MARCH 2022 – MAY 2022
MARCH 2022 – MAY 2022
GENE LEEDY, FAIA, was one of the key members of what became known as the Sarasota School of Architecture. He started his practice in Sarasota and then expanded to Winter Haven, Florida, eventually having a massive impact on the civic and design trajectory of that famed citrus town. While the name and alliteration were catchy, and seemingly geographically bound, the hallmarks of the School were a generalized form of critical regional Modernism that can be placed in the larger context of environmentally responsive global gestures often referred to as “tropical modernism”. Wide overhangs to protect from the sun, orientation to capture or repel the sun depending on the season, elevation to allow air flow below structure and to capture breezes above, local materials that speak of the natural environment—all of these gestures are common to climate-responsive design around the world at similar latitudes.
In addition to bringing a robust, yet elegant, neo-Brutalist sensibility to the SSA through his extensive use of pre-stressed, pre-cast double T forms, some of Leedy’s greatest contributions to the School were his effusive camaraderie and marketing savvy.
He clearly understood that the disparate group of practitioners, though functionally competing with each other for clients and aesthetically different in approach—from Rudolph’s rectilinearity to Lundy’s lyrical curves—were far stronger if understood as a cohesive group.
Through capturing the zeitgeist and energy of this group, branding them and messaging their collective identity, he became a galvanizing force. All of these efforts served to ensure the gestalt-like power of the Sarasota School of Architecture was greater than the sum of its parts.
THE POST-WWII economic boom radically altered the US economy, and virtually no area was as transformed as the residential housing industry. As a result of lifting wartime limits on non-essential construction, combined with the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, which included low interest housing loans, the country saw new models of residential living. The domestic space became more than a site for experimental architectural models—it was the site of social transformation designed to bring women back into the home after filling much-needed labor gaps during wartime. Rosie the Riveter’s dungarees and head scarf were exchanged for Dior’s New Look as the “technology transfer” from military to commercial application played itself out in the kitchen, with ads enticing women to oversee this new domain.
WHILE MOST OF THESE new residential concepts revolved around the automobile and related infrastructure, and the concept of a “nuclear family”, they were also more innovative and forward-thinking. Small start-ups and major US companies alike were partnering with emerging designers and architects to develop and expand post-war consumer applications for their raw materials and services. Alcoa aluminum and Revere Copper companies were well known for their architectural patronage across the country, resulting in projects such as the Revere Quality House here in Sarasota.
In Winter Haven, Craney builders provided the opportunity for Gene Leedy to develop a unique neighborhood development concept. Leedy intended the homes to work in harmony with Florida’s environment, employing passive energy systems, deep overhangs, and using the natural shading from the citrus grove environment to cool the homes. Most notably, they were modular and scalable, designed to grow as families did. As testament to their timeless design, many of the homes do not have central air to this day, and the modular, flexible glazing systems continue to successfully function as air “modulators” absent air conditioning. The elegant and simple organizational structure—with a materials palette of wood, steel and glass—exhibits great clarity and structural legibility, hallmarks of both modern architecture, and of Leedy’s specific brand of critical regional environmental modernism.
WHEN GENE LEEDY moved his practice to Winter Haven, few could have imagined the impact he had on the community and the trajectory of the town. Architecture gives physical form to our ideas and our values, literally shaping the way we live through design. The role of the architect as a civic leader has a long history, dating at least to the Babylonian king Hammurabi, whose “code” not only laid down laws for social order, but also set the stage for building codes to ensure safety in construction.
Today, the Mayor’s Institute on City Design calls on civic leaders through the country to serve as the “Chief Urban Designers” of their towns, further cementing the integrated relationship among policy, civic leadership, and design. The case of Leedy and Winter Haven provides an excellent example of community design leadership, just as the pioneering decisions of civic leaders of the past helped establish Sarasota as a globally renowned art and design community. These lessons inspire us to reflect upon how each of us can help shape the future of our community.
THE SOLOMON HOME at Midnight Pass was not only one of Leedy’s most magnificent residential structures, it was also the site of Sarasota’s “beach culturati”, a subtropical salon where artists, writers, intellectuals, scientists and playwrights gathered at a time when creativity was the currency of the day. Philip Guston, Kurt Vonnegut, Betty Friedan, Jacques Cousteau, Elia Kazan, Joy Williams and others flocked to the burgeoning salon, where art, literature, politics, theatre, gossip, wisdom, food and drink flowed with a relaxed bohemian spirit. This nascent artist’s colony had evolved from the previous work of “Chick” Austin, Phillip Hiss and Syd Solomon. Their efforts at the Ringling Museum, and in establishing New College’s Institute of Fine Art, cemented Sarasota as a creative and intellectual epicenter of art, education, design, and innovation.
The rigor and passion of the practitioners was evident, as this was a creative community of the highest caliber, resulting in plays, books, paintings and performances that met with contemporary critical acclaim and have since been elevated into the canon of some of the world’s most important cultural contributions. All of this can be credited back to architecture’s power to shape space, and to cultivate our experiences within that space. Leedy’s brilliant design, combined with Syd and Annie’s creative vision and leadership, helped establish Sarasota as a major player in the global creative community.
Alas, it was not to last. The house succumbed to nature via the shifting sands of the barrier island, and in the fall of 2004, the near-ruin was torn down.
While the SSA practitioners felt a deep reverence for nature and built with a great sensitivity to the elements, employing passive energy systems that are hallmarks of tropical modernism, the hope that engineering and technology could hold back the forces of nature has become increasingly seen as folly given shifting climate systems where “100-year storms” occur with increasing frequency, independent of our calendar system.
Artist Mike Solomon grew up in the Midnight Pass house, fishing, surfing and gaining an intimate knowledge of the ecosystem. Recently, in conversation with a fellow fishing enthusiast, he noted that the bait fish were not present as they should be at this time of year, a stark indication of ecological stress. “All the patterns have changed. The animals—including us—don’t know what to do anymore.”
ARCHITECT MAX STRANG grew up in a Leedy-designed house in Winter Haven and learned at the knee of Leedy from a young age. The environmental lessons of Leedy’s era were imparted to Strang directly—Max worked in Leedy’s office—and by proximity, and have updated to our current era. Strang’s practice, with a strong research mission at its core, employs both active and passive energy systems to mitigate the impact and increase the sustainability and resilience of his structures. Even when designing a “luxury” residence for a client, Strang is aware of where the sea levels will be in 10 or 20 years, mindful that the construction industry accounts for 40% of global carbon emissions, and aware of how a combination of active and passive systems, leading edge technology and ancient wisdom, can work together to create innovative, sustainable architecture.
ARTIST’S STUDIOS are fascinating places, and in the case of architects, their residence is often their experimental lab, as well as their home. Leedy’s home and studio in Winter Haven are not only preserved as structures, we are fortunate to have documentation of how Leedy lived and worked in these spaces, allowing us to enter into his realm and gain a deeper empathy and understanding of his creative practice. His bookshelves provide a rich trove of material in the form of books, periodicals and albums.
The environmental and civic lessons of Leedy’s era are embodied in his Drexel Avenue bookshelf, from Rudolfsky’s Streets for People and Architecture without Architects to Wilson Clark’s Energy for Survival: The Alternative to Extinction and Buildings by Steen Eiler Rasmussen. All of these books provide enduring and relevant lessons to us today as we seek to build, and rebuild, in a climage-challenged post-pandemic world.