Being somewhat of an armchair historian and an aficionado of all things pop-culture, I can often be found sifting through antique stores and thrift shops in search of kitsch. Or just as often, I can be found driving around neighborhoods in search of undiscovered architectural treasures. It is on such a foray that I discovered a wealth of historical structures in Venice.
There are two styles of buildings I am drawn to here. One is the Spanish style introduced in the 1920s by Addison Mizner to sell Palm Beach real estate; the style migrated to Florida’s West Coast soon thereafter. One needs only to drive five minutes in any direction on the island to view many splendid examples of this style.
The other style that intrigues me is the architecture from the early ’50s through the early ’60s, the golden age for what has come to be known as mid-century modern. Venice has many fine examples of this style of structures. Some are well known and others are less so, tucked away on sleepy side streets in quiet neighborhoods on the island.
Undoubtedly the most visible example of mid-century modernism in Venice is the parabolic roof over the pavilion at the public beach. The parabolic curve, along with boomerangs and delta wings, were the new shape of forward motion in the late ’50s and early ’60s, influenced by the aviation industry at the time. The new jet planes moved in an entirely different way, so new visual metaphors were used to design everything from toasters to cars—and beach pavilions—making them seem sleek and modern. Built in 1964, the pavilion embodies the forward motion the nation, as a whole, was experiencing at the time.
The most well known example of mid-century modernism might be the Hudson House built by Ralph Twitchell in 1953. With its flat roof and simple modern lines, it is a perfect example of what later was called the Sarasota School of Architecture. That style is defined as “Bauhaus design using native materials.” Bauhaus simply means minimalist, and the Hudson House is sleek while still being cozy, thanks to the use of native Ocala block and cypress wood. Ocala block is the beige-looking concrete block you see on many houses on the island. It was manufactured in the quarries of Ocala during the late ’50s, using crushed limestone which gives it a distinctive color.
Though it may be hard to imagine, the other more typical mid-century houses around the island have a bit of pedigree, too. Simply because of their horizontal layout, they were considred modern—even if the style of décor was sometimes nostalgic. The open one-story house allowed for a less formal lifestyle, a more modern lifestyle. This floor plan was conceived by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright with his Prairie-style of home, designed for a less formal way of living. With an emphasis on the horizontal plane, the Prairie style evolved to what we know today as the ranch.
While many of Venice’s ranch houses are subdued, others sport details designed to get noticed. A-frame roofs with clerestory windows along the top are a recurring feature in many houses. In architecture, clerestory refers to a portion of an interior rising above adjacent rooftops and having windows admitting daylight to the interior.
Some of these rooflines appear as wings, ready to take flight at any moment. Different materials were used to break up façades to make them look less like a horizontal box. Sometimes the details would take on a bit of whimsy, such as precast cement designs sunk flush into the surface. These could be anything from scrolling shapes to dolphins and sailfish. And while elsewhere people were covering over cement block with siding or stucco, builders here proudly used it exposed as a design element, occasionally setting it into a grid pattern called stack block. Often the stack block walls had a darker mortar to emphasis the grid.
I am obviously drawn to the mid-century modern aesthetic and have made it my passion to surround myself with period furniture and objects. It’s thrilling to stumble upon a vintage piece at a garage sale or thrift store; Craigs List and Ebay make the find all the more attainable. I never tire of the retro look. However, I am not only attracted to this slice of history because of its design aesthetics, but because the style physically illustrates a period of naiveté and optimism in the history of America. A time of innocence. And driving around Venice and seeing so many examples of this period survive intact; perhaps there is cause for optimism still.