While we currently live in a Norman Carver home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, this isn't our first mid-century modern home. From 2014 to 2016, we lived in a 1958 home designed by architect J. Bruce Spencer in Lakeland, Florida. It was the architect's own home and a place that we really loved. It was even featured in Dwell Magazine's Rooms We Love Issue in May 2015. Read on for more about our restoration, vintage photos and photos after the restoration.
Many of the images below are slideshows so please scroll to see the other images.
In January 2014 we bought a mid-century modern house in Lakeland, Florida that was designed by Spencer, a local architect who was strongly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright. Lakeland itself is home to the largest group of buildings designed by Wright, ten in total at Florida Southern College, just a mile's walk away. We sold the house two years ago but I came across an article from the Tampa Tribune featuring the house just two years after it was built and it was amazing to see these vintage photos.
The house originally cost $13,000 (excluding lot) to build in 1958 for Spencer, his wife Jeanene and their young children (on the way). The house drew on ideas from the Sarasota School of Architecture, whose primary proponents were Paul Rudolph, Victor Lundy of Sarasota and Gene Leedy of nearby Winter Haven. It exemplifies regional modernist architecture, fitting the place and climate and it is made from Floridian materials - Ocala concrete block, Cypress lumber and terrazzo floors.
The house is in essence two rectangle structures, one living and one for sleeping, facing each other through 6 sets of french doors. The two structures are separated by a central gravel-filled courtyard, designed to help the house breathe in Florida's hot humid climate: a chimney effect from the center pulled in cooler air from the high windows on each side. Either end of the courtyard is screened, allowing cross breezes to further cool the spaces.
The plan below shows the layout, as featured in The Tampa Tribune, 12 Nov, 1961 p108.
The central courtyard / atrium as it was originally and how we updated it in 2014:
We were immediately drawn to the house. The attraction was not only to the cool mid-century modern appearance of its fortress-like, horizontal, flat roof street front facade but to the idea of a completely private, yet sun-filled central space. While the Spencers were living there from 1958-1968, Florida's frequent rainstorms meant the open courtyard became a nuisance to cross, and eventually Bruce designed an enclosure with a 16'x8' skylight above.
As both my wife and I work from home, it was a wonderful house to live in with our three cats. When we had family stay, however, the transparent nature of the house made it a bit more challenging! As third owners, we restored the home in many ways- a brand new roof (involving considerable framing repairs caused by poor maintenance in the past), put in a new kitchen, restored interior cypress surfaces and installed a split system multi zone air conditioner. When we bought the mid-century Central Florida home, there was no AC!
I also built a hanging drop down screen of my own design for the front entrance based on a design Bruce Spencer described. He mentioned that he was never entirely happy with the way the front blocks were staggered like typical bricks, clashing with the stacked grid of the rest of the house. The Tampa Tribune article included a photo of the original trellis details:
I managed to get in touch with Bruce and he and Jeanene visited us (see photo below) once we had moved in. It was fascinating to hear them talk about its construction and life in the house. Apparently all the Ocala concrete blocks were laid in a single day! The framing and wood work took many months more. The fireplace was a huge highlight of the house for us and the Spencers said they too had loved a fire on the rare Florida winter day when the mercury dropped. There is even crack in the terrazzo from when Bruce put a large ball of pine sap in the fire. It burned so fiercely the the entire fireplace expanded rapidly, causing the floor to crack!
We sold the house in July 2016 to a lovely retired couple who had a connection to the house which really touched us: While at elementary school in Lakeland, the new owner had visited the house on a field trip as it had been completed earlier that year. The design and the space had such an effect on him that he fell in love with architecture and becoming an architect. Life, however, took him in a different direction and he was unable to fulfill his dream. It was only by chance that he saw the house listing online and recognized it immediately. The rest is history! The new owners are now working with Bruce Spencer to build sensitive additions and complete further updates to the house.
If you are a 3D Modeler, a sketchup model of the house is available on 3D Warehouse here. I created the initial model and John Luttrop did a fantastic job of adding an incredible amount of detail. John visited us in the house while we lived there as he was passing through visiting the collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings at FSC.
Here is the complete article from the Tampa Tribune 12 Nov, 1961 p108
I'll be blogging about Bruce Spencer's other great mid century modern designs in Central Florida from news articles I've found. Subscribe to Trystcraft (at the very bottom of this page) to get notified of new blog posts and vintage mid century furniture.