Sarasota, Florida Has Marvels of Mid-century Modern Design — Here's What to See
To the untrained eye, the cube-shaped house in Sarasota, Florida, might be just a modest home in a mid-century suburban enclave. To architecture lovers, it's instantly recognizable as the Umbrella House, Paul Rudolph's 1953 masterpiece. The celebrated and uncompromising architect would go on to design statement-making buildings around the world, including Yale University's Brutalist Art & Architecture Building and a glass-walled town house in Manhattan that became famous as the home of fashion designer Halston. But Rudolph began his attention-grabbing career in this lovely, low-key city on the Gulf of Mexico, where he was a key member, along with Ralph Twitchell and others, of what became known as the Sarasota School of Architecture.
With its walkable downtown and sparkling white-sand beaches, Sarasota has a snowbird population that has been flocking here for decades. But it also has a progressive spirit that has kept the city young and diverse, with forward-thinking initiatives and innovative municipal planning. Sarasota's cultural gems compete with—and even outpace—those in the far glitzier and more touristed Palm Beach and Miami.
Anne-Marie Russell, the executive director of Architecture Sarasota, gave me a tour of the compact yet dramatic property, pointing out the artfully dropped ceilings; the sunken living room; an upstairs bridge that unites the two sides of the house; and the passive energy system, inspired by tropical architecture, that uses cross-ventilating louvers. "The house is such an efficient machine," she said. "Its beauty comes from its function."
I stayed at the Umbrella House—named for its innovative slatted roof—for five nights, an experience that Architecture Sarasota, an organization for preservation and promotion, will soon offer to the public, along with tours. While I would have loved nothing more than to shake myself a martini and take a dip in the rectangular pool, there was just too much to see.
For the next few days, Russell guided me around this high-octane city at a frantic clip. A dynamic art historian, she was the founding director of the striking new Sarasota Art Museum, a contemporary art gallery that is part of the Ringling College Museum Campus. And she has big plans to raise the profile of this city, which is packed with enough distinctive buildings to rival Palm Springs. That California town hosts a week devoted to mid-century design every February. Now Sarasota has a "Mod Weekend" each November, to show off its own trove of innovative buildings.
We started out the next morning at the Overton, an outdoor café in the artsy Rosemary District, near downtown. The avocado toast was as impeccable as the minimalist setting. An added attraction, beyond the open-air design, was the discreet filming of two willowy women for the MTV reality show Siesta Key.
Next door, we could see dancers training inside the glass-walled Sarasota Ballet School. Around the corner, architects toiled away in offices set inside an artfully renovated African Methodist church. A couple of blocks away is the Sarasota Modern hotel, which has a sleek pool and a restaurant—Rudolph's, named for the architect—with an alligator hanging upside-down over the bar.
Decades ago, in fact, when founding artistic director Nate Jacobs envisioned adding his Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe to the city's impressive roster of professional theaters, he was surprised to find so many supportive benefactors. "Our audiences are completely diverse," he told me. "You go to our galas and you'd think you were in New York, Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C."
The theater opened its new building right before the pandemic with the musical Caroline, or Change. Meanwhile, Michael Donald Edwards, the producing artistic director of Asolo Repertory Theatre, thinks of Sarasota as a slice of Lower Manhattan: "People who come here realize they need a life of the mind, and that pleasant weather isn't enough."
On a day in mid-March when the entire Northeast was facing another blizzard, pleasant weather was nothing to sneeze at. Russell and I zipped around in her vintage white Mercedes convertible with the top down, passing notable modern buildings on every other block. The sleek 1966 city hall by local architecture star Jack West impressed me with its elegance, as did the 1960 William Rupp and Joe Farrell building that's the headquarters of Architecture Sarasota, which has an exhibition space that Russell manages year-round. I was dazzled by Arquitectonica's 2006 Herald-Tribune Media Group headquarters, on a nearby street. And just outside downtown, I admired Victor Lundy's St. Paul Lutheran Church, where the two curved sides of its roof swoop up to form a giant spire.
Down the road, Twitchell and Rudolph's 1948 Revere Quality House, with its glass walls and open-plan layout, could have been the setting for a David Hockney pool painting. And then there's the Cocoon House, which was designed by the same team on a lagoon on the barrier island Siesta Key. Built in 1948 as a kind of beach shack, the place is a charming curved-roof oddity that feels like a cross between The Jetsons and The Swiss Family Robinson. It has opposing jalousie walls for cross-ventilation and an extremely light footprint that anticipates the tiny-house trend.
The only thing better than visiting Cocoon House would be sleeping there, which will soon be possible through Architecture Sarasota. "I spent ten days here listening to the mullet jump under the full moon and I never slept so soundly," Russell told me. "It's a nice reminder of how little we need to live well."
Russell examined the vintage martini shaker on the coffee table and some old copies of Life and Look, and considered Sarasota in its Modernist heyday. "All the architects were just kids when they were building here," she said, citing their boozy lunches at the now-defunct Plaza restaurant. "They were on fire and super-alive."
What brought them? First of all, Sarasota had been a cosmopolitan center long before the postwar boom. It was the adopted hometown of John Ringling, who, with his siblings, founded the Ringling Brothers traveling circus; the city was thus populated by musicians, circus artists, and costume designers from Europe. Next to his home—Ca' d'Zan, a Venetian Gothic fantasia—Ringling opened an art museum, a pink Renaissance palazzo containing a world-class array of European masterpieces.
In this fertile environment, innovative developers and builders were able to attract a group of young architects influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and other interpreters of the European International Style. Rudolph studied under Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius at Harvard and brought his ideas to Twitchell's office in Sarasota (they would later become partners). By the early 50s, he was, along with Lundy, West, and others, putting his mark on notable homes and buildings that responded to the Florida landscape and subtropical climate. "Visual delight," Rudolph said in a 1961 speech for Voice of America, is an "architect's primary responsibility."
A dapper gay man known for his high standards, Rudolph found a champion in the equally dapper Philip Hiss. The local developer had come to Sarasota after a stint in Bali, where he found the low-lying, airy buildings compelling. In the early 1950s Hiss developed Lido Shores, the neighborhood where I was staying, as a Modernist enclave. There, he inspired Rudolph, Edward Seibert, and others to conduct some of their earliest experiments in innovative design.
After a long day, I went for a run around Lido Shores and passed countless striking homes, each more curious than the next. It was like being in an outdoor design museum of artfully intersecting glass walls, steel beams, and flat roofs—a tropical vision of mid-century sophistication that any visitor can easily tour on foot or by car.
"It was an exciting time without building restrictions," Muffi Hiss, the developer's daughter, told me. "It wasn't about love of money for that generation, but ideas."
Hiss was so inspired by Modernism that, in order to impose his vision on the public-school system, he ran for and won a seat on the local education board. One poetic result is Lundy's Butterfly Wing at the Alta Vista Elementary School. Rudolph's spectacular addition to Sarasota High School is another. On my second day in town, I stood under its stark white canopies and marveled at how something so innovative could have been built in the late 1950s.
But then, like Rudolph, Hiss was a force. In the early 60s he was instrumental in the creation of New College, a groundbreaking liberal-arts school without traditional grades that has become Florida's elite state-funded honors college. Its architecture was so important to Hiss that in 1963 he ran an international competition that resulted in I. M. Pei's designing a large part of the campus, including the dorms. It seemed a bit cold and clinical at the time, but it makes a stunning impression now.
"Daddy had a vision and didn't let little details get in the way," said Muffi, who recalled a guest in her austere childhood home aghast at the lack of railings to protect the children. "Daddy just looked at her and said, 'But that's what insurance is for.'"
Russell and I had joined Muffi and her mother, Shirley, for lunch at the home of Carl Abbott, the youngest member of the Sarasota School. He studied under Rudolph at Yale, and has spent his career designing buildings that celebrate the landscape. At 85, Abbott is still working today, and on our visit, he scampered around his wooded property with the energy of a teen.
Abbott's renovated house—once a small, dark cottage built for John Ringling's banker in 1925—is now a playful mash-up of architectural styles and periods, with a plein-air yoga studio on the grounds and a state-of-the-art open office for his staff. The most stunning space of all is his small conference room, which has a classic wall-size window that looks out at the Whitaker Bayou, its filtered sunlight in constant flux.
"All I had to do," Abbott told me, "was open the house up."
By the end of my stay, I felt opened up as well. Who had any idea this quiet and pleasant little city could offer so much stimulation? "Many people think of Sarasota as Camelot," Edwards had told me on Friday night, before Asolo Rep's sold-out production of the musical of the same name on the steps of the theater. Live theater was one of the experiences I had missed most during the pandemic. Asolo Rep's Camelot was my first show in a year, and a thrill.
The day of my departure, I ran into Anne Essner, who, with her husband, Bob, owns the Umbrella House as well as another small residence in Lido Shores. The Harkavy House was completed by Rudolph in 1958, with sliding shoji-style doors and other architectural details that blur the boundaries between indoors and out. The couple use both homes to work and entertain in, but live elsewhere and treat the spaces more as works of art.
Essner, who moved from New Jersey about a dozen years ago, is now the board chair of Architecture Sarasota. She's excited about the future of Modernist tourism, and wants to make sure that important homes are preserved in an age when teardowns are the norm. "We want people to come who love Modernism," she said.
After my marathon weekend, I finally had time to relax back at the Umbrella House. And so, in the tradition of the neighborhood, where some residents used to wander from one visionary home to another in bathrobes with martinis in hand, I mixed a drink, threw off my white terry-cloth robe, and dove into the swimming pool. I'm not nearly as fit, driven, or disciplined as the unrelenting young visionaries who made this town an architectural lodestar. But I'm a believer.
I landed in the perfect pool with a perfectly ungainly splash.
A Modern Tour of Sarasota
Where to Stay
Architecture Sarasota: This organization offers exclusive stays at select mid-century homes to support its preservation program.
Sarasota Modern: An urbane 89-room hotel with an inviting pool in the Rosemary District. Doubles from $179.
Where to Eat
Indigenous: Chef Steve Phelps emphasizes local seafood and seasonal produce. Entrées$19–$33.
The Overton: An all-day café in an industrial space that opens up to the outdoors. The menu ranges from grain bowls to jackfruit tacos, with cocktails on tap. Entrées $9–$13.
Whitney's: This restaurant in a renovated 1950s gas station in Longboat Key has live music and a beachy vibe. Entrées $10–$25.
What to Do
Asolo Repertory Theatre: Updated classics and contemporary work staged in two historic theaters.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens: Nestled on the shoreline of Sarasota Bay, this park spotlights native flora and regional history.
The Ringling: A world-class museum built by circus impresario John Ringling in a Venetian-inspired palazzo.
Sarasota Art Museum: A new showcase for contemporary art in a repurposed 1920s school building on the Ringling CollegeMuseum Campus.
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe: Plays and musical revues that celebrate the Black American experience.