SARASOTA, Fla. - Architecture should speak of its time and place, a famous practitioner once noted. The house I'm in does just that - and I'm pretty sure it asked how I'd like my martini.
I'm standing downstairs in the airy main room of the Umbrella House, one of hundreds of homes and other structures in and around Sarasota that helped define America's iconic midcentury modern style. Or, as I've explained to friends from out of state, Mad Men with white-sand beaches.
Architecture lovers from around the globe have long regarded this Gulf Coast town as a shrine. But recently, this mecca of the Sarasota School of Architecture movement has found fresh fans among more casual admirers of cool.
To be fair, I've enjoyed frequent, if haphazard, drive-by viewings of Sarasota School homes over the more than two decades I've been coming to Sarasota. But today is the first time I've been inside any of these famous houses.
The Umbrella House, privately owned like most of these original homes, is a highlight of SarasotaMod, the annual autumn weekend celebration of the Sarasota School. Janet Minker, chair of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation, which sponsors the event and also runs monthly group tours, has opened this home to me. These houses, she says with a laugh, "make you want a martini and a cigarette."
Lauded as "one of the five most remarkable houses of the mid-20th century" by Architectural Digest, the Umbrella House was, in essence, a highfalutin model home. Developer Philip Hiss tapped architect Paul Rudolph to design a spec house on then-vacant Lido Shores. The house showcased many of the features that would come to define the Sarasota School of Architecture, including big, boxy, open spaces, wide roof overhangs to provide shade in this semitropical clime, and windows big enough to need Windex by the gallon.
As I gawk out the large windows, I imagine the impression the house must have made on contemporary passersby, especially its two-story-tall so-called umbrella, a post-and-beam structure with slats that provides shade for the house and swimming pool directly below. Only the presence of workmen busily restoring the house to its original 1953 state breaks my period-perfect reverie.
Next door is the Hiss Studio, built that same year. A far cry from your typical developer's digs, the studio is a glass-lined rectangle perched atop slender steel columns. It was among the first air-conditioned spaces in the area.
A few minutes' walk away is the Martin Harkavy House, another Rudolph design. I'm joined by fellow foundation board member Dan Snyder, who moved here from Washington because he "fell in love with the architecture." Minker and Snyder both live in Sarasota School-style homes, naturally.
At Harkavy, among other nifty flourishes, sliding floor-to-ceiling wooden doors open to reveal massive screens facing the outdoors. Harkavy, like many Sarasota Schoolmates, has been changed since it was built in 1957, including the addition of second-story bedrooms and air-conditioning.
As we stroll down the street to our next stop, I marvel aloud at how artsy and cosmopolitan Sarasota - forged from the formidable wills and wallets of early transplants such as circus magnate John Ringling - is. The town's wealth and weather also attracted many artists and architects, Minker says.
She concedes that architecture-minded tourists in years past tended to be older, urbane types. "Architecture freaks like us," she says.
But fans are steadily trending younger.
Take Grier Ferguson, a recent college graduate whose grandmother lives in a Sarasota School house on nearby Siesta Key. She volunteered to show me some of her favorite Sarasota School spots around town. Our tour started with the Rudolph-designed Sarasota High School, from which she graduated. The exterior, which looks like it's made of white Lego blocks, was recently restored.
"It's so rare to have a public high school look and feel this great," she said.
Nearby Alta Vista Elementary School, designed by Victor Lundy, is even more daring. With its futuristic butterfly-wing roof made of laminated wood trusses, it appears to be ready for takeoff. A few minutes' drive away are St. Paul's Lutheran Church Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall. With their tall, swooping roofs, they look like futuristic upside-down ice cream cones. Ferguson and I marveled at how much roomier each seems inside.
She next showed me her favorite, the Healy Guest House. As soon as I caught sight of it at the end of a tree-lined lane, I could see why it was her top pick.
Perched partly over the bayou on Siesta Key, it's the tiniest of the area's Sarasota School homes. A downward curved roof saves it from being just a cute box. You want to hug it. Then steal it. I was tempted to knock on the door and ask the owner to open the now-shuttered jalousie walls and otherwise let us snoop around. Among its other novelties, Ferguson said, is superlight insulation fashioned from material once used to mothball U.S. Navy ships.
The Sarasota School may officially be history, but its influence is very much alive. Next to the Revere Quality House, finished in 1949, a new house is being built, also in Sarasota School style. Its architect, Carl Abbott, was a student of Rudolph's.
On my way home, I swung by the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. On the sprawling grounds, the Sarasota Architectural Foundation has built a full-size replica of Rudolph's famous 1952 Walker Guest House, open until next October.
Like the Healy House, this one's small. Set among the Italianate pizzazz of nearby buildings, this bleached-white beach cottage seems like a boxy spaceship. I especially liked how its walls are panels that can be raised or lowered by wires, pulleys, and cannonball-like counterweights.
As I headed home, I wondered how expensive it would be to re-create such a house in Tampa, where I live.
Something to think about over a martini.
For more information, go to www.sarasotaarchitecturalfoundation.org or call 941-364-2199.