Test of Time

By Ilene Denton Photography by Steven Brooke January 1, 2009

Casa del Cielo rises from the beach on slim concrete columns like an elegant, glass-and-bleached-cedar tree house.

Its owners, an extended New Hampshire family that vacations here often to escape their cold New England winters, requested “a beach house with a feeling of lightness and uplift, expressing the joy of living; spaces that are exhilarating to live in,” architect Carl Abbott told us, way back in 1982 when he took us on a tour of the residence shortly after it had won the Excellence in Architecture Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects Florida-Caribbean region. It was breathtakingly beautiful, modern yet anything but sterile, and completely unforgettable.

Now, 26 years later, it seems the AIA agrees. The professional organization has bestowed another important accolade on the sophisticated three-story residence and its architect: the Test of Time award.

The owners are pleased, but not surprised. “It was designed for a purpose and to this day continues to fulfill it: It brings the outside in, but at the same time from the inside lets you look out,” says one of the co-owners, an adult child of Abbott’s original client. “You feel like you’re part of the surrounding flora and fauna; it makes you part of the landscape.”

Indeed, it is that sense of place that was at the heart of the design, wrote Abbott in a case statement: “The house has a sense that it is an extension of the site itself,” he wrote. “The trees of the site, the beach, the water, the sky, are all felt as materials of the building.” Casa del Cielo “always has felt new to me,” the architect told us recently. “It’s very avant-garde today, as it was when it was built, because of the way it relates to the land.”

The AIA Test of Time award is timely for another reason. Abbott actually came to Sarasota 50 years ago, in 1959, after receiving his undergraduate degree from the University of Florida, to work with I.M. Pei associate Burt Brosmith on the design of the New College campus. He later pursued his master’s degree at Yale, where he studied with the famed Paul Rudolph, who himself had gained early notice as a founder of the Sarasota School of Architecture.

Rudolph was chairman of the jury that gave Abbott that AIA award back in 1982. "The balancing of solids to voids and the flow of space horizontally and vertically are handled in a remarkable architectural way," Rudolph wrote of his former student at the time. Last November, Abbott was invited back to Yale to help dedicate the restoration of the Paul Rudolph art and architecture building, where he participated in a forum with classmates Lord Richard Rogers and Lord Norman Foster, both international superstars.

In 1966, Abbott returned to Sarasota to open his own architecture office. Since then, he has become known as the standard bearer for the modernist movement in Southwest Florida.

Unflaggingly enthusiastic about the design world, he recently completed a vacation home on the island of St. Maarten for a London couple who’d seen his work published in a design book. (Architectural Record named it one of the eight most interesting unbuilt houses when it was in the planning stages two years ago.) He currently is designing a residential treatment center for First Step addiction recovery programs; a private residence for a physician and his wife on 10 acres of jungle in east Sarasota County; and a home on Crescent Beach with a three-story, curving glass-block wall. (“He wanted a house that people would slam on the brakes when they see it,” Abbott says of the Canadian client.) And he’s designing a major renovation and potential expansion to his ethereal St. Thomas More Church in Gulf Gate.

“Great architecture doesn’t yell and scream, ‘Look at me!’” Abbott told us 26 years ago. “But it should have a strong personality.” Like Abbott, the house is as engaging and distinctive as ever, and we’re still admiring—and listening to—them both.

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