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Architect About Town

Highlighting mid-century gems in Southwest Florida

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

Structures from the midcentury featured in the McMo-SWFL Exhibition are at times hidden and often remain in remarkably original condition.  

The McMo SWFL Exhibition, which highlights midcentury modern architecture in Southwest Florida, opened November 11 and continues through January 14. Co-hosted by The American Institute of Architects FlaSW and the Southwest Florida Museum of History in Fort Myers, it spotlights some well-known and lesser-seen local examples of the architectural style.

Here’s a closer look at a few of the lesser-known structures that are part of the exhibit:

A tale of two houses

Cordova Houses Architect William Frizzell 1957 Photo: Joshua Colt Fisher

Cordova Houses Architect William Frizzell 1957 Photo: Joshua Colt Fisher

Fort Myers comes by its rich heritage of the Sarasota School of Architecture honestly, but not easily, as evidenced by two homes found on Cordova Avenue near downtown. The homes would never have been built had Charlotte Bever not coaxed her friend, also recently widowed, to come to Fort Myers and purchase one of her adjoining lots.

A young William Frizzell, having just returned from his early apprenticeship in Sarasota, designed the houses for the two widows in 1957. Apparently however, they were too radical for the neighbors, who tried to stop their construction. Charlotte, so the story goes, made it clear to the local Coca-Cola distributor and other vocal neighbors that their products might not find space on the shelves of her store. Charlotte’s “store,” founded by Charles D. Bever and Charlotte in 1923 under the name B&B Cash Grocery in Avon Park, was the predecessor to the U-Save Supermarkets.

The objections stopped and eventually homes were built. Both received state architectural awards.

The houses remain fairly unknown. An evolution of the early designs of the Sarasota School, they rival some the best designed homes of the era, including the local Walker Guest House on nearby Sanibel Island or those more often found in or near Sarasota.

One is still owned by Charlotte’s grandson, whom it is rumored has lovingly retained the midcentury interiors of the house right down to the cups and saucers.

The two close women friends, who had a direct telephone line installed between the bedrooms of their respective houses, could not have appreciated the valuable contribution their small homes would make towards understanding mid-century architecture in south Florida. 

Still serving its purpose (Contributed by Christopher Sowers)

Inter-County Telephone and Telegraph building, Gundersen & Wilson Architects, 1961. Nelson Photography

Inter-County Telephone and Telegraph building, Gundersen & Wilson Architects, 1961. Nelson Photography

Finished in 1961, the Inter-County Telephone and Telegraph building on Lee Street is not only one of the undiscovered gems of the period; it is one of the most whimsical modern buildings in downtown Fort Myers. The expansive entrance overhang features wonderful rolling flutes. The vertical fire escape shimmers red at night — a result of stair lights filtering through small solid colored panels.

Randomly arrayed telephone handsets, which originally adorned the street side façade but now painted over, were a good-humored tipoff of the building’s interior function. Combined with a sculptural signal tower sitting atop, these handsets would have playfully signified the building's function as a telecommunications operator.

Now owned by Century Link, the building is also an attractive example of abstract composition with vast expanses of solid walls perforated in areas with stretches of glass or deep recesses, a depending on the activity behind the wall.

Only minor changes have been made to the exterior of the building in 50 years. Gundersen & Wilson Architects were passionate about understanding and making use of materials that were appropriate in a subtropical climate. 

A look at the building today shows very little wear — it stands today content and comfortable in its urban environment.

Reflective . . . Contemplative . . . Somber . . .

Fort Myers Memorial Gardens, Gundersen & Wilson Architects. Photos: Joyce Owens

Fort Myers Memorial Gardens, Gundersen & Wilson Architects. Photos: Joyce Owens

But Gundersen & Wilson Architects’ most overlooked project is not a building at all but a collection of marble faced interior and exterior structures, serving as a final resting place for many local residents. 

Rectilinear and formal, the sculptural tombs of the Ft Myers Memorial Gardens built in the late sixties are carefully positioned to create a sequence of courtyards that transcend the division between the built and natural environment. Space flows between the exterior walls of tombs and the manicured courtyards conveying a feeling of Zen. It is place of quiet repose, solemn but ever changing - a consequence of light and shadow reflecting on smooth marble surfaces and through porous walls of decorative concrete block. 

A small chapel and a mausoleum form part of the complex as well. 

The attention to detail is worthy of mention; rhythmic rows of stacked marble drawers where caskets rest above ground contribute to the formality, simply adorned with only understated raised metal letters identifying those who have passed and a petite bronze flower pot hanging from each.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA