A Landmark Once More | Paul Rudolph's 1953-54 Umbrella House, Its Restoration Finally Complete, Enhances Sarasota's Reputation as an Architectural Destination

By Bubil, Harold | Sarasota Herald Tribune, January 24, 2016 | Go to article overview

A Landmark Once More | Paul Rudolph's 1953-54 Umbrella House, Its Restoration Finally Complete, Enhances Sarasota's Reputation as an Architectural Destination


Bubil, Harold, Sarasota Herald Tribune


ARCHITECTURE

Sarasota needed a hero to save one of its most important landmarks.

It got a team of them.

Over the past 18 years, three couples have steadfastly maintained and improved the aging landmark in their care. And now, the third couple, Anne and Bob Essner, have completed the mission -- restoring the full shading structure to famed architect Paul Rudolph's landmark Umbrella House in Lido Shores.

The house and umbrella were built in 1953-54 as an experiment to see how a large wooden trellis could both shade a house in the subtropics and at the same time make an architectural statement. But it also taught a valuable lesson about building along the Florida coast: It was not strong enough, and was almost entirely destroyed by a tropical storm in the 1960s.

For more than 40 years, the house sat as an odd box topped by a few remaining beams from the original umbrella. At one time, it even had a mansard roof.

"Like a clown hat," Bob Essner said.

The box was showing its age when Gary and Carol Stover paid Ross and Rachel Van Tilborg $250,000 for it in 1997. The Stovers restored the interior as closely as they could to the original, but could only dream that one day the umbrella would stand again.

"Whoever puts the umbrella back on the house will enjoy remarkable exposure in the media and be remembered for that," said Gary Stover in 2005.

That opportunity fell to Vince and Julie Ciulla, who bought the house for $1.2 million that year.

The Ciullas rebuilt "phase 1" of the umbrella, which covers the house with about 4 feet of overhang, but had to leave rebuilding the entire structure to the next "heroes."

Enter Bob and Anne Essner, who lived across Westway Drive and also owned Rudolph's Harkavy House a couple blocks away on Morningside Drive for use as a guest house and study.

They didn't really know what was across the street at first.

"At that point, we had very little appreciation for the history of the neighborhood and the modernist architecture," Bob Essner said.

Then they bought the Harkavy House, built in 1957, and came to understand the midcentury modern genius of Paul Rudolph.

"We didn't buy it because it was a Paul Rudolph House," he said. "We bought it because we liked it and the space was great for what I wanted. I spent a lot of time in that house and I started to appreciate what it was and how you felt when you were in it. The aesthetics of the house rub off on your mood."

So when the Essners heard in 2014 that the Ciullas were thinking of selling the Umbrella House, Bob Essner started talking to Vinny Ciulla. The house never went on the MLS.

"We talked a long time before we consummated something," Bob Essner said. "We made a pre-emptive offer." It sold for $1.6 million.

"I have known three owners of the house, and they were all good stewards," said architect Greg Hall, who oversaw the restoration effort. "The Stollers, Ciullas and the

Essners. It is there today, and if any one of them hadn't done what they needed to, it wouldn't be there today.

"So we can be thankful for the provenance. The Essners, in particular, have quite an eye and an understanding for design. They went out and brought in the furniture and the artwork that brings it more to its original period."

"We don't want to be heroes," Bob Essner said. …

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