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Classical vs. Modern: 2 Famous Florida Houses

Classical vs. Modern: 2 Famous Florida Houses
This plan is luxurious and classic.
[Our intrepid reporter, David Jacknin, was in Florida recently so I asked him to write about two house museums that show very different approaches to design: one is history-oriented, an early form of recycling that used historic building artifacts; the other more future-focused, treating the house as a kind of machine with moving parts responding to the changing seasons. The point is that both approaches are valid when you are dreaming about building a new home. -- Dan Gregory, Editor]

Romancing History: Villa Vizcaya, Miami
We visited Villa Vizcaya, of 1916, one of the early 20th Century's great mansions open to the public, to see how the building's designers repurposed an eclectic mix of fine furnishings and building parts from earlier eras. When James Deering, heir to the International Harverster fortune, set out to design a winter house for himself on Biscayne Bay, he looked to the great estates of Europe to supply him with designs as well as furnishings, floors, walls, ceilings, columns and even fireplaces, which he brought back in their entirety; not unlike what William Randolph Hearst was doing at San Simeon on the West Coast in the 1920s and 30s. Deering and his architects put these pieces together to create rooms that spanned European architectural history from the Renaissance to the late Baroque.

Vizcaya’s exterior was patterned after a late Renaissance Italian villa built around a great central courtyard. The Entrance loggia is a good example of the pastiche of styles: this room includes a formidable 17th century Italian sculpture of Bacchus atop a 2nd century Roman sarcophagus which in turn sits on an intricately patterned floor of red Italian marble; the 17th century stone doorways are from Rome. The sumptuous Tea Room, featuring an elaborate ceiling of Greek nymphs at play, was brought over from an estate in France. Wall panels depicting imaginary classical scenes were purchased in Paris and the elaborate 17th century doors were acquired from the Pazani Family palazzo in Venice. The fireplace, chandeliers, and floor all came from other European estates. Other rooms continue the art of assembly, like elaborate stage sets.

You can take a similar -- though perhaps somewhat less grand -- approach in the building of your own home. Bathrooms can be made special with antique sinks, claw foot tubs and Victorian brass hardware.  Living rooms can come to life with an antique mantle or fireplace surround. These items and vintage moldings, tile, and other house essentials are available from architectural salvage dealers (Google architectural salvage) or Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores. A wide range of antique doors, some with etched glass panels or brass hardware, are available as well, though these repurposed doors are larger than today’s standard 6’8” and openings must be framed specifically to accommodate them. Repurposed windows too come in a wide range of styles from double-hung to casement to special windows with beveled glass. Carefully combined recycled elements can make a home more meaningful and personal.

Romancing Structure: Walker Guest House, Sanibel Island & Sarasota
An unusual exhibition just opened at the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota (named for the circus magnate) and runs through October 6, 2016. It is SAF's (Sarasota Architectural Foundation) replica of the 1952 Walker Guest House on Sanibel Island designed by Paul Rudolph, the influential modern architect from Florida who became dean of the architecture school at Yale and designed many east coast landmarks. 

This magazine spread on the original house is from a 1954 McCalls article, courtesy Sarasota Architectural Foundation. 

Rudolph was very much influenced by his modernist education under the famous Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius. Modernism embodied the dictum that “form follows function,” that there should be simplicity in forms, and that materials and structure should be expressed visually -- not hidden behind ornamental treatments. He was also interested in expressing a regional style. The Walker Guest House both imitates and critiques Mies Van Der Rohe’s famous glass-and-steel Farnsworth House at Plano, Illinois, completed in 1951.

(Photo courtesy SAF.) The Walker house is very small at 576 sq. ft. but lives larger thanks to walls of glass and a highly articulated tensile structure enclosing an open floor plan. The walls are actually hinged wooden panels that lift up on a novel system of weights and pulleys for ventilation or shade when needed. The openings blur the distinction between the indoor and outdoor living spaces -- making the design well suited to the sub-tropical climate. The weights resemble cannon balls, which is why the original home was known popularly as the "Cannonball House."

The modular, 24-foot-square Walker house included all the features of a traditional house: living room, kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom, but every part of the house is stripped down to emphasize functionality. Rudolph incorporated regional references and abstracted them: for example, by using Greek Revival proportions for exterior structural elements, and by adapting the shutter idea in his hinged panels. The design keeps everything as simple as possible: walls are elemental but ingenious movable frames in order to celebrate light and air and the balmy climate of southwest Florida. It's still a valid design approach. In other words, one way to approach the design of your dream house is to first reduce it to the structural essentials of floor, walls, windows, and roof. The minimal but elegant treatment of functional elements can make a home more abstract but also very artful.

NOTE:  The Sarasota Architectural Foundation funded the replica’s concept, engineering, and construction through private donations. The structure was built using Rudolph’s original plans and is furnished as the original house was in 1953. The furnishings and their placement are based on highly detailed interior images taken by legendary architecture photographer Ezra Stoller. Guests are invited to sit on a Rudolph-designed daybed, flip through the pages of period magazines and open kitchen cabinets filled with vintage dinnerware. SAF board chair Janet Minker says:  "What a fun, interactive experience to be able to walk into an iconic modern home, just as it was built and furnished during the early 1950s!" For more information, please visit or contact Sarasota Architectural Foundation, PO Box 2911, Sarasota, FL 34230, 941.487-8728; or email:

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