Paul Rudolph and the Dynamic Genius of The Walker Guest House
T his December, Sotheby’s is honoured to present The Walker Guest House for sale in our Important Design auction on December 12. Designed by acclaimed architect Paul Rudolph, the Guest House was commissioned in 1952 by Dr. Walter W. Walker. Grandson of the Minnesota lumber baron, T.B. Walker, who established the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis for his world-class art collection, Walt Walker was a young, Harvard-trained doctor turned investment manager who inherited his grandfather’s enthusiasm for art and connoisseurship. Rudolph, a rising-star in the field of architecture, was in his thirties when Walker commissioned him for the Guest House, which was the architect’s first independent project following his split with the firm of architect Ralph Twitchell. The building is recognized nationally as a treasure of the American mid-century modernist architectural aesthetic, and one of the most significant works within Rudolph’s decades-long career.
Walker’s newly acquired property on Sanibel Island on Florida’s gulf coast offered the setting for the Walker Guest House. In the 1950s, Sanibel was largely undeveloped and accessible only by ferry, yet patron and architect had a shared, modernist vision for location, and Walker fully embraced the radical simplicity of Rudolph’s design concept. The plan of the house is a groundbreaking study in the relationship between interior and exterior space, which defined Rudolph’s body of work. Wood, steel, and glass were employed to create thoughtfully proportioned lines, planes, and volume that shape the inhabitant’s experience of both the indoors and outdoors. Rudolph drew on the island’s architecture of the Caribbean to create the house’s most iconic feature: its adjustable, multi-functional exterior wood panels. Operated through the ingenious use of 77-pound, red-painted cannonball weights sourced locally from Sanibel Island, the panels serve as shutters when closed and form shady canopies when opened, giving the house a changeable and moveable quality. The Walker family and the residents of Sanibel warmly referred to the house as the “Cannonball.” The effect of the panels fulfilled an important requirement for Rudolph who believed people need both “caves” and “goldfish bowls” to live in.
The language that Rudolph used to describe his creations reflected the lush Florida flora and fauna. “It crouches like a spider in the sand” Rudolph stated of his creation, and he called his earliest drawings of the house his “sketches in the sand.” Unlike many other icons of the International style, the Walker Guest House gave the Walker family the ability for both openness and privacy. Famous soon after it was built, the Walker Guest House was voted one of the most important houses of the century, along with Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and Philip Johnson’s Glass House, by the readers of Architecture Record in 1957. An icon of American modernism, the house is a perfect melding of functionalism and architecture.
A fastidious preservationist, Walt Walker kept the Guest House in pristine original condition while it was enjoyed for decades by the family and their guests. Sotheby’s offering of the house is presented together with the original interior furnishings and architectural plans, and it is available for viewing on location in Sanibel. Beyond its service as a home, the Walker Guest House is a representation of the incredibly important legacy of the Walker family, defined by generations of art patronage, philanthropy, and civic duty. It is Sotheby’s great honour to offer this icon of American modernist architecture in our December 12 Important Design auction.