Archival Drawings & Photos provided by the Gene Leedy Estate
Most people do not know Winter Haven, Florida, from Adam — let alone realize that the town was a proving ground for one of the U.S.’s most important 20th-century residential architects. As you near the top of an unassuming hill in the heart of town, on Drexel Avenue, if you are not paying attention, you could cruise right past seven unique housing prototypes set back in the palmetto and oak scrub. Long and low, the clean unpainted concrete homes rest. This is “Leedyland.” When Gene Leedy, later a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, started out building one-offs for vacationers and wealthy clients in Sarasota, Central Florida was just beginning to see a boom in affordable tract housing. It was at that point, in the fifties, that he ran up blueprints for local developer Craney Homes for these case study-like houses.
Winter Haven may seem like an unlikely place to practice progressive architecture. But Leedy’s work there goes to show that modernism is actually accessible. “The Craney Homes offer a timeless approach to residential living,” says the Miami-based modernist architect Max Strang, who grew up in Winter Haven in a Leedy-designed residence. He adds, gushing, “They are practical. They are economical. They are flexible. They are brilliant.” They are brilliant in the main because Leedy addressed himself to the particular environment that we call the Sunshine State, and a half-century later, as a new consumer demand for better, healthier design comes of age, such modular speculative homes are just as relevant as they used to be. And so, Strang believes that such Leedys will be built again.
Unlike in California, there was no Joseph Eichler. At no point did developers seem to agree on a Florida look — from bungalows to Mediterranean Revival to uninspired vernacular in the form of tract houses or McMansions, a dominant regional style failed to materialize. Florida, however, is dotted with architecture that took its cue from local nature — namely for the facts of life before air conditioning. The Sarasota School of Architecture was the most important group here. Founded by Ralph Twitchell and Paul Rudolph, who went on to become chair of Yale University’s Department of Architecture for six years, the school also included Mark Hampton and Victor Lundy, besides Gene Leedy. With roots in the International Style — several members having studied under Walter Gropius, at Bauhaus — homes by these architects were on the front of energy efficiency. The International Style had gone to Florida and, like so many others, transplanted.
Many of the traits and solutions — such as large overhangs, louvered shades, verandas, covered patios, and raised floors — recalled long-known Southern hacks for cooling spaces. The clean lines, jalousies, and mixes of natural, native materials with concrete and steel produced an aesthetic that uniquely anticipated the landscape.
“[W]e were interested in building for the climate with the honest use of local materials and experimental construction concepts,” Leedy recently told Strang. “We incorporated raised floors to offset the dampness of the ground, concrete blocks and beams, flat roofs, courtyards, sliding glass doors and windows, grillwork and shutters to filter light.” The homes also sought to go beyond the call for “shelter.” They kept you dialed in to the parcel of land you occupied — to what the sky and plants were doing beyond your doors, walls, and windows.
Leedy’s spec homes are characterized by a courtyard and a wall that runs along the courtyard from the front of the house toward the back — an approach to property lines and contained yards that lends itself to compact developments. The courtyard maximizes usable outdoor space by making it private and creating a microclimate where shade and vegetation work to cool it down. The homes featured the first aluminum sliding glass doors in Central Florida; and rather than limiting sliders as an outlet and view onto the back of a house, Leedy used them throughout as connective tissue between different spaces, playing on transparency, privacy, and territory.
People will always want to live in a place and space that reflects their value system. Every generation dictates new ideals — and so too will Gen Y and millennials. It has to be said that the homemaking ideas that drive modernism are not out of the general public’s reach, nor do they demand more maintenance or cost upfront. Once millennials break through in the new economy and gain access to reasonable lines of credit, RCLCO suggested in a 2014 report in The Advisory, that “their housing preferences are likely to shift as much as it did for previous generations.” Already, suburbs across America are becoming more compact, sustainable, and walkable.
In fact, walkability (never a Florida talent) was ranked by the Urban Land Institute as the number-one growing demand. And the question of how walkable a neighborhood is puts other questions into orbit, too — questions about resiliency, public green space, and tree canopy. By building homes that responsively align themselves with the environment, a series of decisions get stacked on one another and add up to a vision of the best possible home life.
Proximity to work, communal haunts like coffee shops, and non-franchised restaurants also deal primarily with an engaged lifestyle and community. These are values reflected in modernist design because it brings the outdoors closer and encourages people to be thoughtful about how we use finite amounts of space. More compact development means we can build closer to urban centers; and combined with established tree canopy (maintained through structural pruning), compactness activates neighborhoods so that people want to move around in them. Clearly the way forward is environmental integration and resiliency, rather than this puritanical tack of building solitary iceboxes with yards maintained as gaps between our neighbors (realms to be avoided under strong rays of sun).
Recent interest in Gene Leedy’s spec homes is inspiring in a state that will only have to negotiate harder with nature in the future. Florida Modernism + Design, based in Miami, for example, is a new organization born out of conversations about home ownership, historic preservation, modernist architecture, and the prospect of design in Florida. Its goal is not only to preserve architecture, but to apply lessons learned to future building projects and develop best practices. They hope to raise awareness through various media platforms, events, and publications.
Channels like that are how modern architecture got into the hands of everyday folks on the West Coast (‘white collar homes for blue collar families,’ the situation was described), and took off: “The idea that a middle-class California family could aspire to a custom-built house was extensively and successfully promoted by a number of publications intended for the layperson — the so-called ‘shelter magazines,’” Terence Riley has told the Miami Rail. “The most influential was Arts & Architecture, which was published from 1929 until 1967. These houses were actually built and sold to buyers who had big visions but modest budgets.” Florida Modernism + Design is then working to connect the dots across the state between architectural preservation groups, realtors, home buyers, designers, architects, and developers in hope of unifying and projecting a Florida lifestyle that’s been lost in the shuffle.
The architect Max Strang worked for Leedy before establishing his own offices in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and now Sarasota. Strang has designed several notable residences and projects in Central Florida, among them a fresh look at row housing named Rain Garden in Winter Haven, his hometown. Now, Strang wants to breathe new life into Leedy’s 1956 floor plans.
“I’ve been coordinating with Gene,” says Strang. “He’s very excited about reissuing.” The updates “will unmistakably be derived from the original Craneys,” he adds. As was the case the first go around, buyers will have options for personalizing with butterfly roofs, pools, and various layouts — something Leedy encouraged. (Over the years, he also remodeled most of the Drexel Craneys for changing families.) The first phase will see a model, likely built on Drexel Avenue. Their idea is to supply, once again, an attractive alternative to affordable tract housing. The homes would come in within the range of $200k-$400k. There is even a precedent for putting old floorplans back into production. In California, the demand for midcentury has been so high that developer KUD purchased the rights to iconic Eichler floor plans; building is underway.
Years after Leedy’s concepts and design philosophy were developed, a new, excited generation echoes his concern for lifestyle-conscious design, straightforward structural expression, and honest materials. They will be the perfect customer for the Florida of the future.