October 22, 2014

Florida Icon

Icon: Gene Leedy

One of the original architects of the Sarasota School of Architecture movement; Winter Haven; age 82

Art Levy | 11/1/2010

Gene Leedy
[Photo: Brook Pifer]
» My father worked for a coal company in West Virginia, and his boss was an engineer. One rainy day, they were up on the mountain — they were working on a bridge from mountain to mountain — and his boss was wearing a Humphrey Bogart raincoat and a Humphrey Bogart hat, and I looked at him standing there and doing drawings and I thought, ‘God, that’s what I want to be.’ I must have been about 10 years old.

» A good building to me is the honest use of materials, straightforward construction, no bullshit. So many architects, especially young architects, they play to the house. They’re trying to do something real dramatic. They go over budget, and it doesn’t work half the time.

» There wasn’t much to do in West Virginia, you know, so my friends and I used to go in the woods and build log cabins. We’d notch the logs and hold them together with West Virginia clay, so I was in the construction business at a very early age.

» Paul Rudolph worked in Sarasota. He was a very famous architect, and everybody wanted to work for him. After college, I went down there and told him I wanted to work for him, and he said, ‘What can you do?’ I said, ‘Well, I can do your design work.’ He laughed, and we became friends.

» Just about everything you see now is bad architecture. Most of the construction in this state is dominated by the contractor or the developer — and they want it cheap.

» Henry-Russell Hitchcock, one of the great architecture critics in the world, he wrote an article in 1952 for the Architectural Review in London, and he said that the greatest contemporary architecture in the world was being done by a group of young architects in Sarasota. I was supposed to put on a big program about what we were doing, and I had to think of a name for the brochure. In those days, they used to refer to the architects in Chicago as the ‘Chicago School,’ so I called us the ‘Sarasota School,’ and it stuck.

» The public has to be more aware of what they’ve got, like they just tore down the Riverview High School in Sarasota that Paul Rudolph did. That was a national monument, and they tore it down. We live in a Kleenex society. We use it and throw it away.

» Usually, the first-time client is very appreciative, but when the house is sold, that’s when the bad stuff starts. I’ve always said the urge to remodel is stronger than the sex drive.

» Sarasota used to be pretty open-minded. There were things you could do in Sarasota that you couldn’t do anyplace else. Paul Rudolph was down there doing some real avant garde stuff, so it attracted a lot of young guys. During the 1950s, Sarasota was probably the greatest place in the world to be an architect. To me, it was like Paris after World War I.

» There were about 10 or 15 of us. We were all good friends. No jealousy. In fact, we used to eat at this restaurant downtown for lunch all the time, and we would discuss architecture. I think it was called the Spanish Grill or something. It was our hangout.

» When you walk into a building, you should have a feeling for it. I do a lot of things the client might not be aware of, but subconsciously they are. Everything is in order and detailed nicely to give you a sense of peace.

» I was one of the first architects to start doing my own interiors because so many interior decorators were screwing up my buildings.

» Phil Hiss, he was a very wealthy guy, and he came to Sarasota and he decided he was going to improve the school system, so he ran for school board. He got elected. Well, every vote on the school board was 4 to 1, and he was the 1. He got pissed off, so he went out and campaigned for all his buddies and got them all elected, and he became chairman of the school board. The school board meetings lasted 15 minutes because he already had it all worked out. He was a very dynamic guy. He hired all of us young architects to do schools. Then, those schools got international recognition. Hiss, he appreciated good architecture. He was the catalyst.

» Sarasota is a great town, but the architecture in Sarasota today, it makes me want to throw up.

» I’m in Winter Haven, and Phil Hiss calls me: ‘Gene, I want you to do Brentwood Elementary School.’ This is on Friday, and he asks if I can come down to Sarasota Monday and sign the contract and start work on Tuesday. I said, ‘Yeah!’ That’s the way it worked.

» I spend a lot of time with my clients. When they come in, I know exactly what I’m going to do, but we spend two or three weeks talking about it until I just finally exhaust all of their ideas. Then, when I show them the design, they say, ‘Hell, that’s what I wanted!’

» I treat my buildings like children. I go and visit them.

» My philosophy on raising kids is give them lots of love and plenty of self-confidence. When my son Ingram was 4 years old — he has a very sophisticated computer business in Winter Haven now — some guy came in the office and said to Ingram, ‘Who are you?’ And Ingram said, ‘I’m Ingram Leedy, and I’m the best kid in the world.’ The guy said, ‘Boy, that’s impressive. Where did you get that idea?’ And Ingram said, ‘My daddy tells me that every day.’


Here are some links to learn more about the Sarasota School of Architecture and Leedy's work:

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