The Unexpected Place You Need to Visit to See Stunning Mid-Century Modern Architecture
Mid-century modern design has been so popular over the past decade that it’s rare to uncover a hidden treasure somebody hasn’t already scooped up. That is, unless you visit my hometown: Winter Haven, Florida.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I accompanied my mom on a used furniture hunt. She wanted something inexpensive to put in a rental property, so we stopped at a warehouse on the side of a state road.
Unimpressed with the sea of puffy-pillow sofas, I wandered to the back of the warehouse, where I saw a vintage mid-century modern blue chair with a price tag of $49.
I stared at the chair, trying to figure out where I would put it. The bedroom? My office? The salesman saw me and misinterpreted my furniture placement dilemma as indecision. He lowered the price to $40 before I could even make a counteroffer.
“Ok. I’ll take it,” I said. I thought to myself, as my sister and I like to say when we score a big bargain, “Let me get up out of here before he wakes up from his coma.”
Like that salesman, most people in Winter Haven are unaware they live in a town with one of the world’s best collections of mid-century modern architecture. Once nicknamed Leedyland, Winter Haven is an homage to Gene Leedy, a giant in Central Florida modernism.
Leedy designed more than 30 structures in Winter Haven, including City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce building, the Garden Center, numerous office buildings, banks, an elementary school, and a cluster of homes listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Sarasota School of Architecture
Born in 1928, Leedy was a member of the Sarasota School of Architecture, an internationally recognized movement synonymous with Central Florida modernism. The Sarasota School, however, is not a traditional architectural institute where professors hold classes. Instead, the SSA is a school of thought, akin to the mythical School of Athens depicted in a fresco painted by Renaissance artist Raphael.
Ralph Twitchell and Paul Rudolph are the pioneers of the SSA, also known as the Sarasota School. Twitchell was a Sarasota-based architect who also owned a construction company. He hired Rudolph, who studied architecture at what is now Auburn University in Alabama. After working for Twitchell for five months, Rudolph left Sarasota to complete graduate studies at Harvard under Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school.
Rudolph subscribed to Gropius’ philosophy: reimagine the material world to reflect the unity of all the arts. Similarly, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, Twitchell also began incorporating nature and the organic into his designs.
Carl Abbott, the youngest member of the SSA, considers the Sarasota School a melding of Gropius’ Bauhaus and Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic style. The merger of these design philosophies took place mainly in two places: Florida and Palm Springs, California, which is widely known for its mid-century modern homes.
Rudolph returned to Sarasota in 1947, teeming with ideas. By 1948, Twitchell and Rudolph were partners. Then, in 1951, the partnership dissolved and Rudolph started his own firm and hired Leedy, a talented architect in his early 20s.
Leedy thrived under Rudolph and a collective of talented architects who moved to Sarasota. “There was never this great camaraderie that people would have wanted to have seen,” Abbott tells Apartment Therapy. He recalls stories about architects Victor Lundy and Rudolph walking on a sidewalk downtown. “I was told they’d never be on the same side. One guy would cross over so they wouldn’t have to say hello,” Abbott says. “It was a small town, and everyone was competing for work.”
Instead of small talk, the architects shared a philosophy. According to the late John Howey, author of the book “The Sarasota School of Architecture: 1941-1966,” Rudolph established the school’s principles:
- Clarity of construction
- Maximum economy of means
- Simple overall volumes penetrating vertically and horizontally
- Clear geometry floating above the Florida landscape
- Honesty in details and in structural connections.
Rudolph encouraged architects to find their style. “He always told us, ‘Don’t copy me. Learn from me, I want to help you learn from me. I’m searching, and I don’t want you to stop me from searching or get in the way,” Abbott says. “I want you to find your own voice.”
Welcome to Leedyland
Several members of the SSA remained in Sarasota. Others moved to Miami, New York and London. Leedy settled in Winter Haven, the water skiing capital of the world, located about a two-hour drive from Sarasota.
“Even as a young kid, friends would come over and they would just be awestruck,” Strang says. “It was only when I saw the reaction of friends that it dawned on me that the house was something special.”
Strang interned for Leedy in 1994 and 1995 before opening Strang Design in 1998. Leedy’s influence is evident, especially in Strang’s use of concrete.
Leedy collaborated with Rudolph to design the Lake Region Yacht & Country Club in Winter Haven, the site of my high school’s 10-year reunion. At the time, I was a reporter at Sports Illustrated and, having “made it,” was excited about the reunion. The only thing that stunned me more than the many bald male classmates was the design of that building and the way the light danced off its towering windows.
Since returning home, I often drive to what is now the Winter Haven Country Club to play tennis. When I spoke to Strang, I asked him about the building because it didn’t look how I remembered. Had they renovated?
“They tore it down,” Strang admits.
Our conversation paused — perhaps a moment of silence to mourn the lost art.
“I think that’s a black eye for Winter Haven, the fact that they weren’t able to repurpose that building,” Strang says. “All over the United States, there are preservation movements of important buildings. Unfortunately, Winter Haven did not get the memo.”
Strang is committed to more residents getting the memo. “[Leedy] was so impactful with downtown Winter Haven. It just can’t be overstated,” he says. “His buildings kind of became the fabric of downtown Winter Haven.”
Back in his day, it seemed Leedy descended upon Winter Haven at the perfect time. Winter Haven’s population nearly doubled from 8,605 in 1950 to 16,277 in 1960. In the 1950s, in collaboration with Craney Home Construction Company, Leedy designed a cluster of homes in one neighborhood known as the Craney Spec Houses.
The Craney Spec Houses
The Craney Spec Houses are mid-century modern design at its best, featuring sustainable elements incorporated decades before eco-friendly architecture became a thing.
These modular homes were 1,200 to 1,500 square feet in size. Leedy used wood post-and-beam construction and locally sourced “Ocala Block” concrete that looked like yellow-tinged oversized cinder blocks. Blending with the organic surroundings, Leedy tucked the homes under large oak trees and behind concrete walls, concealing the courtyards and floor-to-ceiling windows from the street.
Strang once called these houses “little courtyard jewels. Very similar to the Paul Rudolph designs that were in the mid-50s.”
The Craney Spec homes are now on the National Register of Historic Places.
On a self-guided tour, you can drive by the homes and other Leedy-designed structures.
“Rudolph considered those Leedy’s best work,” Abbott says. Leedy must have thought so, too. The prototype Craney Spec house was the one Leedy designed for himself. He lived there for 65 years until his death in 2018.
In November 1990, Rudolph wrote a letter of recommendation for Leedy, who was under consideration for the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows. In the letter, Rudolph described Leedy’s work as honest.
“He has never allowed the swinging pendulum of changing stylistic winds to interfere with straightforward problem solving,” Rudolph wrote. “Out of this attitude comes valid architecture of Florida.”
Rudolph considered Leedy’s work with precast concrete superior to anyone in the country. “In his hands, concrete is not merely concrete, but it is transformed and becomes ‘of the earth:’ lasting, almost monumental, yet voluptuous and very appropriate to the Florida climate.”
Leedy was awarded the Fellow in 1992.
After Leedy’s death, Strang purchased Leedy’s home and his office building. Strang wants the office building to serve as a new creative outpost for Strang Design and the community of Winter Haven.
“Simply put, this is one of Florida’s best buildings…and we want to share it,” Strang said in a statement. “We are finalizing plans to make the Leedy office available for tours and special events.”
Strang has become something of a Leedy disciple, like others who have lived in a Leedy-designed home. So has Renj Reichert, who owns Modern Redemption, a mid-century modern furniture and design company in Massachusetts.
Reichert fell in love with Leedy when he traveled to Winter Haven to purchase a chair and ottoman at an estate sale. The home was a Leedy, but out of Reichert’s price range.
“I went home, typed in Gene Leedy on a search engine, and this house popped up on Zillow: the Ellison residence. And it was perfect,” Reichert says. He purchased Winter Haven’s Ellison house for only $250,000.
He lived in the house until 2017 when he had to sell for personal reasons and relocated to Massachusetts.
“I regret ever leaving that house. Once you live in a work of art, it changes your perception of how a house should be,” Reichert says. “You can’t live in a Mona Lisa or a statue. But you can live in one of these houses.”
Many of the country’s mid-century “Mona Lisas” indeed are not in California, like so many are led to believe, but in Florida.
“I loved that house,” Reichert says of his Leedy-designed abode. “It was weird because you felt like the house loved you too.”