Celebrate Gainesville’s Architectural Heritage

By Morris Hylton III / Special to The SunPosted Feb 8, 2019, at 12:01 AMUpdated Feb 8, 2019, at 2:25 PM

Weil Cassini Residence

Every city has a period of time that defines its built environment and architectural character. For Gainesville, that moment was the mid-20th century.

In the decades that followed the end of World War II, the city, mirroring the situation across Florida, experienced unprecedented growth. This growth was driven in large part by the University of Florida’s expansion as the GI Bill afforded veterans the opportunity to pursue a degree, women were allowed to enroll and the campus was racially integrated.

From 1945 to 1946, for example, enrollment exploded from 587 to 8,000. By the beginning of the 1970s, there were tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff.

During this era, the urban core of Gainesville was transformed as five new government buildings were constructed surrounding a new public gathering space, now known as Bo Diddley Plaza. The first project was a new courthouse built in two phases (1958, 1962). Designed by UF graduate and local architect Arthur Campbell, the building represented the larger postwar shift away from traditional styles to a modernist design approach.

With antecedents occurring prior to the war, modernism became the prevailing architecture and design movement, embodying and projecting American optimism, progress and democracy. At the dedication of the new courthouse, then-U.S. Rep. D.R. (Billy) Matthews extolled “the great architectural beauty” of the modernist building and claimed that “no community can progress without respect to esthetic values.”

Other examples quickly appeared across Gainesville as new public schools, religious structures, and commercial and other buildings were constructed in the modernist idiom. This proliferation of modern architecture was due in part to the UF School of Architecture, officially established in 1925 as the first of its kind in Florida.

In the 1950s and 1960s, professors like Harry Merritt, who studied at Harvard University with Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, were among the first generation of American-trained modernists. Merritt and other instructors and graduates were often commissioned to design innovative, experimental houses for fellow UF faculty in other departments.

This town-and-gown modernism permeated the many suburban, residential neighborhoods that expanded the city’s boundaries. One example is the home Merritt designed in Colclough Hills (1964). Now known as the Weil-Cassisi residence, the house embodies many of the attributes that have come to define mid-century modern architecture including exposed structural components, transparency that provides a visual and physical connection to the exterior, and an open plan.

Weil-Cassisi was Gainesville’s first postwar, private residence to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The designation has helped raise awareness of the city’s rich legacy of modern architecture and opened the door to a new generation of landmarks and historic districts that should be recognized and preserved.

In June, the city of Gainesville completed the first phase of a state-funded project to survey and document individual buildings and residential neighborhoods of the postwar era (circa 1945-1975). The survey was a collaboration with UF’s Historic Preservation Program and Gainesville Modern — a local, non-profit group dedicated to preserving the city’s modern architectural past and promoting its future through education, advocacy and awareness. The buildings and neighborhoods surveyed were then evaluated for meeting the criteria — historical, cultural and architectural — for landmark designation on the national and local level.

From some 57 postwar suburban neighborhoods developed during the period, the city and its partners, assisted by volunteers, surveyed 10 including Florida Park and Palm View Estates — two of the more likely candidates for historic district designations. Many of the homes that make up these neighborhoods include modernist flourishes like flat or shed roofs, screen and Ocala block, and carport and porches supported by exposed lally (metal, tubular) columns.

As part of the survey, individual buildings that met the criteria for landmark status include, among others, Harry Merritt’s Lakeshore Towers apartment complex (1964), City Hall by architects Dan Branch and David Reaves, University Lutheran Church (1961) by Albert Wynn Howell, and UF’s Dickinson Hall, the former Florida Museum of Natural History (1970) by William Morgan. Subsequently, the city has applied for additional funding to continue the survey and expand it to include commercial and other individual buildings.

The urgency of landmarking these irreplaceable resources has been heightened by the demolition of St. Michael’s Church (1975) designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Nils M. Schwiezer. Landmark status, however, does not mean freezing buildings in time, but retaining them and adapting them to meet new community needs.

Gainesville should celebrate and capitalize on its modernist heritage as it continues to develop and grow.

Morris Hylton III is president of Gainesville Modern.