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Architect About Town

Collier County island cottage ailing

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

Irene Fascher loves Hart Cottage because it exists in harmony with the environment, climate and native essence of the quiet island.

Her in-laws in the 1970s purchased the cottage on Keewaydin Island, a barrier island south of Naples that is accessible only by boat.

"Far from the urban surroundings, which are man, Keewaydin immerses you in Mother Nature's habitat, lulling you into a peaceful perspective of life," wrote Fascher of the cottage, dubbed "Noble Camp" by its creator, architect Bert Brosmith.

Time and location have changed the cottage, though. Noble Camp, like so many of these humble icons of modernism, is showing its age.

The core of the 1959 building is solid, but the cantilevered decks are structurally unstable and the whole place requires renovation.

Its location on an island accessible only by boat is making renovations cost prohibitive for the current owners. They have found renovation estimates to be triple or quadruple mainland costs.

Sadly, the location intrinsic to the essence of its appeal has also become the root of its demise, leaving its owners, Irene and her husband, Sig, mulling its place in their future - and that of Southwest Florida.

WHY IT MATTERS

Buildings like the Hart Cottage are an essential part of the region's rich history. It's a superb and culturally significant example of mid-century architecture in Naples.

Just as important, Brosmith and the cottage he designed are direct links to the Sarasota School of Art and Architecture - the regional modernist architecture championed by Paul Rudolph, who left Sarasota to become one of the most important American architects of the 20th century.

While better known for controversial Brutalist landmarks such as the School of Art & Architecture at Yale, Rudolph liked to say that his favorite design was the Walker Guest Cottage on Sanibel, a clever and compact response to the island's subtropical climate. He dubbed it the "Sanibel Spider" for its light-footed approach to its sandy location.

Brosmith designed Noble Camp, his first solo project, five years after he was asked to run Rudolph's Sarasota office in 1953.

Rudolph's modern architecture attracted the attention of Peter M. Hart when he lived in Waterbury, Conn. Hart found Rudolph - by then the dean of nearby Yale's School of Architecture - too busy to take on such a small project, but Brosmith was ready to venture out on his own and discussed the project with Hart.

It was a good match, and Hart invited Brosmith to design the family's island home.

Hart, 92, has nothing but praise for his architect, who subsequently went on to design an "extraordinary" family beach house in the West Indies years later.

"Bert is a designer all the way - so very particular in all aspects of location and prevailing climate, etc. His knowledge of construction seems limitless and so, too, his patience with builders who lacked experience," Hart said in an e-mail.

LIFE AMID NATURE

Brosmith succinctly describes the cottage as "a simple elevated platform on a secluded island." The central square platform is raised on four columns with decks cantilevered from these columns on all sides.

He designed Noble Camp high enough to be above the vegetation. Raising the cottage high off the ground saved it from flooding and spared it serious damage when Hurricane Donna slammed Southwest Florida in September 1960.

External walls of large sliding windows or screens allow natural breezes to ventilate and cool the interior.

Inside, it's open and abundant with daylight. And in the beginning, before the trees grew too high, views were offered in every direction: over the island, the inland waterway and the Gulf of Mexico.

Screened porches are positioned to overlook the inland waterway to the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west.

Irene Fascher particularly relishes the timeless pleasure of watching the tides.

"Throughout the seasons, during the neap tides and spring tides, especially in the evening, the place takes on an ethereal and spiritual quality which really makes me thankful for the beauty of the area," she wrote.

WHAT TO DO?

But like many modern structures built within living memory, Hart Cottage is now threatened to deteriorate beyond repair and at some point may simply be torn down despite its significance.

In practical terms the cost of renovation is difficult to justify - more than likely these costs will be greater than the monetary value of the property. Not surprisingly, builders add in high margins to justify the risk of working in a remote location with unknown variables such as weather and unforeseen problems such as rot.

Ideally, neglected modern properties such as Hart Cottage can be rescued before it is too late. There is much to be learned from them.

But in order to save Hart Cottage, public money or private sponsorship will be necessary to subsidize the renovations.

That's a challenge, but not impossible, in today's recovering economy.

"We are still in the 'limbo' stage ... contemplating the 'regs' necessary to even get started," Fascher wrote recently. "We want to save the cottage, but need financial assistance to augment the cost."

The family is exploring partnership/shared use possibilities, and volunteers are welcome. The family would be happy to bring others appreciative of its charms into this mid-century masterpiece's magical island circle.

"When looking out from the decks or windows of the cottage, the feeling tone is one of complete connection to nature," Fascher wrote.

"The bonding of the viewer to the flora and fauna is incredible. It generates an appreciation and respect for the land."

BERT BROSMITH

  • Born: In 1928 in West Hartford, Conn. He lives in Westchester County, N.Y., and still is a practicing architect
  • Education: Completed graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, where he met and befriended visiting professor Paul Rudolph.
  • Brosmith's natural talent caught Rudolph's attention and he was selected to run the office in Sarasota in 1953 when Rudolph moved to New Haven to become the Dean of Yale's School of Architecture and take on larger projects (a big honor right out of school).
  • Approach: Brosmith learned from and with Rudolph about "architecture as space," which he still feels is the essence of architecture. It's not about focusing on what is built, i.e. the walls, floors, doors and windows, but defining boundaries and connections between functions and the outdoors and understanding how a person navigates between spaces. It's the "space" that creates the experience.

Brosmith, like Rudolph, advocates site-sensitive design, incorporating indigenous materials in construction and building in harmony with the native landscape, environmental conditions and the culture.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA