Sarasota School teaches lesson of fine modern architecture

Recently out for a drive in my red VW bug, admiring the variety of architectural styles in the older neighborhoods off McGregor Boulevard in Fort Myers, I was disheartened to see an older home, from the 1950s, bulldozed to make way for an oversized house that randomly borrowed aspects of many different architectural styles, none regional.

This house could have been built anywhere in the United States.

In many parts of the country, houses and buildings from the mid-20th century are enjoying a renaissance.

Did you know the west coast of South Florida is the birthplace of some of the finest examples of mid-century modern houses in the world? That this area was once the center of an art and architectural movement, internationally known as the “Sarasota School”? And would you believe this movement, with its revolutionary use of new technology and new materials, altered the way we live today?

Following World War II, when suburban neighborhoods gained momentum, the prominent house type became the ranch style with all its variations. These ranch houses are easy to spot in our area.

The particular one I see on my drive is a simple earth-hugging California ranch house. First built during the 1930s, the ranch took its inspiration from single-story Spanish ranches built at the turn of the century by the early Mexicans who had settled in California. This version was new and modern.

The particular house I’m looking at was built in the early 1950s, when this style was at the height of its popularity.

Built with low sloping roofs, deep eaves and large picture windows, the ranch appears horizontal, long and narrow. It has a slightly rambling layout – open kitchens and living rooms with sliding doors to a private backyard and an outdoor patio.

The ranch reflected a new suburban lifestyle. It was perfectly suited for the trend toward casual entertaining.

Progressing from the ranch is the simple but elegant mid-century modern: a term used to define developments in furniture and product design as well as architecture and interior design from 1945-65. In architecture, mid-century modern buildings evolved parallel to the developments in technology, notably steel and glass.

Architecture of the Sarasota School refers to mid-century modern buildings designed specifically for this area and its sub-tropical climate: buildings that respond to this climate, use local materials and borrow ideas from the original local regional architecture. Remember those discussed in past articles – except they are modern, i.e., new and novel.

Low and long like the ranch, this architecture became even more open and less formal.

I nearly drive into the water when I spot an exceptional example of the Sarasota School located directly on the river. This house uses “post and beam” construction, which supports the structure by means of vertical posts holding up horizontal beams, instead of load-bearing masonry, where the wall bears the weight.

Post and beam construction – a new option thanks to advances in steel manufacturing, which allowed for longer beams – permitted external walls to be made of glass for the first time. Peering inside, that’s exactly what I saw at the back of the house overlooking the river.

I could also see that the house had an open floor plan, creating the illusion that the space inside and outside the house was nearly the same. The arrangement allowed for uninterrupted views all the way from downtown to the Midpoint Bridge.

The house is bright and welcoming. Tall, extensive sliding doors let natural breezes ventilate and cool the interiors and allow the family who live there and their guests to easily enjoy an indoor/outdoor lifestyle.

The low sloping roofs on this house extend well out beyond the walls to shade these openings as well as the high clerestory windows nestled just below the roofline at the top of the walls. Daylight is abundant, but direct sunlight is not.

More than 50 years later, this house still manages to look incredibly modern.

As I drive away, I realize my description is nowhere near complete. In fact, I have only scratched the surface of the Sarasota School and how this style progressed and adapted to our cultural and climate. In the coming months I will take a more in-depth look at these buildings and their worldwide influence.

But next time you go out for a drive, look carefully at the buildings you pass and see how many have been influenced by this style. The great thing about Southwest Florida is that you don’t have to go far to find existing and influential architecture of the 20th century. Sometimes, you’ll even find it on the street where you live.