sun salutation. Shadow and light battle beneath the 3,000 square-foot wooden canopy of the house, casting a latticed reflection on the pool below. Built in 1953 by the modern architect Paul Rudolph while living and working in Sarasota, the Umbrella House would become a centerpiece of the Sarasota School of Architecture: a localized architectural movement that brought the aesthetic of midcentury modernism to the beach—and keeps the tourists coming every year for a Palm Springs–inspired Modernism Weekend.

Sarasota today is a characteristic American town of some 50,000 year-round residents. Concentrated around a polished 9.5-square-mile built-up downtown area, it unfurls outward into an eclectic 25-square-mile collage of gated communities, strip malls, white sand beaches, marshy swampland, and rustic cow pastures. Unlike the Sarasota of Rudolph’s time, there is ample air conditioning (some would argue too much), a plethora of open-air campuses, and a constantly expanding cluster of high-rise condos dotting the shores of downtown and Siesta Key: the once-barren strip of fine quartz sand beach where Rudolph built several of his chic micro-cabin guest houses in the 1950s.

Photograph of Paul Rudolph working on the Umbrella House

Photo of Paul Rudolph working on the Umbrella House (Courtesy Sarasota Architectural Foundation/MOD)

Also unique to the present is a clear, defined interest in Sarasota’s modern architectural heritage. The Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF) was founded in 2002 to bring local and international awareness to the rich legacy of Sarasota Modern. Every November since 2013, a couple hundred tropical modernism buffs make a beeline for the Sunshine State or stir from their Sarasota siestas to attend Sarasota MOD.

This year’s MOD Weekend marks Paul Rudolph’s centennial, for which SAF tapped Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger to deliver a keynote presentation on Rudolph, prefaced by a screening of Bob Eisenhardt’s short film Spaces: The Architecture of Paul Rudolph, and a panel discussion titled “Reassessing Rudolph” featuring Rudolph experts and academics Brian Goldstein, Eric Paul Mumford, Ken Tadashi, and moderated by local architect Timothy M. Rohan.

Photo of the Cocoon House

The Cocoon House (Bryan Soderlind)

As Goldberger emphasized in his keynote lecture, the ’50s architecture culture in Sarasota was a “rare moment with an extraordinary meeting of minds”—minds that, conveniently enough, came to town with a lot of money. For Rudolph, fresh out of Harvard’s GSD following a two-year intermission in the navy, this meant the opportunity for hands-on building experience in his 30s, when he designed several guest houses that helped anchor the Sarasota Modern style, including the iconic curving Cocoon House and yoga-friendly Umbrella House. He even pioneered a new building typology, the lamolithic house.

Made from poured concrete slab walls and a steel-reinforced roof, key features of the lamolithic house were untempered (and certainly not hurricane-proof) glass windows, a roof encased in four to six inches of crushed coral that provided waterproof insulation, and a passive cooling sprinkling system on the roof. The open plan was designed to capture the cross-winds pouring in from the Gulf.

Photo of the Cocoon House

The Cocoon House (Bryan Soderlind)

Rudolph built four out of the five lamolithic houses he had planned on Siesta Key. At their public debut, over 100 visitors came and demanded he begin building identical structures for them. Following the success of these homes, Lamolithic Industries, Rudolph’s partner in the project, pioneered a prototype of a two-bedroom home costing $8,900 that never fully materialized.

While touring the lamolithic and guest houses on a three-hour trolley bus tour of Paul Rudolph’s projects on Siesta Key, it became evident that this model was meant as a base that owners could pimp out at their discretion. Swanky circular pools and exotic cactus gardens materialize underneath the lanai: Florida’s unique netted cage of a semi-enclosed garden. The contemporary extensions hit an all-time absurd in Revere Quality House (c. 1948), whose owners added a three-story modernist mansion onto the humble dwelling in 2007, courtesy local architect Guy Peterson.

Sarasota has always been one of the wealthiest counties in the Sunshine State; current residents of Siesta Key, one of the most expensive areas of the city and where many of Rudolph’s commissions were realized, earn an average income of $62,000 per resident (more than twice the national average).

Rewind back to Rudolph’s stint in Sarasota and the story is much the same. The influx of new residents in postwar Florida melded with a burgeoning middle class that had money to burn, plus opportunistic property developers eager to turn Sarasota into a destination point, all while reaping the state’s status as a tax haven on investment properties. This placed a large demand for infrastructure and culture to fill up this sleepy town on the Gulf of Mexico—and fast. Key businessmen-cum-patrons like Lido Shores–developer Philip Hiss were instrumental in giving the cluster of Sarasota-based architects who would later be known as the Sarasota School their first shot at building. For Rudolph in particular, this was a total boon and laid the foundation for the future of his career.

Photo of The Umbrella House

The Umbrella House (Anton Grassl Esto)

But for today’s architectural enthusiasts without such deep pockets (including students) this creates an area of friction in the SarasotaMOD festivities. For cultural interest events such as these, this translates into $250 dinners, $150 trolley tours, and $30 yoga classes—or a $6,000 overnight stay in Rudolph’s Umbrella House, if you’re feeling inclined—and precludes access to the Sarasota School from a much larger, and probably much younger, audience.

It is true that when most people think of Paul Rudolph, they tend to think about the radiant play of light within his Interdenominational Chapel (1969) at Emory University, the menacing melancholia of the Art & Architecture building at Yale (its ugliness, it is said, led to the arson of 1969), or that overwhelming behemoth of Temple Street Parking Garage (1963), its shadowy mass swallowing up 6 blocks nearby in New Haven—and not so much his quaint beach houses dotting Siesta Key.

But it is also true that Sarasota gave Rudolph the jump-start that electrified his tumultuous career. Where patrons and projects abound, the little town on the Gulf allowed Rudolph to become a principal at Ralph Twitchell’s firm in under four years (the same firm he interned at before Harvard). It enabled him to become an independent architect, ditching Twitchell in 1958 to build two major high schools in Sarasota where he grew into his own style. Sarasota was the springboard that catapulted Rudolph into the Chair of Yale University’s Department of Architecture in 1960, where he would experience another pivotal moment of divinity and fall from grace in the now-infamous Brutalist masterpiece of the Art & Architecture Building at Yale.

Although Rudolph was later condemned by critics who predicted his conservative style would be left in the dust by slick and jazzy postmodernism, he always responded best when placed in the pressure cooker. Which is why what happened nearly seventy years ago in this sleepy Floridian town feels like such a special occurrence and the ultra-steep price tag of its discovery such a shame.

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