Infrastructure and Urbanism in 1920s Sarasota, Florida

This post is based on research I did for "History of the American City" taught by Gwendolyn Wright this past fall.

As an undergraduate in architectural history I was encouraged to think critically about my home town as part of an exercise in historical writing.  This past semester, for a course focused on the history of American cities, I decided to take this further and research the history of the city as a whole.  I was surprised to find that Sarasota, Florida, has a much richer architectural history than I had understood from living there as a teenager.  Settled as a frontier outpost in the 19th century, it grew thanks to tourism, the circus, and real estate speculation, resulting in an incredible expansion in the 1920s that died with the Great Depression.  The city grew again after WWII, and in the 1950s was home to the Sarasota School of Architecture, a nationally-renowned architectural style and movement (not a physical school) that produced early attempts at climate-adapted modern housing.  Since then the city has grown without cease, but recently has attempted to start reining in its sprawl with New Urbanist-influenced planning codes.  In digging around the libraries here at Columbia, I found a 1925 city planning report with beautiful colored plans for the development of the city - and what I found about the history of this report kickstarted my entire research project.

image from Nolen's plan (public domain)
The 1920s was a huge real estate boom period for cities across Florida, and the small town of Sarasota was no exception.  Its businessmen and boosters touted it as the perfect vacation destination, although at the start of the decade it was mostly a fishing village with a population of about 3,000.  By the end of the decade (and the simultaneous end of the boom), Sarasota started to take on the shape of the city that it is today, thanks to major investments in transportation infrastructure.  The town had been designed in 1886 with streets parallel to the waterfront and then branching off into a grid behind, since it was initially accessible only by water.  It was eventually served by a railroad line, the Seaboard Air Line (SAL - see below image), in addition to roads leading north to Tampa and St. Petersburg and a relatively small marina for coastal water traffic, with a channel deepened in 1921 to seven feet to accommodate larger vessels.  The city of Sarasota was incorporated in 1913 and Sarasota County formed in 1921.  By 1930, Sarasota had a new highway, the Tamiami Trail, opened in 1928; a new rail line, the Atlantic Coast Line (ACL), opened in 1924, with a new depot in 1925; a newly developed waterfront; and three times as many residents.  That's a lot of big changes for one decade.

image from Wikipedia
To create a modern city from the original fishing and agricultural outpost, the newly-formed city's newly-formed Planning Commission hired famous city planner John Nolen of Massachusetts to design an extended city plan.  Nolen and his firm drew up the 1925 report that I found and drew new regional, zone, and city plans for the commission to implement.  He paid special attention to integrating all the new forms of transportation in the city that were either just opened or under construction, and recommended the creation of an airport on Lido Key.  Nolen was busy at the time with plans all over Florida and the US, producing thirty-five Florida city plans and dozens more around the country.  He also designed the plan for the new town of Venice, just south of Sarasota, and his plan can still be seen in that city's downtown street grid today.  In Sarasota, though, nothing came of Nolen's plan - it was never implemented.  Many of his plans never were.  The bust came too quickly after the boom, and the get-rich-quick attitude of real estate speculation made lengthy planning changes seem too difficult.  In the end, Nolen's plan remained nothing but an idea on paper, although it is still a very interesting record of how a 1920s planner envisioned the future of the city, the role to be played by infrastructure, and more, as I describe in my research paper.

image from Sarasota History Alive
In the present day, rail service has been replaced with AMTRAK bus service, the historic depot has been demolished, and some of the area’s railroad corridors have been converted to paved trails.  Railroads ceased to be an important transportation mode after the completion of the new interstate highways in the 1960s, including Interstate 75 east of the city, which now serves as the area’s eastern development edge.  The domination of car travel in Florida over other modes of transportation has meant that the street widenings Nolen proposed have mostly been implemented, although none of his aesthetically-motivated diagonal streets were built (see his regional plan at the planning report link above).  Water transportation now has a new network, following the creation of the Intracoastal Waterway in the 1930s to 1960s; in the case of Venice, the Intracoastal cut Nolen’s city in two pieces, separating the train station from the rest of the city.  Finally, with respect to air travel, Nolen’s proposed airfield on Lido Key was never built, or much of his other proposed waterfront infill projects, although different modifications to the coastline have been made over the years.  But it seems some city historians, at least, are interested in Nolen's recommendations even today.

I've had a lot of fun learning about the development of my city and beginning to understand its toponyms and  eccentricities.  I would encourage everyone to do the same, especially since it makes running errands around town more interesting!  If you would like to read my whole paper, with much more detail on the Nolen plan itself and its relationship to transportation networks, let me know and I'll send it along.

Major sources:
-- Karl H. Grismer, The Story of Sarasota (Tampa: Florida Grower Press, 1946) 
-- John Lore Hancock, “John Nolen and the American City Planning Movement” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1964)
-- Michael McDonough, “Selling Sarasota: Architecture and Propaganda in a 1920s Boom Town,” Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 23, Florida Theme Issue (1998) 
-- John Nolen, Report on Comprehensive Plan for Sarasota, Florida, Based on the Planning Survey and Existing Conditions Map Previously Prepared and Submitted (Cambridge: 1925), and other writings of John Nolen


Movie Review: Architecture & Action Movies

In a sense, many action movies are "about" architecture or engage directly with buildings; think of Ethan Hunt scaling skyscrapers and crawling through ducts in all the Mission: Impossible movies, or car chases through city centers and urban parcours in the Bourne movies.  Some other obvious ones are Blade Runner, known for its futuristic nighttime cityscapes that launched a thousand architectural dreams, and, apparently, Die Hard, as described eloquently in BLDGBLOG.  (Also thanks to Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG for inspiring this entire line of thought.)  Here are a few more action + architecture movies I've seen recently that I think are of particular interest.

The Towering Inferno (1974): architect as hero, building systems as dangerous adversaries or heroic resources (but ultimately the architect is instructed, at the end of the film, to subordinate himself to the firefighter, who apparently knows best about how tall to make buildings)

Earthquake (1974): engineer as hero, saving people by knowing where the utilities run on the edge of the site and where to create a strategic horizontal opening, all while advocating for more robust structural design

Escape from New York (1981): dystopian vision of then-contemporary urbanism, urban decay, architecture of the police state, megaprojects (if we don't like it, put a giant wall around it!) - all shot in East St. Louis, Missouri.  Faked "digital wireframe" sequences, using blacklight and tape on a real physical model.

Logan's Run (1976): dystopian vision of the future, everyone lives in a mechanical bubble run by computers, while outside the "real" world (Washington, DC) lies in ruins, depopulated and awaiting humanity's return.  My favorite part of the movie was seeing the imagined ruined monuments of Washington.

All of these movies propose new ways to move through buildings, laterally and horizontally, diagonally...  out windows and into air shafts.  Maybe it's already trite to talk about this (see Deleuze and Guattari, if you're into that sort of thing), but I still think it's interesting to see how buildings are used and abused in these types of films.  Even movies like the recent Bond film Skyfall, or Home Alone and its sequels for that matter, show a different side to architecture: weaponizing the house.  These movies fascinate me for the way in which the characters are shown to rethink completely the functions of the house and of everyday objects within it.  There's probably an architecture dissertation in there somewhere.  For better or worse, now that I've started seeing movies this way, I've found that it's difficult to stop.  If you've seen any other films that use buildings in novel ways, please let me know!

Movie Review: Urbanized

Of the three Gary Hustwit documentaries I've seen, this being the third and last, I thought Urbanized was the best by far.  It's like a primer on the most-discussed issues of urbanism today.  So while I can't say I learned much from the movie, Urbanized is a great introduction to this range of topics, and I'm supposed to know this stuff anyway as part of my profession.  The visuals are also great: if you're an urbanism buff, you'll enjoy trying to figure out which city is being shown before the titles are given; the aerial views comparing cities are pretty spectacular; and there are some fun interviews with people around the world, including government officials in Santiago, Chile; Bogota, Colombia; and in New York City.  I should warn the urbanism buffs, though, that you may get impatient sometimes with the pacing, since so much will already be familiar.  But it's still worth a viewing.  For everyone else, you will probably learn a lot, including some things that may be eye-opening about the way people live around the world and about the history of city development.  Other topics covered include suburbia (think Phoenix); shrinking cities (think Detroit); exploding cities (think China); adaptive reuse (think New York City's High Line); energy use, environment, and climate change (think... well, everywhere, but especially New Orleans); and community involvement in urbanism.  Overall, definitely recommended.


Three American Houses

We Americans have a special cultural pedestal reserved for single-family homes.  Think "house with a white picket fence," "the American dream," etc etc.  American architects and architectural historians generally have their own ideas about what makes an iconic American house, and lately I've had the good fortune to be able to visit a few of these, all now converted to house-museums.  Not your typical houses by any means, and certainly not what most people think of when they think "house," but houses nevertheless.  And, probably fortunately for us all, not likely to become the next big thing in residential construction, as you'll see below. 

Biltmore House
Client: George Vanderbilt
Architect: Richard Morris Hunt (with landscape design by Frederick Law Olmstead)
Construction: 1889-1895, steel and brick, with Kentucky limestone veneer
Location: Asheville, NC

The Biltmore touts itself as "America's largest home," and while I question its "homey-ness" I have no doubts about its large-ness.  This place is huge.  Think castle - more specifically, think French chateau, because that's what Vanderbilt ordered.  It was so crowded when we visited (this privately-owned quasi-theme-park has no qualms about packing in as many visitors at once as possible) that we didn't get to see all the open rooms, which is fine because they don't let you take photos inside and there are so many rooms that it's just too much anyway.  What we did see what interesting enough, since we took the special "Architect's Tour" and got to go up on the roof.  I definitely recommend this.  Under the roof we saw the iron bars holding up the slate tile, looked down on the winter garden's elaborate copper sculpture, and hunted for traces of the gold leaf that used to decorate Vanderbilt's initials on the copper roof panels.  This "house" is not only big and built to last, but extremely fancy: it had all the latest domestic inventions, like two elevators, electric lighting and its own generating station, refrigerated storage rooms, central heating, an intercom and fire alarm system, a pipe organ, swimming pool, bowling alley, gym, and observatory.  All this, hidden inside a building that pulls from the best of 13th-century French architecture.  Secretly made of steel and brick, the building is swathed in Kentucky limestone to give the whole thing an air of respectability.  Well played, Mr. Vanderbilt, sir.  Your grandchildren are still milking this thing for all it's worth.

Client: the Edgar Kaufmann family
Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright
Construction:  1936-1939, reinforced concrete
Location: Bear Run, PA

Fallingwater is one of Frank Lloyd Wright's most iconic, and most spectacular, house projects, as it dramatically cantilevers over a waterfall in an isolated, wooded area of Pennsylvania outside Pittsburgh.  The story goes that Wright was too proud of his design to listen to the structural engineer, and refused to use the recommended amount of steel; but the engineer somehow managed to add it without Wright's approval.  Nevertheless, the house has been perilously close to collapsing multiple times and was restored as recently as 2002 by one of my professors, Robert Silman of Robert Silman Associates.  (You can read his article here.)  The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy that maintains the property is fiercely protective of it, disallowing any photography on the property except at the viewpoint seen below, and strictly controlling visits.  So the best place for detailed images is their website.  I wish I could show photographs of the interesting (and horribly energy-inefficient) detailing on the windows, with glass directly abutting stone; or the floors with foundation stones jutting up into the living room; or the river, which apparently caused terrible moisture and mold problems in the house.  In short, this was a house we all wanted so badly to succeed, despite its awful structural, environmental, and comfort problems, that we the public have continued to pour money into it for over 70 years.  And yet - I still highly recommend you go see it.

The Glass House
Client: Philip Johnson
Architect: Philip Johnson (yes, he built it for himself)
Construction: 1949, steel and glass
Location: New Canaan, CT

The Glass House is a Late Modernist glass box built by architect/curator Philip Johnson for himself and his partner in what was once a relatively out-of-the-way suburb of New York City, and still an affluent area although with many more residents now.  Johnson bought himself a large piece of land and built a number of strange and interesting structures on it throughout his life.  I had always assumed that the house was somehow situated in a wooded area, given that it has zero privacy.  In fact, it overlooks a pond and woods, but is itself relatively out in the open on a hill.  It faces the appropriately-named Brick House just across the lawn, a guest house with maximum privacy (that also contains the heating equipment for the Glass House, thus freeing it from having unsightly machinery inside).  By contemporary standards the house seems small, but architects are notorious for having different standards than "regular" people, and the glass walls really do make it seem bigger on the inside (see what I did there) than it actually is.  And yet, you couldn't pay me to live there.  No curtains!  Horrible heat loss through enormous single-pane windows!  No storage!  But I guess that's where you have to live if you want to be perpetually famous.  You can register for a tour on the Glass House website, as the National Trust is also extremely picky about visitor access to the site.

Still on my list of houses to visit: Monticello, the Gamble House, the Glessner House, the Robie House, Taliesin (yes, more FLW), Eames House, Farnsworth House, Gropius House, and Schindler House.  Other interesting houses I've visited: Ca d'Zan, Vizcaya.  When it comes to these palatial complexes, let's just say they don't build 'em like they used to.  Fortunately.  (Except  for Versailles.)  For more photos of the houses, check out my Google+ album and scroll to the end.

Book Review: "Collapse"

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by scientist and geographer Jared Diamond was not a book I intended to read, but it was sitting around the house after being lent to us by a friend, so I picked it up to read on the plane.  Collapse describes how different factors have contributed, to different degrees, to the collapse of various human societies across time and around the world, with a focus on the role played by environmental degradation.  Diamond is better known for his bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel, and has a journalistic rather than academic style, addressed to educated laymen.  While I wasn't very impressed with his writing style or his overly pedantic presentation of the material ("Now we will discuss X, then we will discuss Y"..."As we saw in X, we will now see in Y," etc), I was interested enough in the topic to make it through all 500+ pages of the book.  In short, Diamond lays out how human impact on the environment, especially deforestation, has been an important factor in societal collapse (defined as "a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time" pp3); how some societies have been able to cope with environmental damage to avoid collapse; and how this history is relevant to contemporary societies now, as we as a species continue to deforest and otherwise destroy our planet at an alarming rate.  If you weren't already convinced that environmental damage can have and has had an immense impact on human survival, this is the book for you.  Societies he discusses range from the ancient Maya, Vikings, and Pacific Islanders to medieval Japan and modern Australia, Rwanda, the Dominican Republic/Haiti, and Montana.  (Much too much of the book focuses on the Vikings, in my opinion.  You can skip most of that part.)  The author tries to be optimistic at the end by pointing out how some societies have made good decisions that resulted in their continued survival to the present day, and how these decisions are within our capacity to make now, if we can get our collective act together.  But he does not pretend that this will be easy.

Which brings me to the concealed purpose of this post: my New Year's resolutions.  I've never been really interested in making resolutions in the past, but maybe I just didn't have challenging enough goals.  This past year, I couldn't help but notice how more and more of my school as well as leisure reading have converged on environmental concerns.  From reading about urban composting to discovering that even I can compost here in NYC, to timely reminders from Michael Pollan, to my registration for the LEED Green Associate exam, I have been surrounded with reminders that I should be doing more to reduce my own consumption of energy and resources and to give something back.  Initially I considered whether I could try some kind of anti-consumption pledge, deciding not to buy any durable goods for myself in 2013; but I realized that I'm much too addicted to my First World lifestyle to go cold turkey (what if I need new clothes for work?  what if I need another lamp when we move? what if there's a great new print out by my favorite artist? etc).  So here are my resolutions for 2013:
  1. Don't buy things I don't need, especially durable goods.  My first victory: deciding not to buy a new doormat after ours was stolen this week (the perils of living in NYC).  Our building already has an entry mat - we don't need one just for our door.
  2. Start composting.  After discovering that compost is collected at the weekly Greenmarket two blocks from my house, how can I not do this?
  3. Cook more at home and bring my lunch more.  This is both a health & environment goal, since the alternative is more takeout, which is generally higher in calories and produces more packaging waste.
  4. Ask for no utensils, napkins, etc when I do get takeout.  I have my own forks, I don't need little flimsy plastic ones!
  5. Eat less meat and processed foods.  A perpetual goal.  Meat production takes a huge amount of energy and petroleum.  (See: An Omnivore's Dilemma and this article)
  6. Remember to be energy & water conscious.  Who needs long showers?  And why not take the stairs more, while you're at it?
Living in New York City means that we already do a lot of energy-conscious things that are difficult for most Americans.   We don't own a car, but use public transit instead.  We don't have many (any) large energy-intensive appliances, like a washing machine, dryer, dishwasher, even TV or hair dryer.  We live in an apartment building, which means major savings on energy use for heating, and New York City is one of the most energy-efficient places to live, period.  We've switched to using vinegar as a cleaning solution instead of chemicals.  And of course, we use CFLs instead of regular light bulbs, turn off electronics when we aren't using them, etc.  But we both travel often by air and probably use more than our fair share of petroleum that way.  And we've discovered that trying to buy local food at the aforementioned Greenmarket is both inconvenient and more expensive, so we rarely shop there.  My resolutions above are some of the ways I think I can start working toward a more sustainable lifestyle, given my situation.

Jared Diamond sums up our modern dilemma precisely:
"They [past difficult decisions to give up long-held beliefs in the face of changing conditions] may inspire modern First-World citizens with the courage to make the most fundamental reappraisal now facing us: how much of our traditional consumer values and First World living standard can we afford to retain?  I already mentioned the seeming political impossibility of inducing First World citizens to lower their [environmental] impact on the world.  But the alternative, of continuing our current impact, is more impossible." (524)

What are your New Year's resolutions?  Or rather, what will you do to help save the planet this year?