One of Winter Haven's best known residents passed away this weekend at the age of 90. Gene Leedy moved to Winter Haven in 1954 when he was commissioned to design the Sparrow House (pictured right). Previous to moving to Winter Haven, Mr. Leedy was a founding member of the Sarasota School of Architecture that helped to usher in the "Central Florida Modern" design that became a highlight of the post-WWII architectural era.
The Sarasota Architectural Foundation's Board Chairman Christopher Wilson said this in a statement after Leedy's passing, "Gene Leedy was one of the pioneers of the modern movement in Florida along with Ralph Twitchell, Paul Rudolph, Victor Lundy and others. After beginning his career in Sarasota, Leedy moved to Winter Haven, Florida, in 1954 where he single-handedly applied the principles of modern architecture but adapted them to the Florida climate. Leedy was most well-known for his bold use of precast concrete, especially long-span 'double-tee' structural elements. He will surely be missed."
Mr. Leedy has designed buildings throughout Florida but Winter Haven boasts the largest collection of his work. A sampling of his Winter Haven work is below.
Mr. Leedy was a well-known character in the Winter Haven community, with his large black-rimmed glasses, colorful sense of humor and love of life. His legacy will be felt for decades to come in the Winter Haven community, but he is also globally recognized for his contribution to the "art" of architecture. In 1988, Mr. Leedy was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Florida Association of Architects. His continued contributions to the field resulted in another career peak in 1992 when he was installed into the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects. In 2014, the University of Florida School of Architecture bestowed upon him a lifetime achievement award. Leedy was a member of the University of Florida's SAE fraternity and designed their house that was built in 1963.
Max Strang, a Winter Havenite and architect whose firm is in Miami, counts Mr. Leedy as one of his mentors. He said in a statement on Facebook, "An unapologetic modern master and a true pioneer. His designs will continue to be studied and loved by many. He will be missed dearly by friends and family who cannot forget his charm and great humor."
We may be a bit biased, but one of our favorite Leedy structures is the Chamber of Commerce building. at 401 Ave B N.W. Mr. Leedy was commissioned during the capital campaign in 1987 to design a permanent home for the Chamber of Commerce. When I spoke to Mr. Leedy at an event several years ago he explained that he envisioned the breezeway through the bottom of the building as an homage to the trains that passed along this very place to bring commerce into the City and export citrus out. Then he chuckled a bit. "That's at least the story I like to tell," he said. He went on to explain that the location was a controversial one at the time as the City had worked to acquire the old railway bed as a rail-to-trails project and when the City decided to sell the land to the Chamber for their new location, the compromise was to leave the trail open through the center of the building. While less romantic of a story, it was a great decision that led to an iconic staple of the downtown landscape.
Our thoughts and blessings go out to the Leedy family through his time of loss, reflection and celebration of a life well lived. Cheers to Gene and thank you for leaving your mark on our community.
Mr. Leedy's official obituary is below:
Gene Robert Leedy (90) passed away peacefully on Nov. 24, 2018. An original member of the world renowned “Sarasota School” mid-century architecture movement, Leedy went on to design hundreds of remarkable structures across the state of Florida and beyond. His most notable buildings include the University of South Florida President’s House, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house at the University of Florida, First National Bank of Cape Canaveral, Brentwood Elementary School and the Syd Solomon Residence on Siesta Key. Winter Haven, however, is the indisputable epicenter of Leedy’s prolific architectural career. Leedy’s contributions to this Central Florida town include its award-winning City Hall, Chamber of Commerce, Country Club, Garden Center and the multitude of important commercial and residential buildings including the Strang Residence, Dormon Residence, Sands Residence, Ellison Residence, Brogden Residence, Sparrow Residence, and the widely-celebrated Craney Spec Homes.He was born in Isaban, WV on Feb. 6, 1928 (along with a twin sister Helen who died shortly after birth) to Ethyl and Cecil Leedy.
Leedy was an early achiever who read aloud at age two, built a log cabin at nine and enrolled in the University of Florida at 16. He later served in the US Air Force. He moved to Sarasota, FL and became the first employee of noted architect, Paul Rudolph, and is recognized as one of the pioneers of the Sarasota School of Architecture. Although Rudolph later invited him to join Yale’s faculty, Leedy chose to base his practice in Winter Haven, FL.
He designed projects throughout the US including Hawaii as well as a large housing project for the government of Malaysia. He was extensively published in the US and Europe and received more than 50 architectural awards. This recognition included Architectural Record’s Successful Young Architects in 1965, the Lifetime Design Achievement Award from the Florida Association of Architects, and the Outstanding Alumni Award from the University of Florida’s College of Architecture. Leedy was installed into the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 1992 and received the Florida Chapter of the American Institute of Architects’ Medal of Honor in 2014.
Leedy is well known for his innovative and pioneering use of pre-cast concrete structural systems as he often incorporated mass-produced industrial building components into designs for offices and residences. His signature style is easily recognized by its exposed structural systems, concrete blocks, enclosed courtyards, flat roofs, and sliding glass doors. Additionally, many of Leedy’s designs incorporate “passive-design” concepts that include cross-ventilation, day-lighting, and the use of generous overhangs for sun protection. Some of his Central Florida work has been commemorated in The Leedy Lifetime Works Tour organized by Main Street Winter Haven.
Gene Leedy was known for his strong ego, inappropriate stories, and his love of scotch, cigars, and women. His children cordially invite friends and fans to celebrate his legendary life at the Winter Haven Garden Club on Thursday, Nov. 29, from 5-7 p.m.
He was preceded in death by Marjorie, his wife of 50 years, and is survived by his four children, Ingram Leedy (Marissa), Saffie Farris (Jeff), Robert Leedy (Vicky), Helen Patterson (Joel), five grandchildren (Robert Ingram Ellerman, Elise Leedy, Gram Leedy, Jack Farris, and Gabriella Leedy), his loving companion of eight years Cassie Jacoby and Golden Retriever Maggie Mae, and his great friend Jimmy Smathers. He considered his award-winning protégés, architects Lawrence Scarpa and Max Strang, extended family and was honored to have them both carry on his passion for great architecture.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Winter Haven Community Foundation (GiveWell) in memory of Gene Leedy for the preservation of his work at givecf.org.