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Siesta Key and the Sarasota School of Architecture

By Philip M. Farrell and Stephen M. Farrell

“Sarasota in the 1950s was one of the most important places in the world for architectural creativity, where the greatest design movements of the day came together,” as renowned, contemporary architect Carl Abbott states on the Sarasota Architectural Foundation website. We are grateful for Mr. Abbott for sharing his perspectives on the leading architects, their guiding force, and role of Siesta Key. The beginnings can be traced to 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, when Florida properties could be bought at bargain prices and architect Mary Rockwell Hook was attracted by Siesta Key. At the end of a winter visit, she bought 55 acres of pristine land in the northwest area of the island that she would eventually name Sandy Hook. Mary had established her design creativity and visionary planning ability in Kansas City after many European adventures, including education during 1905-06 at the exclusive Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Living in the Montparnasse district, Mary delighted in examining the evolution of the French style and appreciating how it compared with that of other countries.

Consequently, she was very well prepared to express her creativity on the land she bought with its 1000 feet of gorgeous beach frontage and lush tropical vegetation.

The Whispering Sands Inn—A Tropical Paradise

Mary Rock Hook immediately dedicated herself to creating what she considered “a little tropical paradise.” Opened in 1937, Whispering Sands Inn was described in an advertising pamphlet as “One of the most interesting and unique Inns in Florida… Upon arrival, one enters a yellow door and steps straight into a spacious patio shaded by tall palms and papaya trees, and decked with purpose and flaming bougainvillea like frescoes in the sun. At the far end of the patio under the open sky, almost touching the Inn is the blue water of the bayou, its shore and unspoiled wilderness of palm and pine. Beyond is a white expanse of feathery sand, studded with beautiful shells, that hardly has its equal in the world, and then the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico…Turning from the view to look at the buildings, which form the court, one realizes the art that has used such simple forms to achieve harmony and variety. All are built of the same silvery grey cypress wood.” The combination of Mary’s innovative structural and landscape architecture attracted national attention and became a model for later Siesta Key developments.

Sandy Hook— an Incubator for Innovative Architects

Surprisingly, but reflecting Mary Hook’s ambition to achieve more after 1945, she sold the acreage on Siesta Key that included the property occupied by Whispering Sands Inn. Then, Mary focused on the development of Sandy Hook immediately to the south— a project that became her lasting legacy. In fact, she planned “a haven for painters, writers, and other creative people” and envisioned a school for architects. Although the school did not develop at Sandy Hook, Mary’s dream of creating a place where the original design efforts of young architects could be expressed was accomplished. Thus, it can be argued the homes designed there by an emerging group of modern architects spawned what became the famous Sarasota School of Architecture. The first two homes were designed by Hook and the third by Paul Rudolph, whose career later brought him international acclaim. As with many of the earlier accommodations on the Key, the post WWII homes at Sandy Hook were designed to blend with and embellish their surroundings while applying a distinctly modern feel. Many projects took advantage of building technologies and materials developed as part of the war effort.

The Sarasota School of Architecture

In 1946, Paul Rudolph at 28 years-old joined with Ralph Twitchell as they collaborated in designing and building an unprecedented type of home. Rudolph’s earliest designs on Siesta Key exemplified a distinct style that was eventually called the Sarasota School of Architecture. Not a formal school but rather a movement with characteristic features of design, it was given its name and defined as a movement by Gene Leedy during a presentation at the American Institute of Architects Conference in 1982. Another term is Sarasota Modernism. The style features an open quality, often created with large planes of glass to facilitate natural illumination and ventilation, simple geometric forms, and cantilevered overhangs. It is a cost efficient style that strives for clarity of construction with an easily understandable structure that is celebrated as a feature of the architectural design rather than being covered up as in conventional construction. The signature elements of Sarasota Modernism work together to create beautifully simple geometric forms that float above the flat, tropical Florida landscape and feature simple overall volumes penetrating vertically and horizontally, cantilevered overhangs, along with honesty in details and structural connections. Carl Abbott’s magnificent creation on Crescent Beach known as Casa del Cielo provided an excellent example but unfortunately was lost recently to the Key’s tear-down trend.

Photo courtesy of Carl Abbott

As Mr. Abbott has emphasized, it is important to recognize that the Sarasota School of Architecture is more than a regional style unique to Sarasota County, as some might believe. Rather, it is an internationally important style that arose from the melding of two major movements— Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture and the International Style advanced by architect/educator Walter Gropius who taught Paul Rudolph at Harvard. Both Rudolph and Twitchell admired Wright’s work and what sprang from their relationship was a melding of the two philosophies and a design aesthetic that Rudolph took with him when he left Florida for New Haven, CT to become the Yale Chair of Architecture.

The Siesta Key Pavilion—A Monument to the Sarasota School of Architecture

In addition to Rudolph and Twitchell, often considered the School’s co-founders, other architects who have been recognized for the important contributions they made to Sarasota Modernism are represented at Sandy Hook, including Victor Lundy and Edward (Tim) Seibert. The same concepts we reapplied by Siebert to design and construct the Siesta Key Beach Pavilion in 1960. It reflects the School’s style by having simple geometric plans, strong horizontality, broad roof overhangs, and dynamic interplay between indoor and outdoor spaces. The building should be admired by beachgoers as a monument to the Sarasota School of Architecture.

You can read more about this topic and others in An Illustrated History of Siesta Key: The Story of America’s Best Beach, which is sold at both Davidson Drugs stores, Captain Curt’s gift shop, and Crescent Beach Grocery