The Comfort Factor

By staff October 1, 2004

Creative young architects like to shudder at the Mediterranean Revival-style houses sprouting up in Sarasota's new communities-"Levittown with tile roofs and higher ceilings," one calls them-and to urge builders and buyers to embrace more "progressive" designs. But after spending an afternoon looking at some models in Lakewood Ranch, I think they're missing the point. These homes may not be authentic or even original, but they are incredibly comfortable; and the people who build them have done a brilliant job of figuring out exactly what most buyers want.

To someone like me, who lives in an old cottage big on charm but skimpy on modern amenities-picture a washing machine jammed into a bedroom closet and a kitchen with cramped counters and not a refrigerated drawer in sight-these places are like a fantasy stage set. You walk through the door and into an open, spacious living area, with the living room, dining room and a big kitchen and great room all opening onto a gorgeous pool, spa and outdoor kitchen, enclosed by a nearly invisible, two-story-high screened cage. The handsome kitchens, with gleaming, custom-designed wood cabinets, sculptural range hoods, granite counters and an amazingly efficient array of drawers and storage spaces, all feature a center island-also of granite and fine wood-often with a little sink of its own.

Feeling more and more like June Cleaver on steroids, I explored laundry rooms with miles of cabinets and comfy seating; walk-in closets as big as my spare bedroom; and "bonus" rooms with pool tables, big-screen TVs and built-in wet bars. (I didn't see any, but bonus rooms are also being designed as "wellness centers," with exercise equipment, steam facilities and a raised area for a massage table or meditation.) And the bathrooms! With marble everywhere, giant Jacuzzi tubs and walk-in showers overflowing with high-tech faucets and nozzles, they're such outrageous shrines to luxury they'd seem silly if they weren't so darned appealing.

Affluent retirees and, increasingly, baby boomers are snapping up such houses, not only throughout Florida but in Las Vegas, Arizona, Texas and other sunny growth spots. (In Sarasota, you can get some version of this home for $500,000 to a little more than $1 million, without the land.) Some theorize that 9-11 and the war in Iraq have accelerated the rush to safe, warm locales out of the line of terror, and that people are assuaging their insecurity by spending extravagantly to surround themselves with comforts. Whether or not that's true-low interest rates may also have something to do with it-these houses certainly offer cheery reassurance. They're bright and new and spacious-four bedrooms and a bonus room are standard-without a family ghost or bad memory in sight. Quite a few buyers are so eager to start fresh that they purchase the fully furnished model home, moving in, as real estate agents like to say, with just their toothbrush and pajamas.

So what's not to like about these places? Critics object to their cookie-cutter proliferation; and it is a little surreal, to those of us who grew up in neighborhoods with a mix of old and new houses in different styles, to walk out the door and see a sea of nearly identical homes rippling across the flat, treeless land. Of course, Sarasota has developments from as far back as the '60s where all the houses look alike; you just don't notice it as much once the trees and foliage grow and become part of the landscape. Others take issue with their faux-Mediterranean-style exteriors-an often agitated mix of columns, arches and gables. (Some builders allow buyers to enclose the same interior in any of a number of exterior styles, from Florida Cracker to French Country-but that's just more fuel on the fire for the Med-Rev critics, since what they're looking for is a home with design integrity.)

Despite their tile roofs and ornate exteriors, these homes really "have nothing to with Mediterranean Revival," says Sarasota architect Frank Folsom Smith. "I call them Rutenberg Revival-it's a Florida design invented by Rutenberg Homes that evolved in the '60s and '70s-open, and built in a U or V around the pool with a wonderful view of the outdoors. Some are done quite well. Art Rutenberg is interested in design and he had some really good architects and designers on staff." (Tessa Madasz, director of sales and marketing for Rutenberg Homes, says that the original design was called the Bimini and she once attended a seminar about how most new Florida homes are variations of that model.) Over the years, other builders picked up on the design, says Smith, which capitalizes on the dream of outdoor Florida living, and has led to some "very good and comfortable homes."

In fact, says Smith, "the front they paste on it" is the least important part of these homes. "I'll bet [Sarasota modernist architect] Guy Peterson could do an exterior interpretation that was wonderful for one of these homes and Martie Lieberman [a leading member of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation] would love it."

But livable and comfortable as such houses are, I tell Smith, I'm still not sure that if I suddenly came into a chunk of money, I'd sell my funky cottage and move to one of these plush new places. "That's because you're a cultural creative," he says, classifying me so easily I realize that rather than the interesting original I like to consider myself, I'm just part of a vast demographic. People like me, he explains, value diversity more than homogeneity, character above comfort. I nod, trying to look suitably intellectual and ascetic. I don't tell him that we're adding an extra bathroom to the cottage this fall, and I'm already dying to see where I can find one of those gigantic whirlpool tubs.

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