Riverview High School, age 51, of Sarasota, Florida, was reduced to a pile of rubble on June 13.
Built in 1958, Riverview was the first public building in Florida designed by Paul Rudolph. The internationally respected architect, who designed several houses in Lee County – including the iconic Walker Guest House on Sanibel – was the undisputed leader of the Sarasota School of Architecture, which is south Florida’s own regionally adapted version of modern architecture of the mid-century.
Testimonies and letters from preservationists, historians, architects and concerned citizens from around the world made clear to the Sarasota School Board its historic and architectural importance. After much debate, fundraising and an international design competition to find another use, it could not be rescued.
Despite this global campaign, the school board voted last year to move forward with the demolition.
So just why is it that many modern buildings like Riverview High School – once considered daring, slick and iconic models for social change – are now forgotten, neglected, altered beyond recognition or even bulldozed?
Modern architecture is defined as a variety of building styles that share simplicity of form and a lack of ornamentation. Although the principles were conceived and adopted in the first half of the 20th century, the popularity of this building style did not catch on in the United States until after World War ll.
In Florida, the Sarasota School’s distinct approach to modern architecture considered the local climate and created a relationship with the landscape. Sunshades, large sliding doors, ventilation and jalousie windows are common features of this style, built between 1940 and the mid-1960s.
Riverview High School, one of the most progressive schools of its day, epitomized the Sarasota School’s principles.
When I toured the school in the summer of 2007, what struck me most was how effectively these buildings had been tailored to a subtropical climate.
Pioneering solutions integrated natural daylight, minimized direct sun and maximized ventilation.
The buildings were arranged in a ‘U’ shape, creating an open plaza in the center. A distinctive freestanding covered walkway of horizontal planes completed the square on the fourth side. This configuration ensured students were always protected from the sun and rain.
The two-story classroom buildings were designed with generous corridors open at both ends to ensure a constant cross breeze. Internal high-level windows in the classrooms ran the length of these corridors and on the second level; the floors once had narrow slots open to below along each side. Hot air was naturally drawn out of the classrooms and corridors, rising up and out clerestory windows in the hallway.
Before air conditioning, it worked. But the incorporation of air conditioning was the beginning of the end. Never designed to be airtight, the buildings suffered from mold. Inappropriate alterations in the last few decades followed, as well as poor maintenance. Restoration became cost prohibitive. The Rudolph buildings will be replaced with a parking lot.
Abundant examples of architecture influenced by the modern movement, and specifically the Sarasota School, survive in Southwest Florida. Should they be allowed to suffer the same fate?
These days many old buildings are saved, not necessarily because they are well-designed, but because they visually preserve history. Structures once considered modern may not look old, but are equally important. They too need to be saved for future generations to experience and appreciate.
Fortunately, a growing appreciation for the modern architecture of the past century is emerging, everywhere.
Despite its demise, Riverview High School will remain one of the most important buildings of its time and place. In life, and in demolition, let it remind us of how not to treat a modern icon.
Rest in peace, Riverview High School.