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Mediterranean fever.

From the boom dwellings of the '20s to the neo-castles rising today, Sarasota keeps burning for this romantic architectural style.

Sarasota has some extraordinary homes, but the ones that evoke the most curiosity and romance are undoubtedly those that recall the architecture of the Mediterranean. They range from near-palaces to charming cottages, and to many visitors they seem the archetypal Florida architecture. Yet the Mediterranean style actually flourished for just a few short years in the mid-1920s, during the legendary Florida real estate boom. The style perfectly expresses the opulence and fantasy of that brief and glorious period, and many of the homes built then remain today, a grand legacy that fascinates both residents and tourists alike.

Often inappropriately called "Spanish," these houses are usually a melding of Mediterranean styles found in villas, cottages and palazzos in Italy, France, North Africa, Portugal and Spain. Rarely can one distinguish between these regional styles in our local interpretations, though certain characteristics, such as wide roof overhangs being more typically Italian and no overhang being more Spanish, indicate origin. Today this hybrid style is called "Mediterranean Revival," or, in architect-speak, "Med Rev."

Why Mediterranean in Florida? There are the obvious reasons, such as the similarity of our climate to the sunny Mediterranean and the state's Spanish heritage. But the way this style arrive in Florida is more complex.

America has been searching for an architectural identity ever since the Revolution. The succession of styles in the late 18th and 19th centuries (Federal, Greek Revival, Victorian) was mostly borrowed from Europe. But by the end of the 19th century, Americans were reacting to the excesses of Victorian buildings and were becoming more and more conscious of the need to develop their own American style. This new direction created two very different stylistic expressions -- one in the form of modernism, based on the design principles of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and many others. The other took a more traditional approach, patriotically reviving the classical Georgian architecture of colonial America.

But World War I changed things. Those early forms of modernism became too symbolic of the radical and unfamiliar; and Americans turned to the traditional styles, in which they found security and comfort in the years that followed that tumultuous war.

The colonial styles remained popular, but a host of other revivals sprang up and scattered all across the country -- English manor houses, French chateaux, New England cottages, Spanish haciendas and Italian villas. These "period" houses, as they've come to be called, were really a new architectural development that was quite American in concept. Ersatz and borrowed as they were, they managed to provide yearned-for architectural heritage. The Florida real-estate boom corresponded with the period movement, and Florida's climate and heritage made Mediterranean the logical choice for period houses here.

The style had been introduced in Florida as early as the 1880s, when the New York architectural firm of Carrere and Hastings began building hotels for Henry Flagler in St. Augustine. The style had also become popular in California, Florida's development rival, during the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. But what really made the Mediterranean style take off was its marketing strength: Mediterranean winter homes were so different from the permanent homes of the people who were seeking escape in Florida's salubrious climate! Moreover, even when brand-new, these homes established firmly planted roots, instant legacy. Today, rich with the patina of 60 years or more, they evoke the romantic spirit in all of us.

Probably the first house in Sarasota to echo the architecture of the Mediterranean was never built. Around 1910, Mrs. Potter Palmer was having plans drawn for her Sarasota house by Holabird and Roche in Chicago and Ogden Codman in New York. Both versions were in the Mediterranean mode. The H&R plans were for an enormous Italian villa, and the Codman drawings were for a large palazzo built around a courtyard, similar to John Deering's mansion in Miami, Vizcaya, which was to come several years later.

Mrs. Palmer's house was never realized, but several other Mediterranean-style houses were built in Sarasota during the 'teens (though they weren't of the boom 1920s style we more commonly label as Mediterranean Revival). The first grand house to be built on any of the islands in Sarasota Bay was New Edzell Castle on Bird Key, demolished in the '60s when the key was subdivided by Arvida. Built by Thomas W. Worcester of Cincinnati, it was said to be modeled on a Scottish castle, but borrows more from a Renaissance palazzo. An Italian Renaissance-style house was designed by Chicago's Otis and Clark and built on Phillippi Creek for Edson Keith of Chicago. More chaste than most other examples, this simple but grand house is the focal point of Phillippi Estate, now owned by the county and available for weddings, parties and other special events.

At Yellow Bluffs, overlooking Sarasota Bay, Mrs. Palmer's aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. B.L. Honore, erected the Palladian-style house of rusticated concrete block known as the Acacias. Vestiges of this estate, which was torn down in 1983, remain just off the North Trail north of Van Wezel.

The mid-1920s produced some of the most fantastic examples of the Mediterranean style. While the houses from the decade before were more classic, or urban Italian Renaissance in inspiration, the boom-time architecture of the '20s was exceedingly romantic, even fanciful. Advertising man and civic booster Ralph Caples built a boom-style house with a colonnaded courtyard open to Sarasota Bay. It was also Caples who introduced Sarasota to circus magnate John Ringling, who with his wife Mable built a spectacular bayfront residence, Ca' d'Zan. Designed first by Thomas Reed Martin, the architect from Holabird and Roche that Mrs. Palmer brought to Sarasota, and later by well-known architect Dwight James Baum of New York City, this palace, resplendent with rich textures and materials, is said to be the Ringlings' requested mixture of the Venetian gothic of the Doge's Palace and the Renaissance-style Madison Square Gardens. Now part of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the house is open to the public.

Other magnificent houses of the day include Charles Ringling's house, near brother John's, built of Georgian marble. The house is quite impressive in scale, but certainly more restrained than John Ringling's home. Both this house and the house of Ralph Caples are now part of the campus of New College/USF. Another extraordinary estate just north of Sarasota, Seagate, was built for inventor-industrialist Powell Crosley and may soon be restored as a museum.

Mediterranean fever was contagious, soon spreading from great estates to more humble dwellings. Even small cottages aspired to partake of the grand romance of the enchanting style.

Hundreds of tile-roofed examples still exist in Sarasota, many of them concentrated in pockets. South Washington Drive, just off St. Armands Circle, has six fine examples, most designed by Martin or Baum. The house at 139 S. Washington, designed by a Minnesota architect in the 1930s for the family that founded Lavoris mouthwash, even had an authentic Italian Renaissance floor plan, with the living quarters on the second level. Also worth seeing are the Spanish houses at 236, 96 and 47 S. Washington., with picturesque massing and asymmetrical facades that emphasize their romantic air. The two-story house at 76 S. Washington wears a veneer of Mediterranean ornament; but in plans and proportions, it's actually an adaptation of a more traditional American house. The impressive one-story house at 25 S. Washington has an ornamented door surround reminiscent of Spanish baroque architecture.

A delightful block of flat-roofed examples exists between 1002 and 1038 Osprey Ave. At 991 Osprey is an extraordinary rambling house, designed by Thomas Reed Martin, with two distinctly different facades ornamented with shells, cartouches, columns and a highly decorative frieze. Martin designed another picturesque example of the style at 1903 Lincoln, exquisitely situated on Hudson Bay. (This house has a twin at the end of Indian Beach Drive, an example of 1920s "xerox" architecture.)

A drive down Oak Street between Osprey and U.S. 301 will reveal several fine examples. On this street, whose median is planted with towering Washingtonian palms, are two contrasting examples of Mediterranean architecture. The house at 1858 Oak stands ordered and symmetrical, with arched Palladian-like windows; across the street on the corner of Oak and Madison, Thomas Reed Martin built this asymmetrical home and studio for himself. This house has a twin, too; it's the one at 96 South Washington mentioned earlier. Two side streets off Oak, Madison and Columbia, have some Mediterranean cottages, several respectfully restored in recent years.

But for the most enchanting collection of Mediterranean-influenced cottages, go west to the 400 block of Pineapple Avenue, to the 15 cottages known as Burns Court. The developer Owen Burns built these little structures and many other Mediterranean homes in Sarasota. Note the mirrored pair of cottages at 422 and 430 Burns Court, with Moorish arches, rare in Sarasota (although they also appear at Ca' d' Zan).

As the Florida boom waned, so did the Mediterranean style. In 1926, a hurricane devastated Miami, killing about 400 people and injuring more than 6,000. The misery increased with the spread of typhoid fever. In 1927 the Mediterranean fruit fly was invading, and the boom had collapsed. By the next year, banks were failing throughout the state. To make matters worse, another hurricane ripped through the state that year, killing almost 2,000 people when a dike broke on Lake Okeechobee. The stock market crash of '29 dealt the final blow to Florida real estate, and very few examples of the Mediterranean style exist past 1929. Real estate didn't pick up again until after World War II, and by then modernism was the look.

In recent years, however, many of the vintage 1920s Mediterranean homes have been restored in Sarasota; and new Mediterranean-post modern creations are spotting Prestancia, The Oaks and the keys. Like love itself, the expressions of this style are many, and the feelings evoked by some variants are not always pleasing, but be that as it may, the newest proliferation of examples shows that Sarasota's romance with the Mediterranean still runs deep.

Wilson Stiles is associated with the interior design firm Beardsworth/Neal, of New York and Sarasota.
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Title Annotation:architecture of Sarasota, FL's homes
Author:Stiles, Wilson
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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