Reviving the Plan

The Cohen House, in Sarasota, Florida, could have easily been a teardown. Designed by Paul Rudolph in 1955, the 2,300-square-foot house—sited on a double waterfront lot on the barrier island of Siesta Key—is about half the size of newer homes nearby. And if an owner were to enlarge the building, FEMA would require the addition to meet flood and zoning restrictions by being constructed above the one-story roofline. Still the house remains one of the finest of the hundred or so simple Sarasota-school buildings in existence. “And if I didn’t touch it,” says owner and real estate broker Martie Lieberman, “it would be left dilapidated. The land is worth more than what I’d sell the house for.”

Lieberman recently completed an 18-month, $250,000 restoration in order to sell the house to a sympathetic buyer. Sam Holladay of Seibert Architects says the project far exceeds the efforts of a typical flip, where an owner would “buy a property, do nothing or something meretricious, and then raise the price and sell.”

Lieberman joins a small group of real estate investors who painstakingly restore midcentury Modern homes for profit. “While renovation for profit has taken place for 35 years, we’re seeing emerge a more exacting approach as the national audience for midcentury homes expands and the architectural savvy and awareness of buyers increases,” says Dallas broker Douglas Newby, who created www.ArchitecturallySignificantHomes.com. “For the first time, investors and contractors can be rewarded for doing an exemplary job on an architecturally important home.”

Lieberman’s own story reflects the increasing sophistication of the market. When she first arrived in Sarasota with her husband in 1997, she admits, “I didn’t know about architecture—couldn’t spell it.” But she’d moved to the Lido Shores neighborhood, which contains a spectacular cluster of homes by the likes of Rudolph and other Sarasota-school architects such as Tim Seibert and Bill Rupp. “It was a living museum of Modern architecture,” she says. An art collector, Lieberman became president of Sarasota’s Fine Arts Society and used the platform to champion her architectural wonderland, culminating in a November 2001 symposium that attracted a thousand participants. “What I learned is that Paul Rudolph was just a god to these architects,” says Lieberman. “The experience of being around him is still shaping their lives.”

A windfall profit from the five-day symposium allowed her to cofound the Sarasota Architectural Foundation, with attorney Thomas Luzier. Just as her love affair with architecture was entering a new stage, her marriage began to disintegrate. In a move toward independence, Lieberman earned a real estate license in 2003, realizing that there was an unfulfilled need for local Modern-architecture specialists. “People called me about how to sell their houses anyway,” she says of the contacts made while organizing the symposium. Last year she sold $10 million in homes and—thanks to advertising as well as increased traffic on her Web site (ModernSarasota.com) —accumulated a list of 4,500 potential buyers.

A day after her 2004 divorce was finalized, she bought the Cohen House. “I couldn’t believe it was for sale,” Lieberman says. “I knew it was one of the finest Rudolphs in existence.” She decided to move into this “house for art,” live through an exceedingly thorough restoration, and then sell it to an aficionado.

The home is essentially a glass-and-plywood–clad box with a kitchen and two bedrooms tucked into three of its corners. A white terrazzo–floored expanse visually connects the entry courtyard to the bayou, and is punctuated only by the living room conversation pit, where David Cohen once staged chamber music recitals. “You not only see through this house, but all these choices, in and out, reveal themselves to you,” Lieberman says. Besides enhancing natural ventilation, the same effortlessness also shows up in the details: mahogany walls slide open to reveal built-in storage, and unusually large closets serve as dressing areas.

Bert Brosmith, who took over Rudolph’s Sarasota office in 1956 when Rudolph moved to Boston, retrieved the original drawings of the house and built-in furniture—many of which were the work of his hand 50 years earlier—from the archives of the Library of Congress. Holladay, a friend of Lieberman’s since the symposium, was picked to realize the plans. His job, to remedy past wrongs, included restoring kitchen cabinetry that had been removed for an oversize refrigerator and rebuilding a screen porch that had been replaced with insensitive off-the-shelf components. “For the most part it was just finding a talented contractor and carpenters,” Holladay says. “You couldn’t get somebody who would solve everything with a Sawzall.”

“Rising values gave me wiggle room to perform the work that needed to be done to bring back the finer elements,” Lieberman says, citing market trends and the property’s inherent value beyond its architectural merit. These variables often don’t come into play in a city like Los Angeles, where broker Brian Linder’s list has 15,000 names. “There’s a huge premium associated with good design, particularly a pedigree,” he says. But Lieberman insists that the Sarasota market is immature and can’t support that pricing structure: “Our properties are too threatened around here to do that. There is too much pressure on the land,” says Lieberman. “When someone pays too much for a piece of property here, they feel like they can do as they damn well please and tear it down.” Approximately two-thirds of Sarasota-school buildings have been demolished or renovated beyond recognition.

Lieberman is asking $1.89 million for the house, which she considers a fair increase over her original $1.25 million purchase. She’s offering first crack to the Modernism lovers in her bursting Rolodex but admits that her buyer will most likely be an out-of-towner. The low number of locals—just one-third—among her potential customers demonstrates how new the market is and suggests the rise of architecture collectors for whom geography is of little concern.

“You can save buildings in the interest of economic profit or in the interest of architecture or history,” says Jorge Otero-Pailos, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia University and vice president of Docomomo US. “The most successful projects are the ones that are able to reconcile all those things. It has to be financially feasible to stick around and fulfill a cultural role.” Otero-Pailos says the Cohen House may represent a rare preservation-for-profit scenario but cautions that its next owner is not legally obligated to maintain the building as it is now. Deed covenants might not survive litigation.

Lieberman acknowledges that her business (she’ll be renovating two units in a Seibert-designed condo next) is an uncertain one and that the market forces and capital resources that converged on the Cohen House will be difficult to replicate. About finding a steward, she says, “I’m the one most uniquely qualified to make sure it gets in the right hands. It’s my business; it’s who I am.” Though she can’t guarantee the house’s preservation, she’s grateful for the experience: “It’s like having your favorite painting in the world and getting to live with it for two years. Yeah, it’s a risk, but you only live once.”

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