Then and Now: Architecture at a Glance in Sarasota County

Sarasota County has a rich architectural landscape that is represented by a century's worth of standing structures and decorative elements—from the earliest wood-frame pioneer homes to the world-renowned Sarasota Modern style that emerged after World War II, and continues to influence today's architectural designs.

Getting acquainted with local architecture is a great way to explore the history of Sarasota and to get a taste of the 'Florida lifestyle' of a bygone era—before the days of residential air conditioning—as well as its future: Today, Sarasota is a leading tastemaker in Florida's contemporary architecture scene.

Historically, building design in Sarasota is greatly influenced by the balmy semi-tropical environment, the Mediterranean tastes of the region's most prolific developers during the 1920s Florida Land Boom, and the vibrant artistic culture that set the tone for its most stylish modern structures.

Although by no means a complete guide to all the architecture there is to see in Sarasota, we can get you started with an overview of some of the history, design styles, and notable sites that make up the unique architectural landscape of Sarasota County today.

Pioneer Homes and Pre-Land Boom Structures

Dating to 1882, the Bidwell-Wood House in Sarasota's Pioneer Park is Sarasota's oldest standing homestead. Like most structures of its time, the Bidwell-Wood House is a wood frame vernacular that relies on cross-ventilation and raised wood floors to keep the home interior cool in the humid Florida climate. Few structures dating to the 1800s still exist in Sarasota today, largely due to Florida storms and the fact that prior to 1911, no firefighting service existed to protect the vulnerable wood frame structures.

The Tatum-Rawls House at the Crowley Museum

The Tatum-Rawls House at the Crowley Museum, a pine and cypress wood frame home constructed in 1889, is one of the only other pre-20th century structures still standing in Sarasota County. The Tatum-Rawls House is a classic example of Florida pioneer architecture, which is sometimes referred to as 'Cracker Gothic'. Large, airy porches and multiple windows in each wall to cross-ventilate the house are key elements of the Florida pioneer home.

The Worth's Block building, a downtown Sarasota cornerstone today known as The Gator Club, is notable as one of the first fireproof brick buildings to be erected on Main Street (in 1912)—and thus one of the only buildings that remained standing in a major fire that devastated the town in 1915. Aside from the Florida Studio Theatre's Tudor-style Keating Theatre (formerly the Sarasota Women's Club, constructed in 1915), Worth's Block is one of the only pre-1920s buildings that remain in downtown Sarasota.

Sarasota's 'Mediterranean Revival'

The 'Florida Land Boom' of the 1920s was Florida's first major real estate bubble, and hearkened the arrival of some of America's wealthiest developers including Owen Burns and the circus magnate Ringling Brothers, John and Charles. As Burns and the Ringlings built up the modern city of Sarasota, their preferred Mediterranean Revival style of architecture came to define the burgeoning small metropolis—and is, to this day, a key element of the local architectural identity.

Burns and the Ringlings were no doubt influenced by the popularity of their contemporaries' Mediterranean Revival architecture, modeled after European seaside palaces, that was cropping up on Florida's east coast—where the state's luxury tourism industry first launched, along with the Land Boom. Mediterranean Revival architecture incorporates elements of the Venetian Gothic, Italian and Spanish Renaissance styles, Beaux-Arts, and the Spanish Colonial. Cream, coral and rose-colored stucco structures, terra cotta tiling, wrought iron balconies, and lush ornamental gardens embody the elements of 'Med-Rev' style.

The Ca d'Zan at The Ringling

Easily the most opulent and accessible example of the Mediterranean Revival style in Sarasota is John Ringling's Venetian Gothic mansion, Ca d'Zan or 'House of John'. Ringling commissioned the Ca d'Zan as his winter home in 1924, hoping to capture the splendor of Venice, Italy alongside Sarasota Bay. The five-story mansion was completed in 1926. Ca d'Zan bears the stucco and glazed terra cotta tile, balustrades, and ornamental cresting that defines the Mediterranean Revival. Visitors to The Ringling may purchase tickets to experience docent-guided tours of the Ca d'Zan.

Although his brother's mansion receives more recognition as a tourist attraction today, Charles Ringling's mansion, (now New College's 'College Hall') exemplifies a classical European-style  mansion designed with the Florida climate in mind. Designed in the Beaux Arts style—an influencer of the Mediterranean Revival—the marble mansion was planned along a north-south axis fronting Sarasota Bay with access to open bay breezes in every principal room, and utilizes maximum natural sunlight. Though eliminated in 1976 due to safety reasons, the original mansion was also the site of one of the first swimming pools in Florida.

Sarasota Opera House - Interior

In downtown Sarasota, major structures like the Sarasota Opera House (originally the Edwards Theatre) and the County Courthouse set the tone for other Mediterranean Revival stylings seen throughout the city. The Opera House, featuring cream-colored stucco and classical Italian ornamental plasterwork, was built by A.B. Edwards in 1926 as part of the effort to promote Sarasota as a resort city. The County Courthouse, also constructed in 1926, features 'Med-Rev'-style ornamental wrought iron, terra cotta tiling, and barreled Spanish roof tiles.

Post-Boom Building Trends

The real estate bubble bust of the late 1920s, followed by the Great Depression and World War II, halted the Boom-era construction in Sarasota. Building buffs who are interested in the residential architecture and lifestyle of the every-day Sarasotan in the 1930s, however, may wish to stroll through downtown historic neighborhoods—including Laurel Park and Gillespie Park—to catch a glimpse of the popular sturdy-and-simple American Craftsman style bungalows of the era.

The iconic barrel-vaulted Sarasota Municipal Auditorium, a WPA project under the F.D.R. administration, is a rare example of Art Deco architecture in Sarasota County. Designed and constructed in 1938 by Chicago architects, Thomas Reed and Clarence Martin, the original building design took advantage of the Art Deco trend of using glass blocks in construction, and maximizing the natural Florida sunlight.

Federal Building in Downtown Sarasota

Another WPA-funded project was the Federal Building in downtown Sarasota, constructed as a U.S. Post office in 1932. The Federal Building features an austere Neoclassical Revival style—a popular choice for government buildings across the U.S., and a building a trend in Sarasota during the early 1930s, following the real estate bubble burst and subsequent demise of Mediterranean Revivalism. For more 1930s Neoclassical architecture in downtown Sarasota, stroll by one of the city's first skyscrapers, the Orange Blossom Condos (originally the American National Bank) at 1330 Main Street and the First National Trust at 1586 Main Street.

The Sarasota Modern Movement

No architectural movement in Sarasota is as enduring and regionally significant as the midcentury Sarasota Modern movement, also known as the Sarasota School of Architecture, that emerged following World War II. Paul Rudolph, Ralph Twitchell, Philip Hiss, Victor Lundy, Jack West, William Rupp, and Tim Seibert are among some of the leading names associated with the Sarasota Modern movement—a regional style that is nationally renowned.

Sarasota Modern architecture is defined, first and foremost, by its relationship with the Florida climate and terrain. Innovative cross-ventilation systems, large sun-shading overhangs, floating staircases, glass facades that blur dimensions between interior and exterior spaces, and careful attention to Florida flora characterize the Sarasota School of Architecture.

The Ringling presents an unusual opportunity to explore the Sarasota Modernist style—inside and out—in the Walker Guest House replica, on display Nov. 6, 2016 - April 7, 2017. The replica was built from scratch on site, using internationally-renowned architect Paul Rudolph's original drawings for the 580 square-foot beach house he built on Sanibel Island in 1952. The Walker Guest House features a light box frame, wall-size glass windows, and a sailboat-like rigging system that controls panel shutters which are hinged from above to create a large, screened porch when open—a modernist interpretation of the Florida 'Cracker Gothic' porches of the 19th century.

Walker Guest House Replica

In 2016, Rudolph's iconic Umbrella House on Lido Key saw its first full renovation since the structure's eye-catching 'umbrella' overhang was destroyed by a tropical storm in the 1960s. The Umbrella House, constructed as a commission for developer Philip Hiss in 1953-4, was an architectural experiment in its use of a tent-like masonry-and-wood sunshade that hovered over the building. Today, the Umbrella House stands in Lido Shores as a testament to the airy, subtropical style and innovative building techniques of the Sarasota Modern architects.

Nextdoor to the Umbrella House is another iconic Sarasota Modern structure, the Hiss Studio. designed by Tim Seibert. Built in 1953, the studio (which was constructed to hold developer and architect Philip Hiss' book collection) was one of the first air-conditioned buildings in Sarasota. Bold geometric shapes with clean lines, extensive use of glass for natural lighting, cool and light-reflective polished concrete flooring, and lush tropical foliage define this Sarasota Modern classic.

In downtown Sarasota, Jack West's City Hall was constructed in 1966, and is an apt declaration of the significance of the Sarasota Modern school in defining the city's identity. West elevated the construction site to enhance the building's monumentality, and created a design using interconnected geometric shapes with striking horizontal lines and overhangs. Gardens and water features throughout the complex soften the line between indoor and outdoor settings, typical of the Sarasota Modern style.

Blue Pagoda by Victor Lundy

Victor Lundy's Pagoda Building, constructed in 1956, borrows heavily in its design from traditional Japanese sculpture gardens—but its floor-to-ceiling glass walls and dramatic, sloping overhanging blue celadon-tiled roof exemplify clear design characteristics of the Sarasota Modern. Lundy's tendency toward dramatic roof design to maximize shade and airflow—"more roof than wall"—is also captured in the St. Paul Lutheran Church (1968) on Bahia Vista Street.

Interested in learning more about the Sarasota Modern movement and Victor Lundy? Celebrate SarasotaMOD Weekend, taking place Nov. 11-13, 2016. In addition to the tours, lectures, films and panel discussions presented during SarasotaMOD Weekend, the Sarasota Art Center will host an exhibition on Victor Lundy, the honored architect of this year's MOD Weekend celebration. Artist + Architect: Victor Lundy features reproductions of Lundy's sketches from World War II, as well as his original watercolor plans for the blue Pagoda Building. The exhibit runs Nov. 11 - Dec. 3, 2016.

Contemporary SRQ Architecture

Throughout its history, the architecture of Sarasota has been defined primarily by its environment—and as the city moves into the future, designers and developers continue to prioritize the semitropical climate, coastal breezes, and Florida sunshine.

Contemporary architects also nod to the iconic architecture of the past as the Sarasota Modern School, in particular, continues to influence today's designs. Notable among those designs is the Herald Tribune Media Headquarters, constructed in 2006 in downtown Sarasota. The building borrows from the Sarasota Modern school in its daylight-optimizing glass curtain walls and undulating, overhanging roof, which is supported by six story-tall columns.

The Sarasota Center for Architecture (CFA-SRQ) located in the Burns Court historic district of downtown Sarasota, makes its home in the Scott Building, a Sarasota Modern School commercial building built in 1960 William Rupp and Joseph Farrell. Today, the building is re-imagined as an educational space and design studio for students with the University of Florida graduate architecture program, UF CityLab. CFA Board Chair, Cynthia Peterson, says that CityLab students are currently working on "one of the most important planning projects of the last 100 years in Sarasota" in the Bayfront 20:20 project.

Among the newest structures to emerge in Sarasota's cutting-edge contemporary architecture scene is AIA Florida/Caribbean Gold Medalist Sarasota architect, Guy Peterson's Elling Eide Center Research Library, housing one of the largest collections of classical Chinese literature and rare manuscripts in the United States. The structure features geometric, clean lines in a nod to modernism, but is rooted in the Old Florida terrain of Little Sarasota Bay, with coastal landscaping elements at its forefront. The library opened in fall, 2016.

Peterson is also the architect of the AIA award-winning Spencer House (2013), a modernist feat that stands out on South Orange Ave. and Prospect Street among the traditional Mediterranean bungalows.

Tour Sarasota Architecture

From rustic wood frame vernacular to sleek modern monoliths—with lots of Mediterranean-inspired seaside villas in between—Sarasota's architectural landscape is as fascinating as it is diverse.

Want to dig in deeper? Tour Sarasota at your own pace with the Sarasota Architectural Foundation's comprehensive guide to 100 years worth of architecture in Sarasota County.