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I’M JUST BACK from Florida’s Gulf Coast, where I attended Sarasota Mod, a conference aimed at educating the public (and hopefully saving) the city’s stock of innovative post-WWII housing and public buildings. But before I delve into all that — and delve I will, on this blog and in a piece for Architectural Record – I couldn’t resist a post about another, earlier love: 1920s Mediterranean Revival-style cottages. Sarasota developers built them to meet the needs of people beginning to discover the charms of what had been wilderness a few decades before.

Top, not a cottage — that’s Ca’ D’Zan, an over-the-top Venetian-style palazzo built for circus impresario John Ringling and his wife Mable in 1926, now restored and re-furnished down to the original china and silver. We were treated to dinner on the terrace there, below, sunset included.

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One lunch hour, I strolled the back streets of Sarasota’s business district and found, in the shadows of condos and parking garages, a few 1920s buildings that have survived the relentless march of commerce. Can you spot one in the photo below?

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What fun it was to come across Burns Court, below, a rare, intact street of stucco cottages, each painted and decorated with Florida flair. Built in 1926 by developer Owen Burns (who also built Ca’ D’Zan), Burns Court is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Just east of Orange Avenue, in the streets around Laurel Park, there’s a whole neighborhood of wood-frame 1920s bungalowsBelow, a small apartment complex in that red-tile-roof, arched-windows ersatz Spanish style so beloved in the Twenties. Most, though not all, of the homes in the Laurel Park area are well-maintained, with landscaping that is beyond lush, sometimes obscuring the houses from the street.

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Must add this guy to my mailbox archive:

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I AM INCREASINGLY FOND of Japanese gardens, and quite unreasonably proud (as if I had something to do with it), of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden‘s Japanese garden, constructed 100 years ago and opened to the public in June 1915. It’s a masterpiece of Japanese garden design — the premier work of its creator, Takeo Shiota (1881-1943), who came to the U.S. in 1907.

The garden is a combination of two Japanese garden traditions: hill-and-pond style (self-explanatory), and the ‘stroll’ garden, in which different vistas are gradually revealed as you meander along winding paths.

Japanese gardens are floriferous when cherry trees, azaleas and irises are in springtime bloom. These photos were taken in high summer, when I found the garden green and shapely, its evergreen structure at the fore, conveying the intended sense of permanence.

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Compare the century-old historical photos, above, with the much greater lushness of the present day. Seventy years after its creator’s death, the garden’s beauty and integrity remain. It’s nothing short of a national treasure, IMO, and I feel fortunate to live nearby, where I can pop over on a weekday morning and have it practically to myself.

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Hiss Studio, Tim Seibert

CERTAIN PLACES ON THE PLANET — often unexpected places, like Columbus, Indiana, and Tel Aviv, Israel — have been blessed with impressive inventories of important 20th century architecture. One such place is Sarasota, Florida, on the Gulf Coast. I was there once many years ago, so many that all I remember is collecting seashells on Sanibel Island (they’re also blessed with an impressive inventory of seashells).

Umbrella House, designed by architect Paul Rudolph, 1953, photo by Bill Miller Photography, New York Umbrella House, designed by architect Paul Rudolph, 1953, photo by Greg Wilson

Umbrella House, Paul Rudolph, 1953 

Now I’m getting another chance. The weekend of October 9-12, I’ll be in Sarasota for Sarasota MOD Weekend, a celebration of the area’s 1940s through ’60s architectural heritage, when architects like Paul Rudolph, Ralph Twitchell, Victor Lundy, Tim Seibert, Gene Leedy, Carl Abbott and others produced a stock of residential and commercial buildings responding to local climate and culture with great modernist style.

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Photos: Ezra Stoller

This group, which became known as the Sarasota School of Architecturefound its initial inspiration in the philosophies of the Bauhaus, but soon incorporated regional Southern features, “using patios, verandas, modular construction and raised floors to open up buildings for greater ventilation in pre-air conditioning days,” as the website of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation puts it. “They added a play of light and shadow, and the color and texture of indigenous low maintenance materials softened the cold machine aesthetic of the Bauhaus. This approach… allowed Sarasota School buildings to respect and blend well into their sites. The result was a regional modernism which blurred the distinction between the indoors and outdoors and accommodated the lifestyle and climate of southern Florida.”

Healy Guest House, aka Cocoon House, designed by architects Ralph Twitchell and Paul Rudolph, 1950, photo by Greg Wilson

Healy Guest House, Ralph Twitchell/Paul Rudolph, 1950

In other words, cool modern beach houses with architectural pedigree. Some are even on the market. What could be better? Perhaps a weekend full of lectures, tours (walking, trolley, boat) and parties celebrating same?

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Jet Blue flies direct from NYC to the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. I’ll be on one of those flights. You in?

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THE LADY IS VERY HAPPY with her new deck. What the contractors didn’t know, as they worked for four days right outside my windows, is that I could hear every word they said, and even understand the ones in English. I’m the Lady, as in “Did the lady see it yet?” and “What did the lady say?”

See the happy lady, below.

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See the new deck in all its fresh-smelling cedar glory.

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See the new storage shed for beach chairs, grill, etc.. I’ll need more, for garden tools and whatnot, but it’s a good start.

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Time now to start planting around the deck, to integrate this large new feature — probably 500-600 square feet — into the landscape.

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Yesterday I drove to my favorite nursery, Fort Pond Native Plants in Montauk — it’s not really all natives, but it’s got an interesting, healthy selection — and bought some ornamental grasses (Panicum ‘Shenandoah’ and a very cool-looking plant called Purple Love Grass, or Eragrostis spectabilis), and interplanted them along the walkway, below, with Amsonia hubrichtii (blue milkweed), Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’ and bloody sorrel. Got a purple/chartreuse thing going.

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I’m coveting some new shrubs and trees, including a hinoki cypress and perhaps a magnolia. For that, I await the post-Labor Day sales.

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MAJOR PROJECT UNDERWAY HERE at my Long Island beach house, one I’ve been drawing and thinking over and consulting about for many months now. I’m replacing the old, rotting L-shaped deck (above, the “before”) with a new cedar deck, more complicated and larger. That is, Howard Kaye of East End Deck is doing it; or rather, his workmen are. This is the same builder who built the deck and shower platform at my previous house, which had what I considered a very successful outcome.

My friend Jifat Windmiller, an architect whose work I much admire, conceived the general idea on a napkin sketch last winter, and has generously consulted with me throughout (and is not responsible for any wrong-headed decisions or mistakes later made by me, of which more below).

The main change is that the long platform that ran almost the length of the house, and the brick patio, top at left, are being bridged by a new 13’x14′ platform that ‘floats’ two steps up. Other proportions are being tweaked as well. The platform at the far end is being extended out two feet beyond the end of the house, and the long platform, below, made shorter by about fifteen feet, to be replaced by a narrower walkway.

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All this past weekend, while the workers were off, I stared at the proportions of the major deck elements and liked them. 

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The situation regarding the walkway — the entry point to the new deck system — has been a design challenge, one I hope will be resolved by my latest decision. Part of the issue is that, in years to come, there will be a whole other parking area and system of paths leading to the house. The current living room and kitchen will be down the other end of the house, and the main entry will be changed as well. So the entry to the deck that leads from the presently-used driveway to the presently-used door in the middle of the long front facade is essentially a secondary one, though it still needs to be functional and welcoming.

There was a time, not too long ago, when I was considering an arched Japanese-style bridge, but I’m glad I gave that up. I now realize it would have looked like something off a miniature golf course. I went instead with a 4-1/2-foot-wide boardwalk one step up, and had them flare out the sides to create what I felt would be a sort of entry gesture, below. But after living with it framed out this past weekend, I decided it looked awkward and unwieldy.

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“The wings” are now gone and so is the step; it’s going to be just a plain wooden ramp, Fire Island-style. The change added man-hours; the builder has been totally chill about it. 

“Howard,” I said last week, when I added the ‘wings,’ “this will be the last change.” “No, it won’t,” he replied. Evidently a voice of experience.

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