Even in middle age, Tampa Bay's mid-century modern buildings still captivate

Architect Glenn Q. Johnson left a legacy of striking mid-century modern buildings in the Tampa Bay area and beyond.
Published March 13
Updated March 13

ST. PETERSBURG — In 1954, the same year the Sunshine Skyway bridge replaced a ferry across Tampa Bay, a striking new house had just been completed in St. Petersburg's Pinellas Point area.

Designed by architect Glenn Q. Johnson, the two-story "Vision-Aire'' home was ideally suited to Florida's warm, buggy climate. It was oriented to the south and sat slightly off the ground to better catch the balmy bay breezes. Interior walls were built as jalousies to allow air to flow through the entire house. The woods used in construction were insect-resistant cedar, cypress and redwood.

Now the four-bedroom, three-bath house, among the very few of its kind, is for sale for $720,000. Marketing efforts include a full-page ad in the spring issue of Atomic Ranch, a national magazine that spotlights mid-century modern architecture and design. In the short time the issue has been out, nearly 29,000 readers have viewed the ad online.

"I've seen a huge uptick on their website and have had some really good activity,'' said Eileen Bedinghaus, the RE/MAX Metro listing agent and herself a "passionate'' fan of all things mid-century.

Bedinghaus was the agent on another Vision-Aire home that sold last year for $420,000. The houses, often called "bird-cage'' homes because of their shape and airiness, rarely come on the market and harken to an era when Johnson and other architects were breaking away from styles of the pre-war period.

READ MORE: Distinctive 1950s ‘bird cage houses’ were built for Florida’s climate. Should they be landmarks?

"My dad was into texture. He wanted texture on the walls so it would create interesting shadows and change during the day,'' said his son, Gary Q. Johnson. "He liked to use more natural materials when he could.''

Johnson was just a boy when his father, who originally practiced in Chicago, moved his family to St. Petersburg in 1952 to design homes for a proposed development on Lewis Island (now known as Coquina Key.) When plans for that fell through, Johnson teamed up with George Ely, president of a company called Better Living that had bought a 110-acre tract in the Pinellas Point area for $1,000 an acre.

Better Living sold some of the land to other developers and to the school board for what became Bay Vista Elementary. The company hoped to sell at least 50 Vision-Aire homes on the remaining land.

Johnson was the architect but brochures touted the houses as "designed by Florida itself,'' with raised living areas that allowed air to circulate and overhangs to shield from sun and rain. Only 16 were ultimately built in St. Petersburg, most of them on 69th Avenue S and along Pinellas Point Drive. The Johnsons lived in one of the houses for several years.

"When we first moved there, cars would be lined up on Fourth Street waiting to take the ferries across,'' Gary Johnson said of the Bee Line Ferry service that ran to Piney Point in Manatee County. "The only development was the houses on those blocks.''

Johnson often played with the sons of a Coast Guard officer who lived in the house at 780 69th Avenue S that is now for sale. A caged pool has since been added. But in the 1950s the house opened directly on to a large pond called Lake Flori.

"Being an aviator, (the officer) had one of those yellow lift rafts and we'd go paddling around in the pond,'' Johnson "There were probably alligators in there but we made enough noise that it scared them away.''

When the Sunshine Skyway opened in 1954, Glenn Johnson was in the cavalcade of dignitaries that drove across the new bridge on the inaugural day. The ferries stopped running a few months later. In 1955, Johnson and Ely dissolved their partnership, and Ely moved away. Johnson went on to make his mark in the bay area and beyond, as his son discovered from years of researching old newspaper stories and other materials.

"I have been on this historic quest to find out what were the buildings my father did, and he had more of an impact than I realized,'' he said.

On St. Petersburg's Snell Isle, Johnson designed the Snell Isle Shopping Center (now a high-rise condominium) and a bayfront home on Brightwaters Circle (still standing).

He designed three St. Petersburg churches, two commercial buildings and part of the Bardmoor Golf & Tennis Club (all still there).

He designed 13 bay area schools (some gone) and the University of Florida's Grinter Hall (still there, houses graduate programs.)

Among Johnson's other surviving public structures are the St. Pete Beach Library, the North Shore Pool complex, a state office building and the Pinellas County Health Department building (now called the 500 Building and part of the Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital).

Johnson's favorite building, though, was the Pinellas County Judicial Building near Mirror Lake in downtown St. Petersburg. Built in 1968 and still in use, it was recently designated one of 50 "landmark'' buildings statewide in a University of Florida survey of mid-century modern architecture.

The building, which has "vertically oriented ribbons of windows'' and a "robust form to project strength and solidarity,'' sparked a wave of downtown renewal, the survey report said.

Gary Johnson, a chemical engineer who lives in Ohio, recently returned to St. Petersburg for a fundraiser for the organization Preserve the 'Burg. He and other guests toured two classic Vision-Aire Homes designed by his father, including the one for sale.

In 1999, Glenn Johnson died in St. Petersburg at 91. Compared to his first houses, the last one he designed could hardly have been on more different terrain.

It was in North Carolina, on the side of a mountain.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.