Ever heard of The Umbrella House in Sarasota? This unique architectural gem is a great example of how sustainability and eco-friendly designs are perfectly compatible with avant-garde architecture.
Sustainability may be the buzzword in just about every industry from cuisine to couture today, but sustainable design is nothing new to architects, even if it was more a matter of function than fashion in the past. The Sarasota School of Architecture, which emerged in the 1940s, adapted mid-century modern design (perhaps even more desirable now than it was then) to Florida’s Gulf Coast climate, and left behind a host of stunners around the city and its eight islands. Signature characteristics of Sarasota School design include floor-to-ceiling glass, countless jalousie windows, and oversized shades that cool and aerate buildings naturally. Perhaps none of the surviving structures are as emblematic of the movement as Paul Rudolph’s Umbrella House, which most recently sold in 2016 for $1.6 million and remains the crown jewel of its affluent neighborhood.
The Umbrella House was built in 1953 as a show home to entice buyers to Philip Hiss’s new Lido Shores development on Lido Key. If today’s seven-figure price tags around the exclusive neighborhood are any indication, the endeavor can certainly be considered a long-term success. Located next door to Hiss Studio (now a private home), The Umbrella House not only brought attention to Lido Shores, but also to Paul Rudolph, himself. Just 35 years old when he was commissioned to design an attention-getter, Rudolph would soon become a world-famous architect thanks in no small part to his early work on this singular house. And, while sustainability may not have been at the heart of the mid-century zeitgeist, the Sarasota School’s focus on local climate was a forerunner to what is now central to nearly all design, architectural and beyond.
At just 1,800 square feet, The Umbrella House is modest in size, but its intricate design deceives. A double-height living room flanked by two second-story bedrooms connected by a bridge take advantage of ground-to-roof windowed walls on both the north and south sides of the house, inviting the outdoors in and leaving few obstructed views in any direction.
Despite its inspiring interior, it’s the exterior that attracts eyes and provides its intriguing name. Covering the house and its party-size backyard patio is the namesake umbrella, with an opening just above the rectangular swimming pool. About 3,000 square feet of shade-giving slats cool the property without blocking all of the sun’s light.
The original umbrella was charmingly made of tomato stakes but fell victim to Hurricane Alma in 1966. It was not immediately rebuilt and, in fact, remained missing for nearly fifty years until it was fully restored in 2015 by current owners Bob and Anne Essner. Today, the umbrella and its support posts are made of sturdier stock including aircraft cables and painted aluminum so the house and its umbrella will hopefully not be parted again. Despite having survived far more years without then with its eponymous feature, it’s once again difficult to imagine this showstopper sans umbrella.
Tours of The Umbrella House are offered monthly by the Sarasota Architecture Foundation, and upcoming dates and registration can be found here. ■