Opening Doors to a Past Era
Written by Monica Humpries
Colista Swartz remembers biking past a house with a bright orange front door every day in college at the University of Florida. Thirty years later, she stepped inside the house because of Gainesville Modern. “I finally got to see all the little secrets that you could only imagine from the road,” Swartz, 50, said. Gainesville Modern is a non-profit organization that preserves Gainesville’s architectural past and promotes future architecture. It looks specifically at the postwar period of 1945 to 1975.
Throughout the year the organization hosts programs and events, but its most popular event is Gainesville Modern Weekend. For a weekend in March five or six midcentury modern homes are opened to the public to tour. Over 450 people step inside each house.
“Midcentury modern architecture is characterized by floor-to-ceiling windows and open-design concepts,” said Marty Hylton, the president of Gainesville Modern and an assistant professor at UF’s College of Design, Construction and Planning. For the past two years, Irene Salley opened her home for Gainesville Modern Weekend. Her home sits at the top of a winding driveway, where floor-to-ceiling windows and a flat roof create an open space. She’s lived in the house since 1987, and she’s worked to preserve its original architecture and design.
Mike Hastings, the treasurer of Gainesville Modern, knew Salley and her iconic home. He asked if her home would be featured as one of the six homes. Salley said she was initially intimidated to have 450 people walk through her home, but the day went on, she said she fell in love with the experience. “Everyone just wants to see a different style of housing,” she said. “I’m lucky to show them something new.”
Gainesville Modern tries to show a new set of houses every year but some are popular enough to show twice, Hylton said. So far, 23 houses have been shown but there’s a plethora of midcentury moderns to choose from. “We haven’t even scratched the surface,” he said. Hylton said he’s astounded by the amount of midcentury modern architecture in Gainesville. He realized in college that the midcentury modern architecture was not only innovative and creative, but it would be evaluated for landmarks by his career.
As the buildings reach 50 years old, they can now be evaluated as landmarks. Hylton focused on the postwar period and moved to Sarasota, Florida, which is an epicenter for modernism in the postwar period. But eventually Hylton learned about the wealth of architecture in Gainesville. That wealth was thanks to the University of Florida’s School of Architecture, Hylton said “You have these people who were training and then coming and adapting these modern principles and ideas to the climate and culture of Gainesville,” he said. And that realization is what started Gainesville Modern.
“We brought this group of people together,
where some have expertise and background
in architecture and some are just enthusiasts.”
Hastings suggested doing home tours to highlight midcentury modern architecture. They felt the “story of the remarkable architecture from that period in Gainesville wasn’t really getting shared with the public,” Hylton said. Hylton, Hastings and David Forest, the executive director, formed Gainesville Modern. “We brought this group of people together, where some have expertise and background in architecture, and some are just enthusiasts,” Hylton said. The Gainesville Modern Weekend has been going on for the past five years and grows every year. The first tour in 2013 had about 250 people attend. This year brought over 450, Hylton said. Each year it grows a little more and people come from farther and farther. Hylton said people have come from across Florida, Georgia and Texas, and he’s felt a renewed interest in the aesthetics of the period. “Hopefully people walk away learning something and having a greater appreciation,” Hylton said.
Swartz said her appreciation has only increased since attending the tours. Every year, her friends come from Jacksonville to visit the houses. They end the tour with lunch at a classic Gainesville restaurant. This past year they went to Satchel’s and talked for hours about their favorite details of each home. Hylton said Gainesville Modern really has two missions: one is to raise awareness and preserve the midcentury modern buildings in Gainesville after WWII and the second is to promote the tradition of innovative, modern design. It is a membership organization, but tickets are sold to everyone for the home tours. The money raised from the event goes towards a number of things. Gainesville Modern partners with Habitat for Humanity to build houses in the community, and money also goes towards other events, such as public lectures and film series, throughout the year.
However, a lot of money goes towards preserving the architecture in Gainesville, Hylton said. Currently, the nonprofit has two nominations for the National Register of Historic Places and has started a digital archive with the George A. Smathers Libraries. Gainesville Modern and the city’s historic preservation officer are also taking on the lofty goal of surveying everything built between 1930 and 1975.
The city recently received a grant for the work, and Gainesville Modern will help gather volunteers and contribute funding, Hylton said. “You really can’t preserve what you don’t know is there,” Hylton said. This task is even more important as Gainesville continues to develop.
This past year, Gainesville was listed as endangered by the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. With the university nearby and the growing population, a lot of changes are happening, and some threaten existing historic districts. “We’re just now to the point where midcentury architecture is being recognized as important,” Hylton said. “If we don’t do the inventory and don’t raise awareness, people may not give it a second thought on demolishing what may be a significant building from that period.” Swartz and Salley both recognize the importance of preserving this architecture. “The physical buildings are so important, but the stories behind them matter just as much,” Swartz said. She remembers walking through her grandmother’s house and seeing many of the similar designs and structures she saw throughout the Gainesville Modern home tours. “It was a wave of nostalgia,” she said. Gainesville Modern has also started a campaign called Moderns that Matter, a compilation of buildings that make Gainesville iconic. The idea is that anyone in the community can nominate a building they like, whether it meets the criteria to be a landmark or not. “It’s really just a way of trying to understand the pulse of the community,” Hylton said.
Beyond understanding the community, the goal is to also preserve and maintain those important buildings. Buildings like the SAE fraternity house, Lakeshore Towers and Grace Presbyterian Church have already made it on the #ModernsThatMatter list. Hylton said the architecture that fills the neighborhoods throughout Gainesville truly defines the city. “I personally think that every city has the period or era that defines them,” he said. “For Gainesville, it really is the postwar.” OT
The university’s school of architecture had a large impact on the current architecture found in Gainesville. Marty Hylton, the president of Gainesville Modern, calls it “town and gown modern” since the architecture has been influenced by the students who graduated from UF.