Gene Leedy: The “Ace” Aces Aging
By Cassie Jacoby
When it comes to aging, “The Ace” himself, Gene Leedy, has an ace up his sleeve. Ninety years “young,” his architectural genius makes Winter Haven a place like no other.
Trim, soft spoken and a dapper dresser, Winter Haven’s favorite raconteur loves telling tall tales and spinning yarns that are not all tangled up with filters or sometimes even the truth.
“Nothing ruins a good story like an eye witness,” says Gene, puffing on a Don Diego Lonsdale cigar. “If I had known I was going to live so long, I would have taken better care of myself. The nice thing about growing older is that you can do whatever you want.”
The outspoken rebel, born February 6, 1928, has a razor-sharp wit and refuses to compromise his style, rarely mincing words. His colorful “Leedy-isms” are legendary. A few Leedy-isms include… Developers: “Architectural terrorists raping our beautiful state.” Mobile home parks: “Cemeteries for the living.” The urge to remodel: “Stronger than the sex drive.” Why was Leedy one of the first architects to do his own interior design? In his words, ”Too many interior decorators were screwing up my buildings.”
Gene’s trademark wry humor stole the show at the University of Florida’s Lifetime Achievement Award (2014) ceremony. “I should have gotten this 20 years ago.” He quotes his late friend and colleague, Frank Lloyd Wright, for being blunt. “I choose honest arrogance over hypocritical humility.”
With his University of Florida architecture degree (1950), Gene hung out his shingle as Paul Rudolph’s first associate and was a founding father of the Sarasota School of Architecture, along with a group of young, avant-garde architects.
“We built for the climate with the honest use of local materials.” Experimental construction concepts incorporated raised floors to offset ground dampness, concrete blocks and beams, flat roofs, sliding glass doors and the use of windows, grill work and shutters to filter light. He introduced traditional walled-in courtyards and pioneered the innovative, “double-tee” long-span.
At the start of the Korean War, Gene knocked on the right door at the Pentagon, landing a direct commission as an Air Force procurement officer in New York City. “That was the ‘second Manhattan Project’ and to this day I’m not allowed to discuss it,” he jokes.
Gene, whose twin sister died in childbirth in Isaban, W.Va., read aloud at age 2, chose to be an engineer at 9 and started college at 16. His doting parents, Cecil and Ethyl, relocated to Gainesville before moving to Bartow where they owned a popular restaurant on Main Street. Gene moved his practice from Sarasota to Winter Haven in 1954.
When Rudolph chaired Yale University’s architecture school (1958), he urged Gene to join him. “Paul thought Yale needed more Southern accents.”
The ripple effect of choosing Winter Haven over New Haven, Conn., continues to make waves with the success of his award-winning protégés, Lawrence Scarpa and Max Strang. Both were eager to learn from the master architect when they showed up in his office as teenagers.
“The Works of Brooks + Scarpa Ordinary and Extraordinary Architecture of Heightened Awareness” is on exhibit through April 14 with Larry’s book signing and lecture at 6:30 p.m. on March 16 at the Center for Architecture Sarasota.
Max features his mentor in his book, “Environmental Modernism: the Architecture of Strang.” Updating Gene’s original designs with plans to build 25 new Leedy residences, Max, designed Winter Haven’s RainGarden Apartments.
“I’m proud that new generations are concerned with more energy efficient designs and embrace my design philosophy,” Gene says. “It’s an honor to see my vision for the future live on through the design of structures in harmony with nature and form.”
Seven of Gene’s 10 Drexel Avenue homes (1956), where he still resides, are meticulously maintained by friends who participate in tours of “Leedyland.”
“I call myself a ‘nest builder’ because these homes are ‘nests’ where you can put down roots. We’re almost a rootless society and people need roots.”
For more info on Gene Leedy, visit GeneLeedy.com.
Gene Leedy’s Designs and Awards
Designs of Gene’s home were sold in “Better Homes and Gardens Five Star Home 2901” (1960). “They’ve become collector’s items all over the world.”
From City Hall and Lake Region Yacht and Country Club (1960), his own office (1961), Garden Center (1965), banks, medical and law offices, Gene overcame challenges designing Winter Haven’s distinct look and feel. Gene’s creative design for the Chamber of Commerce (1990) settled a dispute with the city.
“The city wanted the land to stay as a park so I lifted the building with upper stories floating above the park,” Leedy says.
(1963) University of Florida SAE house: A member of the fraternity, his design placed 13th in the 2012 competition to identify the top 100 buildings and places in Florida. (1994)University of South Florida Lifsey President’s House: Gene won the award over 166 entries.
(2016) Inaugural SAE Hall of Fame; (2014)SAE’s Highest Effort Award; (2012) Florida Chapter of the American Institute of Architects Medal of Honor; (1993) UF’s Outstanding Alumni award College of Architecture; (1992) College of Fellows of American Institute of Architects; and (1988) Florida Association of Architects Lifetime Design Achievement Award.
An accomplished photographer, Gene’s architecture is on display in a permanent collection at Polk State College. The Leedy Lifetime Works Tour organized by Main Street Winter Haven attracts fans worldwide.