Guiding Light

By staff October 1, 2001

When fledgling architect Joe King started dating a young woman who lived in west Bradenton eight years ago, he found himself frequently driving by a house on Riverview Boulevard that intrigued him. This was not one of those grand mansions spread out over a lush lawn sloping toward the river; it was a small, flat-roofed house with two walls of sliding glass, one that seemed more "self-consciously designed," he says, than the typical 1950s Florida housing stock it superficially resembled.

It didn't take King long to discover that the house was by Sarasota School of Architecture eminence Paul Rudolph, whose work he had first admired while a history student at Emory University in Atlanta. (There, he'd been intrigued enough by a Rudolph-designed chapel on campus to make it his leisure-time pursuit to learn more about the famous architect.) It didn't take long, either, for King to marry the girl he'd been dating and purchase the Riverview Boulevard house from its second owner. Soon he had not only begun a refurbishing to bring out the home's original design, but also embarked (with collaborator Christopher Domin) on a book on Paul Rudolph that's due out in January.

The book, "Paul Rudolph: The Florida Houses," is a natural outgrowth of King's obsession with the home he bought and his admiration for the architect whose partnership with Ralph Twitchell was so significant to what has come to be known as the Sarasota School. He and Domin, King says, had talked about doing such a book ever since their postgraduate days at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where King received his architecture degree; they finally decided to get serious about it in 1996.

Unfortunately Paul Rudolph died in 1997. "We kicked ourselves for missing that primary source" of information, says King, but the pair nevertheless moved ahead, gaining access to the Rudolph archives at the Library of Congress and obtaining the pictures of Rudolph's Florida homes that fill the book.

Approximately 50 Florida homes are touched on in the book, which divides Rudolph's work here into the decade of his association with Twitchell (1941 to 1953) and his solo years (1954-1962). Of course there are other professionals mentioned in the book, too; the contributions of job supervisor Jack Twitchell, Ralph's nephew, and the young Jack West were also crucial to the success of Twitchell-Rudolph projects.

In fact, says King, it was West who did the drawings for his own Riverview Boulevard house, working at a desk right across from Rudolph's in a student/studio professor sort of relationship in the partnership's small office. West remembers deciding to work on the drawings not so much in the way that he himself would do, but more as Rudolph might.

"The house was originally constructed for Allen and Barbara Bennett in 1950," says King. The Bennetts had moved to Bradenton after spending years in Asia, where Allen had served on Admiral Nimitz's staff. According to King, "the Bennetts had a love of Asian simplicity" that suited Rudolph's brand of modernism. They also needed a house that would accommodate Allen's battle with multiple sclerosis.

The owners worked with the architects to achieve both privacy and a subtropical environment on the property. As King wrote in a paper he presented about the house at an architectural historians' conference, "Low walls are used to delineate exterior habitable spaces.and to mark a gradation of privacy in the transition from public to private space. From the street, the low wall grounds the house and ties the architecture into the site. From the interior, it has the effect of a long window sill, defining the view, keeping the street surface itself out of sight, yet framing the garden..In addition to the constructed walls, there exist along the west and north property lines.a dense hedge of fragrant orange jasmine that defines and extends space" in a typically Rudolph way.

Prior to King's purchase of the house, the only other owner had been a woman who by the 1990s was living in a retirement center. She agreed to sell him the house, King recalls, only because she sensed he'd take care of it-and because he promised to bring her mangos and avocados from the trees in the yard.

Neither previous owner had made the mistake of "updating" Rudolph's design, so King's primary tasks upon moving in consisted of plumbing and electrical repairs, sand-blasting the Ocala block masonry, finding new technologies for finishing the exterior wood (the original boat spar finish had peeled pretty quickly in the Florida sun) and "scraping paint and then scraping more paint" to restore the home's natural expression. The heart red cypress wood underneath all the paint was still in superb condition. (Architect Mark Hampton, who worked in the Twitchell & Rudolph office during the construction of the Bennett house, remembers that the framing lumber used was Dade County pine-a material so hard that many saw blades were ruined in milling the lumber and building the house.)

Aside from this very personal home project, and the writing of the Rudolph book, King has also kept busy with his River Forest development in eastern Manatee County. Taking shape on 25 acres adjacent to property that's been in his family for a long time, River Forest is an award-winning residential community virtually hidden away from the busy traffic on nearby S.R. 70.

"What I've tried to do here is pay attention to the natural environment in site planning and landscaping," explains King. Hundreds of trees and flowering plants have been planted throughout River Forest's common areas, with pine canopies providing shape and saw palmettos a true Florida backdrop. Most of the vegetation is native to Florida; and the entire site incorporates Florida Yards & Neighborhoods concepts.

"Stylistically, the houses I've designed here are not really that much like Rudolph's," admits King. "But conceptually, yes, they are like his work. What's important is the relationship of the house to the trees, the site and the adjacent houses."

King and Domin's book, published by Princeton Architectural Press, should pique the interest of those who attend the "American Legacy: Sarasota School of Architecture" tour and symposium scheduled for Nov. 1-5, which will put together lectures and panel discussions starring original Sarasota School architects with bus tours and other events exploring the innovative architectural movement.

"When we were in architectural school," King muses, "nobody was really talking about Rudolph and his work. I guess it's part of the cyclical nature of taste. Now that mid-century modernism is back, we think our readers will be not only architects and architectural students, but also just people who are interested in design. People haven't thought of Paul Rudolph houses in Florida as a distinct body of work before; now it can all be found in one place, with the photos and drawings included. We're tried to make it accessible."

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