John Ringling may have invented Sarasota, but it was Ken Thompson who made it work. Sarasota’s longest serving city manager—from 1950 to 1988—modernized the sleepy resort town and turned it into a real city. Downtown planning, environmental awareness, even integration: He helped lead the way. “He was a Renaissance man,” says historian Jeff LaHurd, who wrote a book about him. “He enjoyed flying, sailing and creating art. And he was even pretty agile on the trampoline.”
Thompson was also a man of considerable style and sophistication. For his own home he and wife Virginia chose a half-acre waterfront lot in the then-new subdivision of Harbor Acres and hired architect William Zimmerman to build a place where they could raise their kids and entertain everybody who was important back in those days.
Zimmerman, along with his father Ralph, was one of the leading practitioners of what would become known as the Sarasota School of Architecture. For the Thompsons he created a home that was much like the town. Simple, designed with the outdoors in mind and perfect for the casual social life when an evening with friends, many of them artists and writers, meant food, drink and some excellent conversation.
The South Seas had a great influence on the Zimmermans, and the Thompson house has hints of a Polynesian pavilion. There is a gabled roof, tile floors, and two of the living room’s glass walls slide open at the corner to provide an expansive screened area, half indoors, half outdoors.
Various changes have been made to the home since it was constructed in 1951. The master bedroom was enlarged in 1973 and the kitchen has a 1980s vibe that is definitely not original. But the numerous built-ins are largely intact, details of midcentury modernism that add both history and character. The residence, purchased from Thompson’s widow 13 years ago by a professional couple, is now on the market for $2.3 million.
There were once 10 Zimmerman-designed houses in the neighborhood. But Hillview Avenue has become one of the most fashionable addresses in town and many have been replaced with enormous mansions. The Thompsons’ house remains, an understated reminder of the days when design mattered and everybody in town could be found there on a hot summer’s evening, planning Sarasota’s future.