Riding to the Rescue

By staff February 1, 2005

The modest Revere House that languishes on Bayou Louise on Siesta Key-once among the most famous homes of the mid-20th century-is, in current real estate parlance, a tear-down. Owner Doug Olsen knows the land is far more valuable than the structure, even though the house (under 1,000 minimal square feet) has an impressive history.

Built in 1948 by architect Ralph Twitchell and his young associate, Paul Rudolph-who went on to become chairman of the department of architecture at Yale University and is considered one of the great American modernist architects-the Revere House was one of eight prototypes commissioned by the Revere Quality Institute (the Revere Copper Company) and Architectural Forum Magazine to demonstrate how industrial materials could fashion a durable, attractive and affordable private residence. Built with poured concrete, steel columns and glass, the house had six-inch-thick slab walls, copper screening, wide overhangs, and non-loadbearing walls. The rectangular house, which was built by Sarasota's John Lambie, was also hurricane-, mildew- and insect-proof, according to its press.

After the Revere House was completed in 1949, Roberta Finney purchased it for $18,400. (Twitchell and Rudolph had built the famous "Cocoon House" on Siesta Key for Finney's parents, and after she moved into the Revere house, she and Twitchell became romantically involved and had two children together). Upwards of 16,000 people toured the flat-roofed, geometric house, which was touted all over the country as the dwelling of the future. And indeed it was. But that future came and went.

Today, the dilapidated house is a sad bump on a swath of waterfront property worth more than a million dollars. Yet, thanks to an ingenious plan to turn it into the guesthouse for a new multimillion-dollar modernist house on the site, the tiny home has been rescued. The wrecking ball won't touch it.

"There would be no way to save this kind of house, which sits in the middle of the property, without some really imaginative project," says entrepreneur and real estate developer W. Howard Rooks, one of the Sarasota partners in the Revere House project. "In today's market, waterfront land is just too valuable; and any buyer would naturally expect a spacious home on the lot. But [architect] Guy Peterson had an idea. Doug [Olsen] and builder Pat Ball and I were intrigued by it. And now we're going through with a project that will save and restore the Revere House by making it a vital part of a larger whole." (John Pichette, AIA, from Peterson's firm is the project architect.)

With permitting now accomplished, construction is under way to restore the Revere House to exactly what it was in 1949-and to designate it as the guest cottage and pool pavilion that complement a new 4,500-square-foot modernist home that will reference the lines of the smaller residence. In its design phase, the project has already won five local AIA awards and one state AIA prize. When completed in about 18 months, the compound, consisting of the two dwellings and a swimming pool, will be on the market for about $4 million.

Plans call for the Revere House to be finished first, and it will be furnished the way it was when curious potential homebuyers first toured it. Olsen and Rooks intend to open the restored Revere House for special architecture-related events as a way of promoting interest in the compound.

"The rationale is simple," says Peterson, a Sarasota native who specializes in modern architecture. "To preserve the Revere House, we had to give it a function and make it part of a larger design scheme. The structure is being revived because it has a use."

Peterson admits that the key to this rescue mission is putting a big, modernist home on the site. "The new house justifies the land value," he says. He credits his clients, Rooks and Olsen, with the vision to see a modern structure on the property instead of another Mediterranean Revival palace. (The Revere House has seven-foot high ceilings. The new home has its first floor above eight feet, in compliance with FEMA regulations. The home also features a private rooftop garden 35 feet above the ground.)

Peterson says the Revere House was the driving force in designing the two-story home (which has vistas of the Gulf as well as the bayou). "The design plays off the little house, and the materials are the same-walls of glass, steel columns, concrete exterior and terrazzo floors," he explains. "There's continuity between the two structures; and the placement of the swimming pool, the motor court and even the trees is precise and calculated."

When Paul Rudolph was working on the Revere House more than 50 years ago, his instructions were equally precise. Peterson was lucky enough to come across a letter in which the architect even laid out his color scheme.

"The ceiling is painted a strong peacock blue, in contrast to gray concrete walls and the gray wood stain of the striated plywood storage partitions," wrote Rudolph. "A note of warmth is introduced with a copper-hooded fireplace, whose hood penetrates the fireplace wall to become a hood for the stove. Copper color is picked up in cushions and upholstering, and lemon yellow is used on kitchen and bathroom walls, and as the bedspread in the master bedroom. But the overall scheme is subdued and quiet, in cool contrast to the sunny, living warmth of color of the outside garden planting."

The quartet involved in the Revere House project hopes this experiment in preservation can serve as a model for other Sarasota School of Architecture homes in danger of demolition. The Revere House was a prototype for a new way of living in the last century. Perhaps it will be a model for creative living in this century, too.


Guy Peterson's advice on restoring a modernist home.

- You will probably spend up to 30 percent more than you think you will. Materials that go into a modern home, such as large quantities of glass, keep rising in price.

- Seek the advice of professionals because it will save making mistakes.

- Check to see if your house is on the local or National Historic Register. If so, you must adhere to certain mandates when restoring.

- If your modern house is on the water, you must meet FEMA codes as well as many local, state and national mandates. (365-4723)

- Join the Sarasota Architectural Foundation. You'll meet like-minded people, some of whom are restoring modernist homes.

- Explore books on the subject. There are many good ones, including John Howey's The Sarasota School of Architecture.

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