Over a curt nude-beige wall, the white spindly legs and steel slat head of the Umbrella House peek out on to the curved main road towards Longboat Key, an omnipresent onlooker to all that zoom past, beckoning rubbernecking heads into the Lido Shores mid-century microcosm. Once a haven for beatniks, artists and free spirits all, the quiet bohemia and bacchanalia of the ’50s flourished under the shade of Paul Rudolph’s then-wooden looming “umbrella,” reaching its slender arms over the top of the petite house, spanning the length of the deep diving pool and out toward what is now John Ringling Boulevard and what was then white sands.

Built in 1953, developer Philip Hiss commissioned Rudolph to design a “spec” house, or model home, for the burgeoning Lido Shores neighborhood—a harbinger of the modernist time capsule it would later become—in an attempt to draw people in from the road; “This was actually one of Paul Rudolph’s first solo commissions,” says Sarasota Architectural Foundation Board Chair Janet Minker. A 1954 open house ad in the Sarasota Herald Tribune declares that Rudolph’s cockeyed creation did just that, attracting 2,500 people in its first afternoon on display—a massive amount of the city’s population at the time.

At just 2,000 square feet, the Umbrella House lays bare Rudolph’s uncanny union between pragmatic construction and avant-garde architectural flair. As an overture to the masses, the house is built on a 32-inch module, the width of the standard Sears jalousie window of the day. “The jalousie windows soon became a hallmark of the Sarasota School of Architecture movement,” says Minker. While the windows may be pre-fab, Rudolph’s implementation is a far cry from chintz. The narrow paned glass comprises the entire back wall of the house, a crank creaking the slats open from head to toe, allowing two stories of outside air and sunlight to filter in unchecked, while the 3,000-square-foot lattice parasol wards off the pulse of hot rays, keeping the breaths and sips of air cool throughout the day. A lower second platform near the 10-foot-deep end of the pool is rumored to have served as a makeshift diving board during debaucherous, cocktail-fueled parties of the house's heyday.


While the home itself is only one-room deep, the space as a whole feels light and lifted, spacious and gusty, pulling away from earthly ties. Every element of the Umbrella House floats, from the two feet of airspace between the roof and the umbrella structure to reveals under the built-in cabinets, cut-outs in the metal half-walls to extra levels on each floor. While technically only two stories, a sunken “conversation pit” is snuck in on the ground floor (for Beat Generation pot-fed rap sessions by the fireplace), while the second story opens up to a middle breezeway bridge, flanked on either side by bedrooms lifted an extra two stairs worth. All in all, Rudolph’s dumbbell-shaped tableau has no time for extraneous space, each area snugly usable and practical for its real-life inhabitants.


In 2015, the historic home was bought by Anne and Bob Essner who over the course of mere months restored the umbrella to its original glory—the all-wood structure had been almost wholly demolished during a storm in the early ‘60s—now made out of stronger aluminum and top-shaded by cypress wood (restored by Hall Architects) and ready to weather Florida’s worst. Anne recalls that they had always been fascinated by the Umbrella House, especially after having spent so much time diving into Paul Rudolph’s design upon purchasing his nearby Harkavy House some years before; “We spent a lot of time making sure that we could restore this house correctly before buying it,” she says.

Both the Essners note they’ve tried to return the Umbrella House as close to the shape as it was in 1953-54 as possible, including both the interior furnishings and structural elements. Almost all design details remain from the original iteration—the jalousie windows, bathroom tiling, kitchen cabinetry, wood floors, the (working) fireplace and accompanying brick floor, the wall sliders and all built-in work come from the 1950s era, along with the pale yellows and sky blues found painted throughout the interior and exterior.

“There are no hallways in the house, which gives it a lot more usable space than you may think for a house this scale,” says Bob. “The angles are great. Everywhere you look you see something different. Most of the accents are suspended. Even if you look at the outside of the house it’s floating. It’s off the ground.” With Rudolph in mind, the Essners decorated the home to reflect the style of the original model home, with sparse accoutrements in the spirit of the modernist period; a table designed by the prolific Italian designer Carlo Mollino sits in the dining nook, lighting by Stilnovo from the ’50s stands and hangs throughout, George Nelson makes appearances in suspended white bubble lamps, office storage systems, credenzas and innovative bedframes (secret crannies and pop-out lights populate the headboard), with a classic Eames sofa lounger dominating the living room.

“Paul Rudolph was trying to come up with a housing model that could be a great design but not custom-made, not expensive,” says Bob. “You could go to the lumber yard or Sears and buy pre-fabricated pieces and assemble a really interesting house. After World War II, there was still a housing shortage—think of Levittown, small, easily built, simple—so I think Paul Rudolph was doing this in a more design-y way, but with the same motivation and just a different outcome.” Minker also draws a connection to the modernist suburban tract homes designed by Joseph Eichler in California after World War II: “Those were kind of ‘atomic ranch’-style with butterfly roofs, whereas the Umbrella House is one-of-a-kind,” she says.

Long-time residents of the neighborhood, the Essners now use the home as a pavilion, hosting soirees in conjunction with the Sarasota Architectural Foundation as well as private pool parties where stories and folklore of the “wild artist-types” of the ‘50s and ‘60s fly between local architecture buffs (“Naked parties, as they were called,” says Anne of the house’s infamous past). And this month, the house will be open during the foundation’s third annual SarasotaMOD weekend (November 11–13) for both tours and an intimate dinner party under the storied umbrella.