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Mod love: Father and son bond over mid-century modern architecture

Paul Abercrombie spends a Saturday morning with his 16-year-old son Ewan, an aspiring architect, at the Cocoon House in Siesta Key. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Jun. 6

For some fathers and sons, it's sports. For others, camping or even video games.

While my 16-year-old son Ewan still likes camping with me (or at least pretends to), I haven't been able to keep up with his gaming skills since his Mario Kart phase. And I doubt he'll ever catch my bug for cycling.

But we do share a love of, among other things, American mid-century modern architecture.

Looking back, my wife and I joke that the signs were always there.

In all those hours playing Mine Craft, his pixelated constructions were uncommonly cool. Even when knee-deep in virtual gore playing video games such as Dark Souls, he was never too busy hacking and slashing monsters to chat about its architectural elements.

And how many dads can say they got an actually enthusiastic response from a preteen asked on a family vacation in Europe, "Want to check out some beautiful buildings?"

To be fair, Ewan grew up in a house where his parents' most cherished possessions are a set of original Herman Miller dining room chairs, handed down from my wife's grandmother.

Throw in frequent visits to mid-century modern hot spots such as Lakeland's Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings at Florida Southern College, Sarasota and Los Angeles, to visit similarly obsessed family, and I'll admit Ewan's benign brainwashing seems inevitable.

In recent years, he swapped out a dresser he'd had since birth for a more grownup model — his first in mid-century modern style — and added a period-perfect desk, lamp and bed. He also announced he wanted to become an architect.

Texting in our family has become as much about sharing examples of architectural gems and oddities as it is about scheduling pickup times at school or friends' houses.

Weekday drives to and from school, or around town on errands, double as opportunities to find and yack about everything from nifty uses of breeze block to monstrous new McMansions.

Eager to further encourage his talents — and our common interests — one weekend last winter, I suggested a short road trip from our home in South Tampa to Sarasota.

The city is something of a mecca for admirers of mid-century modern architecture. (The success of Mad Men also helped attract fresh fans.) Here's where the famous Sarasota School of Architecture movement was born some 70 years ago.

A drive-by of Sarasota School homes has become a regular part of most summer weekends my family spends on nearby Longboat Key. I've also attended the Sarasota Architectural Foundation's annual weekend celebration, during which doors of the most plum examples of Sarasota School homes are opened to the public (with plenty of cocktail parties), and was eager for Ewan to do the same. We missed last November's official weekend-long celebration but managed to re-create much of the event's best parts with a private tour, arranged through folks at the foundation.

We begin Saturday morning at recently renovated Sarasota High School. The last building in the area completed by architect Paul Rudolph, among the movement's patron saints, the school, Ewan and I agree, appears constructed out of a more delicate version of white Lego blocks.

But the building is deceptively simple, explains our guide, foundation chairman Christopher Wilson, who teaches architecture and design history at nearby Ringling College of Art and Design. Those nifty concrete-cast panels suspended around the outside shield windows from the blazing Florida sun. And the breezeways act as natural air conditioning.

"It's modern architecture adapted to the Florida climate," Wilson says.

Gail and I glance at Ewan, then back at one another in mock disbelief. Neither of us has seen Ewan pay such attention (okay, hardly any) to a tour guide.

Fifteen minutes' drive southwest takes us to Healy Guest House. Ewan is first among us down the tree-lined lane and he's already taking closeup photos of its jalousie wood shutters.

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, though Ewan, already a critic, says it would benefit from a ceiling a foot higher. Raising a hand to touch the ceiling, I concede he might be right.

Though I had assumed the house's nickname, Cocoon House, was a riff on its cozy quarters, Wilson explains it was inspired by the structure's foam insulation (since removed), which was fashioned from material its architect Rudolph once used during his service in the U.S. Navy to mothball ships. Last out of the house is Ewan, still snapping photos.

"Dad, can you move out of my shot, please," is a phrase I'll hear dozens of times over the next several hours.

A few minutes' drive southeast brings us to the Revere Quality House. Commissioned by kitchenware maker Revere Ware as a highfalutin product showcase, the house feels far more spacious than its 1,000-odd square feet. Ewan especially likes the screened porch, then among the first of its kind in Florida, with grass inside. We take turns opening and closing the biggest sliding glass door any of us has seen. The house, we agree, pretty well begs to be the setting for parties.

The Sarasota School may officially be history, but its influence is very much alive. Indeed, next door to this house, finished in 1949, is a new and bigger one, also in Sarasota School style. Its architect, Carl Abbott, was a student of Rudolph.

Lunch several miles away, at restaurant Shore on Lido Key, also gives Ewan a chance to recharge his iPhone battery, drained from picture taking. The restaurant's decor, Ewan happily notes, has mid-century modern touches.

A few minutes' drive northwest brings us to the Umbrella House.

"It's beautiful," Ewan says, halfway out of the car before we've even parked in the driveway. Before we're through the front door, he declares this his favorite structure of the day.

Lauded as "one of the five most remarkable houses of the mid twentieth century" by Architectural Digest, the Umbrella House was in essence a model home. Developer Philip Hiss tapped Rudolph to design a spec house on then-vacant Lido Shores. The house showed off many of the features that would come to define the Sarasota School, including the 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 Gail and I gawk out the large windows, I imagine how the house must have made quite an impression on passers-by, especially its two-story-tall so-called umbrella, a post-and-beam structure with slats that gives shade for the house and swimming pool directly below.

Next door is the Hiss Studio, also built in 1953. A far cry from your typical developer's digs, the studio is a glass-lined rectangle perched atop slender steel columns. Curiously, it was among the first air-conditioned spaces in the area.

Only an appointment with the owners of the Harkavy house, barely a minute's drive farther south, breaks our reverie.

At Harkavy, among other nifty flourishes, are sliding floor-to-ceiling wooden doors that can be opened to reveal massive screens facing outdoors. Based on how many photos Ewan is snapping here, I'm guessing this house must rank high on his list of favorites today. Ewan confirms as much when we bump into each other on the stairs, as he jockeys for a good vantage to get a photo from the second floor.

As we head home to Tampa that afternoon, we all confess we've developed an acute case of house envy. Especially for the furnishings, even with our 1930s bungalow's comparatively paltry mid-century fixtures, not to mention Ewan's period-centric room.

"I could use a new ceiling fan," Ewan says with a smile. "One that's more mid-century modern." Agreed.

Go mid-century

HOTELS

The Sarasota Modern

1290 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota

(941) 906-1290. thesarasotamodern.com.

How into the mid-century modern vibe is this upscale hotel? Enough to name its restaurant and bar Rudolph's — as in, architect Paul Rudolph, among the patron saints of the Sarasota School of Architecture movement. Rooms start at around $170 per night.

Art Ovation Hotel

1255 N Palm Ave., Sarasota

(941) 316-0808. artovationhotel.com.

True to the town's vibrant arts scene, this 162-room luxury hotel offers all manner of arts-related experiences, including ever-changing art installations, performances and workshops. Rooms start at around $170 per night.

Lido Beach House

210 Grant Drive, Sarasota

(646) 489-7285. lidobeachhouse.com.

Trio of charming mid-century modern-inspired beach cottages renovated and run by local photographer Jenny Acheson and woodworker Dale Rieke, responsible for the triplex's exquisite handmade furnishings. Rates per night start at around $150 for the studio and $200 and $250 for the one- and two-bedroom cottages, respectively.

TOURS

Local architectural tours can be booked through the Sarasota Architectural Foundation. sarasotaarchitecturalfoundation.org. The Sarasota Architectural Foundation's annual celebration, SarasotaMOD Weekend, is Nov. 8-10. sarasotamod.com.

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