Touring Paul Rudolph's Walker Guest House

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Every cute little beach house on Sanibel Island has been knocked down and replaced with a monster mansion, most of them quite ugly and excessive, and probably half of them with for sale signs in front. Therefore I was surprised to find Paul Rudolph's Walker Guest House still standing. Many of Rudolph's buildings are gone (see Why Are So Many Paul Rudolph Buildings Being Torn Down?) But the Walker Guest House survives, a testament to its owner. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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While looking at the house, we were fortunate to meet the charming and wonderful Elaine Walker, owner of the house and widow of Dr. Walt Walker, who commissioned the house. She graciously arranged for us to tour it. Credit: Bonnie Alter

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In 1951, when Rudolph was a the junior partner in Twitchell & Rudolph, the firm designed a larger house to be built near the water. Then the firm split, and Walker hired Rudolph, saying 'Why don't you carve out a little piece near the road and we'll start with the guest house.' And in 1952 he did. Credit: Paul Rudolph

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It is a small, simple, 24 foot square house with one bedroom. Two of the 8' wall panels are screened and one is plate glass. According to Paul Rudolph and his Architecture: The rigorous four-square ordering of the interior creates a counterpoint to the three-bay organization of the exterior elevation. Each of the interior quadrants is functionally zoned as living, dining, service, and bedroom, offering another of Rudolph's shiplike interior arrangements. Credit: Greatbuildings.com

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Wooden panels cover the screened walls, closing it in for shelter from storms, while providing shade from the sun when up. According to Elaine Walker, "Rudolph said to my husband, 'Sometimes you want to live in a cave and sometimes you live in a tent." When it rained or was very cold, and you lowered the flaps, it was just as cozy as you could be." It was Rudolph's favourite house; According to biographer John Howey he said 'It crouches like a spider in the sand.'" Credit: Lloyd Alter

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The weight of the panels was counterbalanced by 77 pound steel weights, hence its nickname "the Cannonball House." Over the years the panels have gained a little weight from water, and the weights no longer lift the panels all the way up. It is no surprise that it is rigged like a boat; According to Alastair Gordon, During World War II, Rudolph had worked as a naval architect and learned about thin-shell construction, the economy of means and the efficient use of space. "I was profoundly affected by ships," he said. "I remember thinking that a destroyer was one of the most beautiful things in the world." He took what he learned in the ship yards and applied it to his post-war houses. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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Detailing is extraordinarily simple; everything is as minimalist as possible. Carla Murray, who manages the house, told me that there was no bridge at the time the house was built and transport was very expensive, so everything was designed to be as light as possible. In Paul Rudolph:The Florida Houses, Christopher Domin and Joseph King write: In this project the prosaic material of the lumberyard is utilized to produce a refined expression of American ingenuity. Constructed of typical lumber profiles in combination with locally constructed operable panels, the Walker Guest House became an experiment in off-the-shelf technology.

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All is simple and modern inside as well; Paul Rudolph designed the furniture to match. A simple bookcase separates the living area from the dining. Alastair Gordon writes: These earlier domestic works were optimistic little follies dedicated to the sea and sky, inexpensive to build, elegantly restrained and ultra modern. His best houses from this period had nothing to do with status or social climbing or any of the other arriviste tendencies that motivated home building in post-war America. Rudolph's houses were exactly where they were meant to be. They'd already arrived. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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The walls are painted, but the ceiling is papered in a white grasscloth; it is a wonderful effect, adding tremendous warmth. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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X bracing for lateral stability is simple and exposed; nothing is hidden here. There originally may not have been enough; according to the Fort Myers News Press: Once the project was complete, Walker climbed up on the roof, moved from side to side and felt the house move ever so slightly with him. "He said, 'Paul, we need some braces,'" Elaine Walker recalled. Rudolph installed steel guy wires that criss-cross the slender beams that are the house's framework. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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The kitchen is small, with the original stove and sink; Credit: Lloyd Alter

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The cupboard doors are no more than a pullup blind. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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The bathroom is pretty minimal and original as well. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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The bedroom is small, but big enough to get this classic desk in by the window. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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Closet door? No more than a curtain. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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About the only thing not original are the colours; Rudolph used a much darker palette, as shown in this McCalls article from the 50s, framed on the wall. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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And of course, the television. The door behind covers a utility closet with the water heater; the poster is from Minneapolis's Walker Art Center, founded by Walt Walker's father in 1927. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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Outside again, one can see the simplicity of the exterior, the elegance of the concept, with the oceanside elevation. And what does the future hold for the Walker Guest House? There is talk of moving it to Sarasota, no doubt because just about every other building from the Sarasota school has been demolished. But Elaine Walker told us that will be her kids' decision; It isn't going anywhere while she is alive. Credit: Lloyd Alter

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I have had the privilege to visit a few houses not normally open to the public; I thought I had been in the most beautiful house in the world last summer when I toured the Maison de Verre; This fall I was a guest in Michelle Kaufmann's fabulous Glidehouse. But I just found Paul Rudolph's Walker Guest House to be a gem, a prototype for a lighter, more minimal and elegant way of designing. And at least this Rudolph house has an owner who cares; this one won't go to the dump. Thanks again to Elaine Walker and Carla Murray for giving me this wonderful opportunity. Credit: Lloyd Alter