In the 1950s and early 1960s, Florida experienced a midcentury modern awakening of its own

Where the Sun Shines

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Florida experienced a midcentury modern awakening of its own

Inside the Cassisi Residence (Courtesy the University of Florida)

Under a separate cover we are forwarding a proposal for your new house in Gainesville. It is possibly self explanatory [sic] with the exception of the location of the screened-in patio. We have emphasized the screened-in patio because it is the most economical way to obtain a large flexible area. We think you will find it helpful in caring for the children as well as providing a spot which can always add extra dimensions to your living.

You will undoubtedly raise the question of the practicality of going through this patio to reach the bedroom wing. We have already built a small house utilizing fundamentally this idea and the family is unanimous in their praise of the patio as being the center of family activities…

—1950 letter from Paul Rudolph to Mr. & Mrs. Francis B. Watson

“What is a ‘Florida house’?” The question was at the heart of the Florida House Seminar I taught for more than a decade, beginning in 2006. The purpose of the seminar was to look back to a time when the state’s architecture was nationally, even internationally, recognized as groundbreaking. My students and I explored case studies such as the Watson Residence in Gainesville, completed by Paul Rudolph in 1951; the Hiss Studio in Sarasota, a 1953 design attributed to Tim Seibert; Gene Leedy’s 1956 residence in Winter Haven; and the 1965 Cassisi and Haynes residences by Harry Merritt in Gainesville. We consulted original drawings (when available) or else relied on measurement, photography, drawings, and other methods to try to better understand this era of design before air-conditioning was commonplace.

Florida would seem an odd venue for architectural experimentation. The landscape is sand on a porous limestone substrate, unstable ground. The climate is hot, bright, humid, wet. There are two seasons, and even that is a stretch, with an omnipresent summer briefly interrupted by a cool “winter.” Similarly extreme conditions dominate the landscape: the coastal edge, defined by the distant horizon, and the near landscape of the interior defined by dense local vegetation, which varies dramatically from the tropical south to the subtropical north. The latter more often than not occludes the former, so that in settlements and subdivisions along the coast, vistas can be difficult to come by.

In our studies, we discovered how often Florida’s early modern architecture has been compared to the Case Study Houses of Southern California. But there is one key difference that has escaped most commentators on the subject: Whereas in California the edge separating the indoors from out could be a thin glass partition, Florida’s climate and landscape demanded a very different relationship.

Midcentury architects working across the state borrowed from the landscape, and, what’s more, invited it into the domestic realm. They reenvisioned the domestic space as a series of relationships and flows that allowed occupants to move from one zone of a house to another, depending upon the time of year. The need for shade was a given, but as the epigraph to the left
reveals, from that need could spring forth spatial innovation.

But the Case Study comparison is apt in one way: Like their California counterparts, Rudolph, Seibert, Leedy, and Merritt believed themselves to be developing the implements for a new lifestyle. Not long after the completion of the house Rudolph designed for the Watsons, he sent his clients a few brochures on modern furniture. He didn’t mean to impose, he wrote, but offered the following prescription: “In a house where the glass goes to the floor the furniture should not be too heavy. It should definitely be raised on legs so that the space flows underneath.”

As the following case studies show, the architecture being built in Florida at midcentury marked the intersection of postwar optimism, risk-taking design, speculative provocations, and a heightened awareness of the nuances of landscape. But things would change quickly after air-conditioning became widely adopted. These houses serve as a reminder that architecture should endeavor to commune with the natural world, not be in opposition to it.

Watson Residence

floor plan of a modern home
The author and his students re-created the house’s floorplan from original documents. (Courtesy Martin Gundersen)

The Florida House Seminar was prompted, in part, by the renewed conversation about sustainability, and taking a closer look at this architecture seemed obvious. Rudolph, famous for the homes he designed in Sarasota, became a natural focal point, as did the Watson Residence, which had long since been demolished. Prints of the original drawings, some correspondence, and one perspective were all that remained. We reconstructed the house from these materials to understand the spatial impact of the “screened-in” patio Rudolph was evidently proud of.

The house was divided by the courtyard into clear public and private programs. The 1950 letter hints at the seasonal migration within the house to embrace changes in temperature throughout the year. Rudolph made the patio the largest space in the dwelling, justifying his decision with recourse to another design of his. Built in 1948, the Revere Quality House was the result of a competition sponsored by the Revere Corporation and ultimately drew 16,000 visitors, curious about the look of the new American architecture. Conceived as a prototype for modern living, the Revere Quality House set the template for many early modern homes in Florida.

Hiss Studio

an example of florida modernism in a two story boxy home
The one-bedroom, steel-framed residence betrays the influence of European modernism. (Andrew Garvin)

Philip Hiss, a wealthy socialite turned educator turned developer, nurtured the careers of Paul Rudolph and many other young designers who had traveled to Sarasota to become part of what would later be called the Sarasota School of Architecture. At the start of the 1950s Hiss initiated the Lido Shores development on Lido Key, north of Sarasota. It was intended to demonstrate that architecture would facilitate a new postwar American lifestyle, and many of the early dwellings were treated as prototypes, the most notable being Rudolph’s 1953 Umbrella House.

Hiss had traveled throughout the world and had built an exceptional library. He wanted an office/home to manage the Lido Shores development and a library to house all his books. The original drawings were simply labeled House 13, and later attributed to Tim Seibert, Architect. The site for the house was a spoil island created by the dredging of New Pass. Very little vegetation existed on this artificially created landscape, giving Seibert and Hiss that rarest—and most modern—of things: a clean slate.

The Hiss Studio is unique among the other houses enumerated here, as it owes more to the California model, where nature is mediated by a single pane of glass and air-conditioning abounds. Seibert lifted the vitrine off the ground on 14 steel columns, which support the weight of the library shelves and an expansive 48-by-30-foot living room. (The house contains just one bedroom.) The 12-by-18-foot structural module supports 6-foot cantilevers at each corner. Despite his close collaboration with Rudolph, Hiss seems to have preferred
Miesian stylings for his own abode. Yet the clarity of detailing, the material palette, and the clearly legible diagram make it an icon of Florida modernism.

The Leedy Residence

floor plan of a rectangular home
The floorplan illustrates the bounding walls and series of courts (Courtesy Martin Gundersen)

One of Rudolph’s first apprentices in Sarasota was Gene Leedy, a graduate of the University of Florida’s School of Architecture. He soon struck out on his own and started a practice with a focus on residential design. In 1953, he relocated to Winter Haven leaving the coastline behind for a landscape of lakes in central Florida.

Leedy designed this house in 1956 as a prototype for a residential development in Winter Haven. The house uses bounding walls as a way to construct its own domain, a device that originated with Mies’s unbuilt 1923 brick country house project and that Rudolph revived at his Lamolithic courtyard houses in Siesta Key. The masonry walls extend beyond the residence’s footprint, creating an acoustic and visual buffer from neighbors. Transparency, after all, demanded concomitant strategies for privacy.

exterior of a home with a white scaffolding around a tree
A grand oak
anchors the central walled garden (Courtesy Martin Gundersen)

The long east and west elevations are opaque, while the shorter ends of the house—those facing the inner courtyard and plantings—were fitted with floor-to-ceiling glass sliders. A courtyard south of the house left partly unpaved draws light into the living room. The bedrooms, bureau, and other domestic rooms embrace the three inner courts, which form a kind of walled garden.

axonometric drawing of a single story home
An axonometric explicates the construction logic (Courtesy Martin Gundersen)

The oak tree at its center has merged with the house into a singular entity, even as the structure has become more delicate and fragile with age. These Florida modern houses always suggested that their existence was transient.

The Cassisi and Haynes Residences

a long flat home with brick in the center
A wild-looking oak seems to rise out from the Haynes Residence (Courtesy the University of Florida)

Harry Merritt left Harvard after Gropius suggested he move to Sarasota to work with Paul Rudolph. He then worked with Gene Leedy in Winter Haven before taking over the graduate design coordinator position at the University of Florida and establishing an architectural practice in Gainesville.

Florida’s grand water oaks were favorites of many Florida designers, perhaps none more so than Merritt. He often included oaks in his residential projects and even incorporated their “structural” lessons of compression and cantilever in his university lectures. He deployed the oak as an ordering device at two standout Gainesville projects. The first, the Cassisi Residence, uses bounding walls to enclose the tree, which is on full view to the glazed 20-by-20-foot volume containing the hearth.


rendering of a flat cantilevered modernism home
An original hand-drawn perspective of the Cassisi Residence depicting the main approach (Courtesy the University of Florida)

At the Haynes Residence, building and landscape merge to the fullest extent, or so was the intent. In one of Merritt’s ink-on-vellum drawings, the house seems barely to exist at all, with more draftsmanly skill lavished on the trademark tree. The deep shade created by the oak’s overstory, not to mention the compelling light effects it produced, was an ideal model for the Florida climate.

A glass home
Cassisi’s airy living room is shaded by plentiful flora (Courtesy the University of Florida)

Martin Gundersen is professor emeritus at the University of Florida School of Architecture.