Debra Bruno is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist. She blogs at www.notbyoccident.blogspot.com.
The Florida city would be a much different place without Tim Seibert and the Sarasota School of Architecture.
Picture a one-story wooden house shaped more or less like a box, situated along a Florida canal. Its living space opens to the outside, with wide glass doors, louvered blinds, and a glass roof covering an unadorned grass patio. Basically, Frank Lloyd Wright goes to the beach.
While that simple home on Siesta Key near Sarasota no longer exists, its designer, and one of the original members of the Sarasota School of Architecture, is very much around.
Tim Seibert, 87, helped to create what is today known as the Sarasota School of Architecture, a modernist mid-century style that makes the most of south Florida's humid subtropical climate.
Sarasota would be a very different place without the influence of the Sarasota modernists, says Dr. Christopher Wilson, architecture and design historian at Ringling College of Art + Design. And while most scholars credit architects like Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell as founders of the school, Seibert "wins the longevity award," says Wilson. His first home was built when he was 25 and he worked up until his 80s.
Seibert also stands out today because he isn't shy about speaking out. In the new documentary The Seibert Effect, by filmmaker and retired Chicago engineer Larry Reinebach, Seibert talks about designing condominiums that were "more like a resort and less like a place to put old people." He told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that Sarasota's downtown Bayfront area was an example of "cultural indigestion."
About the site of his former home on Siesta Key, he said, "Siesta looks the way it does because so many members of the old Sarasota establishment sold their land out to developers and got big bucks."
There's a good deal of truth to that: Sarasota today feels more like a hodgepodge of traffic jams, retirees from Canada hunting for shells along the beach, and a mixture of Italianate, Spanish, and one-story developments that now cover land where orange groves and dairy farms once stood.
At the same time, it's also something of an oasis in a fast-growing Florida. The modernist style that put Sarasota on the map in the 1950s and '60s is undergoing a revival, says Martie Lieberman, a Sarasota real estate agent who specializes in mid-century modern homes and is a founder of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation. "There's a resurgence—although there's always been a cool, hip crowd interested in it," she says.
The problem for Sarasota is how to preserve these architectural gems in a city that has not made historic preservation a priority. Just two homes—the Umbrella House built in 1953 by Paul Rudolph and the Cocoon House built by Ralph Twitchell and Rudolph in 1950—have been listed on the city's register of historic places, says Wilson.
Seibert himself is not anti-development per se. In fact, because his work for clients ranged from luxury homes to corporate office buildings, Seibert's influence is "more widespread through our community," Reinebach says. But Seibert does decry helter skelter growth. "I think one of the big problems today is the automobile," he says by phone from his home on the island of Boca Grande, about 60 miles south of Sarasota. While Boca Grande once had no bridge access, it does now, which he says means the area is "being trampled beneath automobiles."
The biggest challenge for mid-century modern homes is probably along the beach. Many of the former modernist homes were situated along the Gulf Coast. But a home that might be as small as 1,000 square feet on such prime real estate is often replaced by a behemoth.
The Sarasota Architectural Foundation is trying to raise awareness of the fragility of the style by recreating the Paul Rudolph-designed Walker Guest House, a privately owned home on Sanibel Island, for a November conference on the grounds of the Ringling Museum of Art. "It is the most perfect example of the Sarasota school," Wilson says. Visitors will be able to enter the small wood and screen building and try out the louvers that regulate air flow, says Wilson. The foundation hopes to take the building on tour around the country as well.
Today, Seibert designs wooden sailboats and spends many of his days sailing in the Gulf off Boca Grande. His earlier home on Siesta Key had been torn down and replaced with a "McMansion," he says. "If you want to be fatuous about life, why not do it well and be elegant?" he asks. "It’s just awful."