Category Archives: Florida

Dream house: Florida

Martie Lieberman is a passionately advocate for the modern buildings of Florida, especially in the Sarasota area. and every now and then, she sends me word that a 1950s home is on the market. she knows i’m not planning to move to Sarasota…but i love dreaming about the buildings.

Gene Leedy Florida House

this week, i’m in love with a 1956 home by Gene Leedy that’s for sale on Dexter Street in Winter Haven (where Leedy built a slew of houses in the 1950s). i like houses that take the environment into consideration–and this low-lying  stripped-down design really works wonderfully with the incredible plants of Central Florida.

walkway around house

i like the way the house opens itself to the outside world, with practical louvered windows & shade-creating overhangs, so there’s no need to live in a sealed air conditioned box.


this link is Martie talking about meeting Gene Leedy, and the challenge of preserving modern buildings when they’re on the market. more photos of the house, here. meanwhile, i’m going to imagine how wonderful this room would be as a home office…complete with that beautiful daybed for day-dreaming…

Dream home office by Gene Leedy


veranda livin’

veranda…verandah…porch…front stoop: no matter what you want to call it, the veranda is a public face on a house. must be the weather that’s making me notice them this week—verandas, by definition, have a roof against the rain.

I like walking past verandas in action—people sitting & watching the world go by, catching up with neighbours, spying on passers-by. on Palmerston, there are people sitting on their front stoop, waving to people they know, fidgeting with their laptops, talking loudly on their cellphones (probably complaining about new text charges), keeping an eye on their kids, playing with their dogs, fighting with their new giant recycling bins, going through their mail, and having friends over for a drink…

it’s all so much more public & sociable than the back deck, whether it’s the serious high-end High South veranda of Savannah Georgia or the generally more casual Palmerston veranda, like this one just up the street.

Miami’s Habitat for Humanity has simple but fabulous verandas on their public housing designs. and I wish there were a way to incorporate the concept into condo buildings & apartment towers. kind of the way some Art Deco Miami hotel/apartments have a veranda where you can eat breakfast or read the papers, and actually talk to our neighbours instead of staring straight ahead in the elevator as we come up from the garage.

seems like our condo balconies are more like pods, a module take on the backyard deck—here I am in my own private universe & I cannot see you.

verandas don’t stand for that kind of nonsense. they say “we’re all in this together.”

a friend is moving to Toronto this month & she’s asked people to make tiles to put around her front door, to bring blessings to her veranda—copying the Portuguese neighbours’ shrines & religious tiles. she’s not exactly a Virgin Mary type, so I’m looking forward to dropping by & hanging out on the veranda…

literary house #2

without actually meaning to, i’ve managed to visit most of Ernest Hemingway’s houses…i’ve walked past his first address in Toronto and i’ve led literary walking tours around his various addresses in Paris, so when i was in Key West recently, staying around the corner from his fabulous former house, i really had to visit. it’s a gorgeous house…this illustration gives you an idea of the amazing garden, the wide verandas surrounding the house on both floors, and at the back you can see the curved roof of the guest house – which is where Hem kept his study.

Ernesto\'s house in Key West

the house today is overrun with cats & tour guides (the cats are healthy; the tour guides might want to join AA en masse) but even in its current museum state, with little original furniture, the house still manages to give hints of what kind of home it might have been during Hemingway’s years here.

he wrote some of his best fiction, including as A Farewell to Arms, in this house, along with some less interesting nonfiction. it’s here that Hem started getting increasingly worried about his macho public persona, when in reality, the more fragile male characters in his fiction were probably more like the writer than he ever would have admitted.

Papa\'s study

this is his writing study – located in the upstairs portion of the guest house, which Hem connected to his bedroom by a rope bridge. i like this detail: the writer at play, going to work. the bridge also meant he didn’t have to go downstairs & interact with anyone before hitting the typewriter…now that’s a home detail that a writer can appreciate!

i hope Papa’s ghost isn’t here though – not only are the tour guides creepy, the bookshop is tucked out of the way on the far side of the swimming pool, and it sells a lot more postcards than books.

literary house #1

Poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is one of the many writers who were drawn to Florida during the 20th century and i couldn’t resist looking up her house. A nomad all her life, Bishop arrived in Key West during the 1930s; in 1938, she & her then-lover, Louise Crane, bought a traditional “eyebrow” house at 624 White Street. Bishop held onto the house for nearly a decade, despite the collapse of her relationship with Crane. Her first book of poems was published while she lived here, but while Bishop was clearly smitten with the climate & lifestyle of the Keys, her battles with alcoholism and depression eventually led to her to sell the house and later to her leaving Florida.

Bishop wrote of the house: “It is very well made, with slightly arched beams so that it looks either like a ship’s cabin or a freight car.” I think I’ve read other writers who have compared their homes to trains or ship cabins – maybe the sensation of travel & isolation helps them to focus. Certainly these are themes highly relevant to Bishop’s work, and I’m always looking for ways that homes reflect the people living within them!

house of Elizabeth Bishop

Today, the house is still lovely (though it sports a loud orange sign warning Bishop fans to stay out…so i did). I find it fascinating that she lived in one of these “eyebrow” houses so peculiar to Key West – where the second story is essentially hidden by the eyebrow of the roof, which comes low over a two-storey veranda. You can see the odd effect in this photo. This hidden aspect of the house, coupled with its overgrown garden & well-worn shutters, seem a perfect reflection of Bishop’s often lonely poetic practice.

Though many people know her poem “One Art”, i prefer the evocative “Florida”, which begins:

The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water,
held together by mangrave roots
that bear while living oysters in clusters,

and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons,
dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks
like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass.
The state full of long S-shaped birds, blue and white,
and unseen hysterical birds who rush up the scale
every time in a tantrum.

(read the rest of the poem)

Bishop\'s eyebrow house

from alligator to zoomburg

while I was in Orlando, browsing in a wonderful bookshop called Urban Think! (and i like them even though they’ve inserted unnecessary punctuation into their store title), I found a wonderful book by Dolores Hayden: A Field Guide to Sprawl. Hayden’s a fascinating writer (read more by her here) and this book came out in 2004–i don’t know how i’ve missed it until now! the guide includes definitions & excellently depressing photo examples of such creatures as the “snout-house”, “litter on a stick”, and “TOAD”. this last has nothing to do with the fabled warty leaping critters which manage to survive in surburban Florida; TOAD stands for temporary obsolete, abandoned or derelict sites. the kind that were all over Vancouver until the mid-1990s building boom…the kind of place that is attractive to teenagers, dog walkers & street people, but not such a healthy sign of an urban environment. Field Guide to Sprawl

Sarasota modern

Like a lot of Canadians, I first visited Florida as a kid–so it was a land of grapefruit, condos, and DisneyWorld. I’m not crazy about grapefruit & I’m not a fan of the Mouse…but I went back to Florida to spend a month travelling around the state, & I saw lots of alligators, ate some great barbeque, and saw some amazing houses. I kicked off the tour in Sarasota, which I thought was the epitome of golf course developments & not much else…boy was I wrong. The super-sized condos & houses on golf courses are just a more recent manifestation of a real estate story that has basically created Florida as we know it today, with whole cities made up of suburban sprawl. All across the state, there are plots of land that were either swamp, orange grove, or sandbar, which now have neat street grids and ranch houses…for better & for worse…Florida Tiki

What makes Sarasota special is that, in that development boom, there have been some modernist visionaries. I was fortunate to find Martie Lieberman’s Modern Architecture Driving Tour (you can download it for free from her website); I printed it up & off I went. I was mostly looking forward to seeing some 50s houses designed by Paul Rudolph.

But the house that stole my heart is the Hiss Studio, built in 1952. This street view shows the original house–which was an office for Philip Hiss (the developer who developed this Lido Shores key from a sandbar into a high-end residential neighborhood). His personal house, across the street, has been torn down, but this office, along with a conference room, kitchenette, and bathroom, still contain some of Hiss’ furniture; there’s a large addition on the back by Bert Brosmith & Carl Abbott, built for Hiss’ children & their nanny, but I didn’t troop across private property to photograph it.

Hiss Studio 1952

Tim Siebert, a young apprentice to Paul Rudolph, built the office–and lived there during construction, since he was also supervising Rudolph’s “Umbrella House” going up next door. Like many modern flat-roofed buildings, the roof of Hiss Studio leaks…Siebert has been quoted as apologizing, saying he was, after all, very young at the time.

What I love is how the now-classic glass box, balanced on its solid plinth, tucks beneath the massive banyan tree on the property.