The Sarasota Architecture Foundation found itself in an intriguing situation a few years ago when it was looking at ways to showcase local design. Interest in the regional form of Modernist architecture that had grown up around its shores—including seminal work by Paul Rudolph, Ralph Twitchell and others—was peaking, but because so much of these architects's designs were private residences and commissions, visitors couldn't walk inside and tour the homes they had read about and obsessed over. In some ways, it was like having a museum without exhibits. So, short of buying a home, the group decided on the next best option: create a replica, in this case, of Paul Rudolph's beachfront Walker Guest House on Sanibel Island, set to open to the public November 6 on the grounds of the Ringling Museum. Known as the Cannonball House, Rudolph's celebrated work will now become an educational tool.
"We've become an advocacy group, so if a property is threatened, you need money in the bank and people aware of the value of these buildings, so we can mobilize and help preserve," says Dan Snyder, one of the board members of SAF. "You never know what project is going to come up, so we want to raise awareness to people can become stewards of these buildings."
The choice of the Walker Guest House seems almost preordained. A high-profile but small home measuring just 576 square feet, the building referenced both its beachfront location and Southern vernacular tradition, while managing to provide both a wide-open view and privacy via the use of an ingenious pully system that raised and lowered flaps like an outrigger system (Lt. Rudolph worked on ship construction during WWII). A paragon of simple materials and minimal construction, it stood out as easily reproduced, and its actualization of the idea of fluid modern architecture made it a potentially stunning showpiece. Janice Owens, a local architect who was an SAF member, had even introduced the group to the original home's owners (the same Walker family who would found the contemporary art center in Minneapolis).
Architect Joe King and his team at King Ranch were recruited to painstakingly replicate the original features. An author of a book on Rudolph's work, King embraced the challenge of recreating a home that was "dense with meaning and intention, yet at the same time physically light and delicate," as he wrote in Sarasota Magazine, and began researching and designing, working off a set of original plans from 1952.
King's attention to detail and drive to do something worthy of Rudolph shows in the final design, as if wanting to make it even better the second time around. The unique wooden frame was replicated with laminated veneer lumber, and King and his team even faithfully reproduced the adjustable, sail-like system that held the hinged wood panels down to the last detail, including the red steel counterweights and period-accurate ropes and riggings. Built inside a farm pavilion earlier this year at King's ranch in nearby Manatee County, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, it was hidden from public view until perfected.
The interior recreation was just as exhaustive a process. Original 1953 photos of the home by famed lensman Ezra Stoller served as guides. With full-color, hi-res images, decorators could read the titles on the spines of books (one of the images, blown up to 15 by 20 feet as part of Ringling's exhibit on Rudolph homes, didn't lose its crispness). Every decoration and piece of original furniture was recreated, from the colorful Egyptian wall hanging to the chairs with black frames and canvas slings, which were manufactured by a specialist in New York, according to Snyder.
Snyder said the original estimate for the project was $100,000, which slowly ballooned to $150,000, and finally, $250,000. The most costly facet of the new building may have been portability. King designed and built a structure that could easily be moved, and in turn, exposed to new audiences. SAF originally chose Ringling, which boasts 400,000 visitors annually, because the museum offers a unique regional opportunity to increase awareness of Rudolph's work. But a portable piece of Paul Rudolph design means the group can take its mission anywhere. Snyder says SAF has been thinking about what other institutions would make great hosts for the home, including the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., as well as the Walker Center in Minneapolis.
The replica will be on site at the Ringling through October 2016, giving visitors a chance to experience Rudolph's work, and his unique way of demarcating and defining space. King noted that while the replica recalls the work of a '50s modernist, it's new home, on the same grounds as a James Turrell exhibit called "Skyspace," helps reinforce its contemporary context. Rudolph made sure his work was grounded in history, but looking out through the simple yet sophisticated wooden frames that make up the reproduction of the Walker Guest House, it's clear he had a forward-thinking vision.