The news that the Summerhouse restaurant might be torn down for condos came as a terrible shock to the community. We can live without that eyesore that became John Ringling Towers; and sure, Sarasota High School has great sentimental value but it isn't really that unique as a building. But the Summerhouse! Get out the picket signs.
It isn't necessarily the best restaurant in Sarasota (although it probably is in the top five). But that atmosphere! It routinely wins Best Romantic Restaurant in every contest in town. Tourists love it. I can't imagine how many decisions to move to Sarasota have been made over dessert at the Summerhouse. The Board of Realtors alone should buy it and operate it as a marketing gimmick.
In case you've never been there, let me describe it. It's a set of interlocking glass cubes set in the middle of a tropical forest, heavy on the banyan trees. It truly brings the outdoors in. But in a brilliant twist, the genius of the Summerhouse is that the outdoors remains outdoors. No bugs, no humidity. You gaze at it in air-conditioned comfort. It may be the only restaurant in Florida that's better in the summer than it is in the winter.
Plus, it's got a great bar. It's upstairs and has a night-club-y atmosphere. I don't know if such goings-on still occur there, but it used to be a big pick-up place for over-40 singles. Boy, if those glass walls could talk . . .
The Summerhouse is the creation of Sarasota architect Carl Abbott, who is on quite a roll these days even if they are starting to tear his buildings down. They're doing a book on him and they recently had a bus tour of his works, with him as the guide. It was quite a success-they needed three buses to accommodate the crowd. It was like that Beatles movie, Magical Mystery Tour, only with retired college professors. One minor suggestion for the future: Serve refreshments at every stop.
The first work on view was the Putterman house, a real Sarasota classic if there ever was one. It has graced the cover of this very magazine and looks so fresh and new it's hard to believe it's 20 years old.
The Puttermans look pretty fresh and new themselves, although I understand that Saul, a leap year baby, recently turned 20. Florence, of course, is a painter of note (two of her prints are the highlight of my art collection; come to think of it, they are my art collection). To give Florence a place to work, Carl has built a large studio off the living room. I personally would turn it into a big TV room and wet bar, but to each his own.
The Putterman house is a very characteristic Abbott work, in that it's modern, clean-lined, and bold, with unusual angles and lots of glass. But it's got something else, too- glamour. It's infinitely more chic and elegant than the mega-mansions that surround it. A large deck flows in several levels down to the lagoon and drenches the house in sunlight, yet it remains, as they say, an intimate space. It's probably the only house in Sarasota that could hold its own on Fire Island. (Historical note: writer Evan Hunter, who lived in the house that formerly occupied that land, was along on the tour.)
But no time to linger at the Puttermans. Even Saul and Florence got caught up in the spirit and jumped in their BMW to follow us to the Women's Resource Center out on Tuttle. Carl explained the various ways he used curves to produce emotional effects as we stood in the bougainvillea-drenched courtyard. Then it was on to the Darling House; and, yes, it really is darling. You know the Darlings-they've been here forever. Ann is the well- known potter who runs the Empty Bowls fund raiser, whereby all the potters in town get together at the Phillippi Creek Estate every Thanksgiving to raise money for poor families. Her house is really a family compound that she shares with her two sons. She gets the big house and the boys live in two little garconieres. Here the look is very Zen and Oriental, all concrete and bamboo. Ann made the sinks herself-they're bowls, too!
The final house on the tour was a drop-dead gorgeous zillion-dollar beach house on Casey Key. This was Carl at his problem-solving best, for the zoning was so restrictive that it was like a mathematical puzzle trying to get the most out of the site.
We also stopped at St Thomas More Catholic Church in Gulf Gate, along with its Chelsea Center, which functions as the parish hall. They were having a Hindu wedding that day and we couldn't get in, which was a shame as I kept thinking, boy, I bet the food is good.
So we concentrated on the church itself, and I must say that as a lapsed Catholic, I was rather taken aback. St Thomas More is designed for the new Catholic liturgy; and when it comes to Catholic liturgy, I'm stuck in the 1950s with the old one, the one Mel Gibson likes, where the priest has his back to you and only talks in Latin and there's a lot of incense and they only let the choir sing, as Catholics can murder any hymn ever written.
I walked around the space, memories flooding back to me. I half expected a nun to strike me for not genuflecting. The holy water fount was draped for Lent and there didn't seem to be any kneelers. Then I saw something even more disquieting-there, behind the organ, was a set of drums like Ricky Ricardo used to play.
Still, nothing quite prepared me for the confessional. Nowadays they call it a "reconciliation room" and it really is a little room, with a window and everything. There's a sort of macramé screen but the priest can easily see who you are. With all due respect to Carl and the Pope, I decided this was not for me. I prefer to confess my sins in the dark.
By the way, if you're looking for a cool bunch of people to plug into I would heartily suggest you join the Sarasota Architectural Foundation, which organized the tour. They have all sorts of events and tours and parties, plus Friday night mixers for lonely architects. They specialize in promoting awareness of the Sarasota School but further the cause of good design in general. Martie Lieberman appears to be the brains behind the group. Her day job is selling real estate; she specializes in the Sarasota School. Contact them at SAFonline.org.
And here's the most exciting news of all. It's true that Carl designs rather pricey houses, and they are a little beyond the means of many of us aficionados. But now it seems that he and Bob Ardren (who writes "Street Talk" for this magazine) are building condos on a lot Bob owns on Second St downtown, just a stone's throw from the Ritz. Imagine-a Carl Abbott starter home! I immediately called Bob to get my name on the list of pre-construction buyers. Bob told me the building will have six units and they will range from about 1,200 to 2,400 square feet. He doesn't know prices yet but when I asked him if $300,000 would get my foot in the door, at least he didn't laugh in my face. Bob can be reached at [email protected].