The History of Sarasota Modern Design

In an earlier – we like to think simpler – time, Sarasota was a mere little town on the water. The glorious climate, lush sub-tropical foliage, access to water, the Gulf and the Bay, were all attractions that made the area compelling, and still do. But back in the late 30’s, 40’s and early 50’s getting here was more difficult and time-consuming. Nonetheless, the draw was compelling and an increasing number of people of reasonable wealth and progressive outlook began to search for a place to spend winters and retirement.

These people were looking for a place that would provide shelter and comfort, but also embody a spirit of the times. The world was witnessing an emergence from the Depression and a new optimism was growing. They wanted a fresh vision, something new and original. And there was a small group of talented, energetic and artistic thinkers who had also found Sarasota and were welcoming them with their new ideas.

Among these, (I will focus this mostly on Paul Rudolf and his group) was a young architect who was starting his career. He was bright and creative, but young and inexperienced. He found employment with another architect and builder, Ralph Twitchell. Twitchell provided the young designer the guidance, experience and mentoring that served him well for many years. Rudolf became the creative force in the office, while Twitchell had the marketing, construction and office administration facilities already in place.

In the later 30’s and early 40’s these two started to put Sarasota on the national map of places of architectural interest. Their houses and buildings became published in the national press.

One of their notable contributions was a spirit of experimentation and innovation. Some of the houses are still standing and provide a great lesson in accomplishment of spacial modulation, respect of sunlight – both access to daylight and acknowledgment of the harshness of the midday sun and heat, and the use of natural ventilation. These were the days after all, before residential air conditioning.

One of my favorite houses, as an example, is the Umbrella House. While the name still sticks, the “umbrella” sadly is no longer in place. Located on Lido Key, it is really a modest house, of simple means, but great result. The exterior is paneled in vertical slats of cypress with outlines of white-painted wood trim. The street facade is a two-story exercise in restraint. It is solid on the left and right sides, with tall windows on each end, and a series of elegantly tall glass panels in the center, punctuated by the entry door.

Once you enter you are awed by the large central volume of space which wraps around you. The stair to the upper level and balcony overhead is immediately on your left, but your view is compelled forward through the house and out to the terrace, pool and pavilion beyond. The far wall of the central living space is all vertical glass panels and a series of glass doors opening out.