Paul Rudolph's Sarasota High School—a boldly conceived 1958-60 addition to an older building, with folded concrete planes that emphasize the play of light and shadow—is being restored.

Sarasota’s preservation community is feeling the pressure. With no ironclad protections in place, the Gulf Coast Florida city—which, thanks largely to Paul Rudolph, who maintained a presence there from 1941 until 1962, became an epicenter of architectural ingenuity—is in a race to save what’s left of its repository of significant mid-20th century homes, schools, and churches.

Among the fallen: Rudolph’s elegant, skeletal steel Riverview High School, designed in 1958 and demolished, after an epic two-year struggle on the part of preservation advocates, in 2009. “It was devastating,” says Sarasota architect Carl Abbott, who is on the advisory board of the Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF), a nonprofit group with a mission to encourage preservation and adaptive re-use, and to educate people about the worthy architecture in their midst. At 78, Abbott is the youngest original member of what’s become known as the Sarasota School of Architecture, a body of work unique in the nation, informed by Bauhaus and International Style principles and smartly adapted to the subtropical Florida climate.

The unwelcome destruction of Riverview High School galvanized Sarasota’s preservation community. In October, the SAF held its first annual Sarasota MOD Weekend, selling 1,800 tickets for an ambitious program of presentations and trolley, boat, and walking tours highlighting the city’s mid-20th century architectural bounty.

The SAF has attracted sympathizers like Dr. Michael A. Kalman of New York, whose foundation donated $75,000 to launch the construction of a replica of Rudolph’s Walker Guest House, a 24-by-24-foot vacation home with hinged wall panels, to debut on the grounds of Sarasota’s Ringling Museum of Art in 2015. The owner of the original house, which still stands on Sanibel Island, is 91. “There’s a big question mark about saving the original,” says Janet Minker, chairwoman of the SAF Board of Directors. “There’s no protection, and it will likely be sold. This will be a full-scale replica, with all details as perfect as possible.” Even the Umbrella House, though on the National Register along with Rudolph’s 1953 Sanderling Beach Club, is not safe. “It’s a beach house, and a small one at that,” Minker says. “Who knows what its fate will be?”

At present, the exterior of a second Rudolph-designed school, Sarasota High—a boldly conceived 1958-60 addition to an older building, with folded concrete planes that emphasize the play of light and shadow—is being restored. It’s a high-profile, though incomplete, triumph for the SAF. “We really fought to keep everything intact, including the incredible floating walkways inside the building, but the school board gutted the interior,” Minker says. “They need the space for students.” Discussions have now moved on to the angular concrete canopy that shades a walkway between the original Gothic-style brick building, soon to become a contemporary art museum, and the 1950s addition. Whether the Rudolph canopy stays or goes is still an open question.

The number of structures identified as Sarasota School was put at 340 in a 1997 survey undertaken by Sarasota County. It has since dwindled. “We’re still losing buildings,” says Abbott. “There’s no protection at all. There are historic designations, but nothing to stop them from tearing buildings down. If you own something, you can demolish it, even if you have to jump through a few hoops.”

Spearheaded by the Beaux Arts-trained Ralph Twitchell, who hired a young Rudolph in 1941 on the strength of his freshly minted B. Arch., the Sarasota School comprised innovators like Gene Leedy, Tim Seibert, Jack West, and others. Financial backing came from forward-thinking developer Philip Hiss, who envisioned a modernist enclave, Lido Shores, on Lido Key. A cluster of icons hangs on there, including Seibert’s 1953 Hiss Studio, raised on 14 steel columns, and Rudolph’s 1953 Umbrella House and 1957 Harkavy House. Twitchell’s 1949 Revere Quality House, dwarfed by a 2008 addition, and his catenary-roofed 1950 ‘Cocoon’ House (both designed with Rudolph’s participation) are on nearby Siesta Key.

Sarasota’s mid-century housing stock represents a regional response to the clamor of returning GIs for affordable housing in the decades before air-conditioning became de rigueur. The typical Sarasota School home was flat-roofed, with an open-plan interior, terrazzo floors, one or more courtyards, grilled walls, deep roof overhangs, sliding doors and jalousie windows—all features intended to provide shade or capture breezes. They were usually built of prosaic, off-the-shelf materials like plywood, dimensional lumber, and dense Ocala (concrete) block. For each such home that still exists, there are many more recent mega-mansions, on lots where 1,200-square-foot Sarasota School houses once stood.

The dynamic Hiss became chairman of the Sarasota County School Board in 1954, at the height of the baby boom, and presided over a progressive school-building program that yielded such structures as Ralph and William Zimmerman’s A-frame gym at the 1956 Brookside Junior High School and a 1958 addition to the Alta Vista Elementary School, with a soaring butterfly roof, by the SSA’s expressionist outlier, Victor Lundy. Few of the Hiss-sponsored facilities remain intact.

When even earlier remnants of Sarasota’s built history, including fanciful 1920s Mediterranean Revival buildings that supply needed charm to its downtown cityscape, are disappearing in favor of new banks and parking garages, what chance do post-WWII buildings have? “We have to make people aware of the heritage that’s being destroyed,” says Abbott, who studied under Rudolph at Yale in the early ‘60s, alongside Charles Gwathmey, Lords Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, and others who’ve taken tenets honed in Sarasota out into the world. “Awareness-building is the goal of the SFA, in a word. Preservation requires time and money, too, but public awareness is the most important thing.”