Cruisin' the Hood

By staff March 1, 2006

Amid the constant debate about planning the future Sarasota, much is said about creating workable and walkable neighborhoods. Rules and regulations are discussed, hackles are raised, New Urbanists are praised and reviled. The result? So far, very little has been done to make traditional neighborhood development both attractive and inevitable.

But while the bureaucrats and planners squabble, while homebuyers and property developers ask what direction the new regulations might take, while taxpayers wonder where this controversy is headed, several highly functional and attractive Sarasota neighborhoods are growing with energy and style.

One of the most remarkable of these is found along Westway Drive in Lido Shores, that fascinating enclave which floats almost unnoticed between Lido and Longboat keys. Tucked away on the north side of the narrow spit of land, Westway and the streets adjoining boast a fascinating mix of "Old Florida" ranch, Sarasota School modern and Mediterranean houses, strung along a gently curving street with glorious views of Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, and flanked by superb mature landscaping.

Legends abound: The modernist complex of buildings at the east end of the street is unfailingly referred to as "The Bobby Vinton House" after its one-time owner; and the handsome cube in the center of the neighborhood, an icon of the Sarasota School, is called Paul Rudolph's "Umbrella House," even though its "umbrella" pool shelter is long gone. Other noted contemporary architects have contributed to the array of residences here, including Sarasota's Guy Peterson and the famous Ralph Twitchell, not to mention those who have worked in relative anonymity.

What matters is the cohesive mix of styles and materials that make up the streetscape, proof that what defines a functional neighborhood is not stifling architectural regulations but a shared sense of proportion. Yes, some of the houses are modest in both size and style; others are large, even opulent. But the generally consistent setbacks from the curb, the use of quality materials and the evident commitment to faithful maintenance make the street feel like a continuous experience, as well as a pleasure on which to walk or drive.

Looking at a few good examples, starting from the east end, at 1345 and 1355 Westway, two soberly handsome Mediterranean Revival houses face a low-lying "ranch" house that hugs the ground along the inland side of the street. A bit to the west, a courtyard house by Jack West (architect of the underappreciated Sarasota City Hall) has been beautifully restored and provided with graceful tent pavilions. Again on the inland side, nestled under a magnificent banyan tree, is a pair of houses that have come to define the Sarasota School style: coolly geometrical, strictly symmetrical and sheathed in unflashy materials. The first was the studio-library of the legendary Philip Hiss, the amazing man responsible for Sarasota's development as a haven for modern architecture. Next to this, almost a twin, lies the Rudolph house, rather forlorn without its sunshade extension, the famous "umbrella." While it awaits full restoration, the house seems more a sweet and charming futuristic cottage than an important vestige of the architect's contribution to residential design.

Continuing our stroll to the west, we see a trio of houses in notably different styles that co-exist in harmony: a neo-Palladian variant on a grand estate house next to a strongly geometric modern structure that presents a series of blank walls to the street. Oddly enough, the result is not hostile but playful, as the volumes interact in shifting patterns of light and shade. Next door a new house designed by modernist Peterson is under construction. The three houses, close to each other, exude neighborliness, adhering to the New Urbanist concept of the value of density in urban design. Looking at these houses, one can imagine their inhabitants actually knowing each other, a rarity in today's privacy-obsessed life.

Of course, this being Florida, there is bound to be a huge "Venetian" palace somewhere in the mix, and the house at 1219 Westway is no exception. But the charming yellow wood siding on the house next door somehow mitigates the impact of the size discrepancy. In fact, farther along to the west, some larger houses, set farther back from the street, are a welcome presence, partly because of their lavish floral plantings, winding driveways and massive tree cover. They provide a welcome visual pause before the severely formal modern façades of the houses on the cul-de-sac at the western terminus of Westway.

Turning back to the south, along Morningside Drive, modern houses (or at least their street walls) are awash in brilliant color, whimsical and unconventional, facing a mix of older houses ranging from neo-Georgian to Caribbean, Cape Cod and pasted-on Med Rev. A few of these, particularly the older ranch-style buildings, are ripe for renovation, and one that's under way now is wisely preserving the core of the original structure to avoid the ungainly box-on-stilts style that new flood regulations often create.

What makes a neighborhood? Well, it isn't just rules, codes and regulations, as important as those may be. And it isn't architectural consistency in the cookie-cutter sense that does it, either. The answer is honest design aimed at creating real homes for real people, not symbols of class and money. And an enormous part of that is acknowledging that people need to interact with each other; that's what makes a streetscape such as Lido Shores a vibrant little community with a personality and life all its own.


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