Remembering Gene Leedy: A Pioneer of the Modern Movement

 

In a quaint, mid-sized town, about an hour outside of Orlando, Winter Haven’s downtown is dotted with early twentieth century buildings. There was a time when you would still smell the orange blossoms driving through the classic southern town that could still be the backdrop of a period piece film.

Slightly off the center of town, geographically, aesthetically, and probably ideologically— there’s a building that looks, unlike all the others. An anomaly for the area. It’s the Leedy Architectural Office, 444 Avenue G NW. It was designed by its namesake Gene Leedy. He, along with his architecture have become fixtures in the community, as his designs were considered to be avant-garde when they were built in the ’50s. With the popularity of magazines like Dwell, mid-century modern design has continued to be hip, and the Leedy building falls right into sync.

The architect, so profoundly beloved in his community, Gene Leedy, passed away last month on Nov. 24 at the age of 90. Leedy was one of the members of the Sarasota School of Architecture (Sarasota Modern), founded by Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell. Members also included Carl Abbott, William Rupp, Victor Lundy, Jack West, and Mark Hampton—some of the most talented architects in the world at the time—were a part of this ideological school.

I had taken the self-guided tour of Leedy’s designs through Winter Haven a couple of times. You can download the audio tour or just have whoever is riding shotgun look on their phone at his website—and narrate your road trip as you pass by each structure.

The tour is a great secret. There is the basic information that you would expect, as the year of the design, but Leedy’s site goes into detail about what these houses and offices were made from, and reasons why. You can look at the photos and the structures without getting all of the specifics given, but I recommend digging deeper than the surface. The quick education not only makes the experience more satisfying but also gives insight into the general architecture and community planning.

Leedy moved to Winter Haven in 1954, an unlikely setting for innovative design, which may have been a big part of the appeal. It had also been known for Cypress Gardens, a botanical garden that supplied entertainment with attractive water skiers which closed in 2009. It had been a Florida attraction for over seventy years and was a known stop for celebrities, and locals alike. The property has been maintained and now houses another attraction, Legoland.

The neighborhood where the houses Leedy designed are listed in the tour is often called Leedyland. The homes on Drexel Avenue, are often referred to as Craney Homes, named for the builder—but according to Leedy’s website, he designed ten of those houses. All of them were built in 1956, but three of them have been renovated beyond recognition, but the tour lists the other seven houses—which have kept the original integrity of Leedy’s designs, and most of the time when people talk about Leedyland they mention them. The surrounding houses that Leedy did not design are utilitarian looking, and not complimentary to his beautiful designs, which are ironically—stronger in the utilitarian sense.

About ten years ago I was invited to stay at one of Leedy’s Winter Haven designs. My friend Forest was fascinated by Rudolph, Leedy’s mentor—which led to an exploration of the Sarasota school, which led him to Leedy. When Forest came to Orlando for a job, another friend told us they’d purchased Leedy’s Weaving/Thomasson Residence—creating an opportunity for us to stay in one of his homes. The house we stayed at is across the street from the house Leedy designed and lived in most of his life—they were both built in 1956.

Nikole the new homeowner gave us a tour of the 1000 square foot home. Its main material is pre-stressed concrete, plywood, and other easily sourced local cement blocks and wood. Leedy’s structures used industrial materials, and he was known for his use of double-T roofbeams. The standard of his homes was a wood post and beam construction with four-inch wooden decks. This home had raised floors, and a sliding glass doors framed in aluminum— which gave the appearance of a partial glass house. The cement blocks are unpainted, and the jalousie windows were designed for the breeze, and keeping the house cool. The houses are set in the middle of old oaks that provide shade.

The Weaving/Thomasson house had a nice pool in the back that was made private using walls made of the same unpainted concrete-block that the house is made from.

Like a lot of ideas that seem contemporary the concepts of these structures is a precursor to the current green construction concepts. They used materials they could get locally, and they built houses that were designed to keep houses cool without air conditioning. They were also built to last.

I spoke to architect Max Strang about Gene. Max grew up in Winter Haven, and his father was a good friend of Leedy’s. Max worked for Leedy when he was getting started. He was working on a project with Leedy that he referred to as reissues. He is aiming to design and build new homes in Leedyland that are faithful to Leedy’s design. As many of the houses in the area have not given reverence to the Leedy houses, Strang’s project is an effort to design houses that look more influenced by Leedy’s designs, rather than copied.

Around the time I was staying at a Leedy home I ended up actually talking to Gene on the phone. Anyone that talks about him seems to talk about what a character he was. A great storyteller who still looked like a guy from Mad Men. He said to me, “hey come by the house sometime. I’ll pour you a Scotch.” I regret putting that invite off.

I’m going to pour a Scotch in his memory.

SIDE BAR:

Off-the-Beaten-Path: Peebles BBQ
While a lot of people in Polk County are familiar with Gene Leedy, there is likely a higher percentage that knows of Peebles BBQ in Auburndale.

An unassuming shack on Old Dixie Highway, just off of I4 in Auburndale, covered by a canopy of old oak trees—a true juxtaposition from Leedy’s tailored designs—is Peebles BBQ. Peebles has become a part of my tandem day-trip experience. The first part of the day I tour Leedy’s designs, and on my way back to Orlando I stop at Peebles. It’s only a few miles off the most direct path home, but those few miles are worth it, maybe even necessary.

What started as a side job for the Peebles family is now a thriving business for over seventy years. In the parking lot, you will see luxury cars, beat up pickup trucks and everything in between. Closed in July and August, because there isn’t any AC and the fans aren’t big enough with all of the smokers cooking, this place is a true gem. There may be visqueen covering some of the windows, but the meat falls off the bone. I love the collard greens, but a local said I should go on a day they have mac and cheese.