Florida's Architecture

By: Ryan Nance

From Tallahassee to Miami, Florida's architecture expresses its diverse artistic and cultural history.

Architecture in Florida is much more than beach homes and theme parks. The many layers of history that have washed over the Florida landscape have left distinct styles of building.

Florida's Building Traditions

From the early 16th century onward, Florida's architectural heritage has grown in many different directions. The González-Alvarez House in St. Augustine is the oldest surviving Spanish colonial house in Florida. The current structure dates from the early 18th century. Cholokka Boulevard in historic downtown Micanopy is an enchanting district of rustic, tin-roofed, wood-framed "Cracker" structures. Amelia Island's Silk Stocking District brims over with Victorian vacation homes in all shades of fancy. The stately and elegant Brokaw-McDougall House in Tallahassee is a shining example of Florida's antebellum mansions.

The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age, from the late 1800s through around 1935, has left perhaps the most extensive and visible architectural legacy in Florida. Henry Flagler, a partner of John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company, left his thumbprints all over the state. Flagler financed and built his East Coast Railway and left a chain of luxury hotels, train depots and houses from the northeast down to Key West. Some of the most notable Flagler buildings include the campus of Flagler College in St. Augustine, The Flagler Museum, formerly known as Whitehall and the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach.

John and Mable Ringling, of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, made Sarasota their winter residence. He built his Cá d’Zan, "House of John" in the Venetian dialect, a Venetian Gothic mansion on the shores of Sarasota Bay that looks as if it should be found along the Grand Canal in Venice. Complete with a gondolier dock, an impressive 81-foot tower and ornate Venetian-Arabic windows and fenestrae, the 41-room building was completed with materials imported from Spain and Italy.

In 1916, James Deering, the vice president of International Harvester, built a European-inspired winter home called Vizcaya on the waters of Miami's Biscayne Bay. Designed to imitate a self-sufficient Italian villa, the estate originally had a dairy, chicken coop, mule stable and staff residences. The estate was purchased by Miami-Dade County in 1952 and has been a museum ever since.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Florida Legacy

After building his masterpieces all over the world, the indomitable Frank Lloyd Wright left the largest single collection of his buildings in central Florida. In 1938, the president of Florida Southern College, Dr. Ludd Spivey, sought out the then 67-year-old Wright to design a thoroughly modern college campus in the orange groves of Lakeland. Wright designed twelve buildings in all for the campus, including the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel as a focal point and the Polk County Science Building, the only planetarium he ever designed, making it the largest grouping of Wright buildings in the world.

Modern Florida Architecture

Florida's modern architecture has taken on many different forms - from the minimalist houses of the Sarasota School of Architecture, to the deconstructionist Broward County Public Library, which challenges the very notion of constructed space. Perhaps the most extraordinary of Florida's contemporary architecture seems remarkably familiar. New Urbanism harkens back to sweeter days, and the planned development in Northwest Florida, called simply Seaside, is this style's purest expression. The town gained a wide audience by playing as the backdrop in the 1998 movie, The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey and Ed Harris. This architectural style is an idyllic ode to the human scale. Every spot in town is a nice walk from every other, and neighborliness is a cherished value of the design.

Downtown Naples, redesigned by Seaside's designer Andrés Duany, also demonstrates the principles of New Urbanism, but without the advantage of a from-the-ground-up design. The same principles of scale and human connection were applied to a living and growing city district, and to great effect.

With large cities and quaint small towns, coastal villages and vast resorts, tradition and innovation, Florida is architecturally rich and represents diverse swaths of taste, culture and history.

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