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Architect About Town

Buildings remain, but who were the architects? Modernist examples abundant locally

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

Recently, in the office, we conducted a simple visitors’ survey: name an architect other than Frank Lloyd Wright. The most common answer: Mike Brady, the Brady Bunch dad who faked some dreadful, made-for-TV designs. Second, a handful of mentions for architect Michael Graves, not for his buildings but for the cool products he designed for Target.

It makes me wonder — why do architects, who shape and influence so many aspects of the peoples’ lives, remain anonymous?

Every place has its own unique history and frequently it is the buildings that remain, which remind us of the people and events of an era and an area.

In the middle part of the last century, this area was growing exponentially. Modern buildings were designed then with simple forms and a lack of ornamentation, and the climate-sensitive mid-century style became the dominant approach for religious, institutional and residential architecture for at least three decades.

Currently, the rest of the country is experiencing a revival of modernism. Public awareness, magazines and Web sites are on the increase. Oddly here, where we have countless fabulous examples due to the significant growth during that era, there is little or no appreciation. This time frame of development has not yet been acknowledged as “historical,” even though these buildings, now up to 60 years old, contribute greatly to the uniqueness of south Florida.

Many of the structures here, built after World War II, were the vision of talented local architects. But just who were these modernist architects who were instrumental in shaping the built environment of the middle 20th century?

In February, at the funeral of Edgar A Wilson (1924-2009), local architect, who designed some of the finest modern buildings in the area, it became obvious it was time to focus on the visionaries of these buildings, which hold a part of our middle 20th century history.

Wilson’s experience was diverse. His earlier projects include Fort Myers High School, built in 1949, when he was working locally for a Tampa architect. And shortly after, on his own, he designed the playful modernist fire station at Central Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Other significant landmarks — either in partnership with Martin Gundersen or on his own — include the Lee County Administration Office Building (a fine example of mid-century architecture), The Sanibel School, the U.S. Post Office Building on Fort Myers Beach and numerous houses, including several of his own, on Hill and Grove Avenues in Fort Myers.

Churches were his true passion. He designed at least 17, including St. Cecilia, St Leo’s and Resurrection of Our Lord Catholic churches.

His churches alone position Wilson as an architect exemplifying great talent and showcase his humble ability to create extraordinary places and spaces.

There are other local architects: Martin Gundersen, Ray Jenson, George Bail, Mark Hampton, William Frizzell, Bert Brosmith and school architect Bolton McBryde, to name a few, who each made their contribution to this era.

Do you know of a local architect or a modern building that has inspired or impacted you? Perhaps you live in a house, or work in an office designed by one of the area’s legends. Or perhaps you have knowledge of mid-century or modern building that has been demolished, which must be remembered.

I would like to solicit your help. Do or did you know one of these men, or others? Do you live or work in a unique modern or mid-century home or office? Do you have an architectural anecdote? E-mail me, send photos, tell me a story and I will try to piece together the history of an era through the buildings that remain.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA