Renowned architect Paul Rudolph designed the Walker Guest House to invite the outdoors in.
Renowned architect Paul Rudolph designed the Walker Guest House to invite the outdoors in.

Recognized throughout the nation as one of the most important creations of acclaimed architect Paul Rudolph and the Sarasota School of Architecture (SSA), the Walker Guest House, built on Sanibel Island circa 1952, recently went on MLS real estate listings as part of a 1.74-acre beachfront property.

Ted Benjamin and Jim Hall of VIP Realty – Sanibel are co-listers on the property, owned by the Walker family since the 1950s and currently listed at $6,795,000. 
Walt and Elaine Walker commissioned the house from Rudolph, his first undertaking upon leaving partnership with another SSA icon, Ralph Twitchell. Both late architects still reign as champions in the annals of architecture, having relocated to Florida in the mid-1900s and studied the style of Frank Lloyd Wright at his renowned Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Fla. 

The SSA style of architecture, aka Sarasota Modern, gained traction for its organic characteristics of blending with the environment and using techniques to cool building interiors in the south Florida climate pre-air-conditioning. 

A quintessential beach cottage, the 576-square-foot (24’ x 24’) Walker Guest House features walls of glass and eight large screened windows shuttered by an ingenious pulley system that turns wooden flaps into shading panels when raised horizontally overhead. Guests can easily lower the panels to various levels with steel cables and ropes when desiring privacy or protection from the sun. 

“In this tiny beach cottage, Rudolph perfected the principles of space and construction he explored while practicing in Florida during his early years,” said Joyce Owens, FAIA, a pre-eminent Fort Myers architect and past president of AIA Florida, who has studied and lectured on Rudolph's Florida work for many years. “It’s a simple, elegant reinterpretation of primitive structure becoming a small modern home – remarkably functional yet surprisingly charming.”

Rudolph later described the one-bedroom cottage as his favorite among his vast body of international work. He called it the “spider in the sand” for its simple lines and leggy look when the shutters are raised. The cottage is also known as the “Cannonball House,” for the red, steel, cannonball-shaped weights that are part of the panel-raising mechanisms.

So revered, the structure was replicated in 2015, initially for display at The Ringling museum complex in Sarasota, now having traveled to Palm Springs, Cal.
“There’s not another property anywhere like the Walker Guest House,” said Benjamin. “Besides its architectural history and prestige, the story of the Walker family itself adds to the property’s allure. And in modern times, it has served as inspiration for the new ‘tiny home’ trend.”

Walt Walker visited Sanibel Island from a home in Minneapolis, where his family’s Walker Art Center ranks as one of America’s most visited. His fine taste for the arts and strong conservationist ethic drove him to seek an earth-friendly work of art for his family’s first island home. Rudolph’s work was a natural fit, and the Walkers wintered in the cottage for nearly 20 years, until they built a second, larger home adjacent to the cottage. 

Whereas the Walker Guest House sits along West Gulf Drive, the 1970s stilted pod house is set back from the road, perched upon a natural ridge with three bedrooms, open living space, and a loft that overlook the Gulf of Mexico. The house also holds a two-car garage and 3-1/2 baths. Old growth hardwood and palm trees shade the property; native sea grapes spread from the home’s seaward face to its front-yard sands. 

Walker, who donated the Walker Preserve to the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation and often volunteered at local conservation organizations, passed away in 2001. His wife, Elaine, died in 2018, and their children have since set the sales process in motion.

“The family is mainly interested in finding a buyer who will be as emotionally invested in the property as the Walkers have been,” said Hall. “The guest house in particular should be committed to preservation. The family feels there a peaceful, spiritual vibe that they hope the new owners will honor.” 

Simply but colorfully appointed with period furnishings, down to the circa 1950s Norge stove, the Walker Guest House is a treasured collector’s piece. It holds one bedroom and a bath and an open-plan dining and living space, all tucked into natural vegetation. 

“The galley-like kitchen has a million-dollar view,” reported McCall’s magazine in a 1954 article titled “Open to All Outdoors.” That view comes from one of the house’s four eight-foot glass walls, it points out. House Beautiful and other important architectural and design publications have also featured the trend-setting house.

“It is a floating pavilion with transparent walls and an external structure so thin it nearly disappears,” said Owens. “When the flaps or panels, supported on this external structure, are raised it becomes a shady pavilion abundant with the sounds and smells of the sea and naturally cooled by gulf breezes. When the flaps are lowered, the interior feels safe, snug, and intimate.”