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Architect About Town

Blueprints reveal rare surviving structure

Architect About Town - Special to the Fort Myers News-Press

“We live in a Twitchell-Rudolph home. We discovered this fact when we found the deteriorated blueprints in the shed. Whether we own it or it owns us, we have yet to decide. The house has many of the features you mentioned: clerestory and large picture windows, wide overhangs and no load-bearing internal walls. Bringing it back to livable conditions has been a labor of

love or lunacy ... depending on one's point of view. The house never lets one forget where you live. It is always filled with light and the green of the trees.”

So wrote Maggie Stevens, owner of what may be the only surviving house in Fort Myers designed by the internationally respected architecture team of Ralph Twitchell and Paul Rudolph.

Subsequent to my last article, my inbox overflowed with letters from owners of mid-century houses similarly passionate about their homes and eager to learn more about the Sarasota School — our very own regionally inspired American modernism. 

Many asked, “How can these buildings look so much more modern than what we see built today?”

Between 1946-52, Twitchell Rudolph Architects became the most successful partnership of the mid-century Sarasota School movement. And later, on his own, Rudolph’s innovative solo designs influenced the appearance and function of buildings in South Florida,  eventually altering the course of modern architecture in the United States and abroad.

In the 1920s and ’30s, avant-garde architecture was greatly influenced by the “Bauhaus School,” the German school internationally celebrated for its approach to modern design — not just architecture, but in the areas of arts and crafts, interiors, graphics and industrial design as well.

Also known as the International Style, the original designs of the Bauhaus rejected ornamentation, combined function with aesthetics and promoted the concept that mass-produced items could be used to express artistic freedom. While studying under the founder of the Bauhaus — architect Walter Gropius — Rudolph was introduced to those principles, which guided him throughout his career.

While other notable architects like Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe were busy building glass boxes in the manner of the Bauhaus teachings, Twitchell and Rudolph became leaders amongst the designers of the Sarasota School.

In South Florida, architects were reinterpreting modernist principles to suit a subtropical climate, creating an unconventional approach to shelter suitable to a hot and wet climate. Their buildings were raised off the ground to keep the air beneath cool, had low, broad overhangs to create shade and used large openings to maintain natural breezes.

Sound familiar? The designs incorporated courtyards and vegetation for privacy, ventilation and shade. While these options were similar in character to Florida Cracker and Spanish Revival styles, the buildings were fresh and original, taking advantage of new materials and technology.

When the partnership dissolved in the early 1950s, Rudolph’s designs continued to evolve and interpret Florida regional architecture. He experimented with novel ideas of space and new construction methods. The resulting structures rejected load-bearing walls of traditional buildings and replaced them with straightforward structures of thin steel or wood columns.

Incorporating large expanses of glass, Rudolph created buildings with a remarkable lightness and open, functional floor plans. These buildings took many shapes but were often characterized by horizontal forms with flat or low sloping roofs. They were rarely symmetrical. Not unlike Florida Cracker buildings, they were not really a style but an instinctive response to the climate, location and a new way of modern living.

Using louvers and screens in large openings to maintain natural ventilation, Rudolph explored volumes of space inside the building and extended inside space out to blend with the natural surroundings.

Like many of his Florida buildings, our local Rudolph example, owned by Stevens and her husband, Steve Funnel, was built with local materials — often, conventional items found on the shelf of the local hardware store.

Now, as they lovingly restore their historical jewel, they look to other well-documented Rudolph houses of this period, relearning methods originally employed to create these unadorned, airy, open places. Mr. and Mrs. D. K. O’Mahony, who commissioned the architect in 1953, would have been proud to see their house so well cared for today.

The Walker Guest House on Sanibel Island, affectionately know as the Cannonball House, is the only other known Rudolph structure that remains in Lee County. In this tiny beach cottage, Rudolph perfected all the principles of space and construction explored during the years that he worked with Twitchell. It’s a simple, elegant reinterpretation of primitive structure meeting modern lifestyle.

Examples of Rudolph’s early work were once abundant in Sarasota and South Florida. Today only a few have survived the trend to demolish smaller mid-century homes to make way for larger McMansions. It is believed that at least two or three other undocumented Rudolph houses once existed in Fort Myers but unfortunately, have been demolished.

Thankfully, those that still stand are in the hands of devoted owners that appreciate their historic significance. And from what I can tell, these important homes of the mid-century are not going to be put on the market as “tear-downs” anytime soon.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA