by Nan Kavanaugh | May 12, 2021

The Sweet Spot of Gulf Coast Architecture

Sustainability meets sophistication in the hands of Todd Sweet and Jerry Sparkman, who are forging the future of Sarasota architecture by honoring its past.

In this photo of a home designed by Sweet Sparkman, a courtyard with stone stretches out from a modernist home with many glass windows and boxy shape. The architecture features  limestone walls.
The SeaThru House by Sweet Sparkman Architecture and Interiors. Photography courtesy of Sweet Sparkman.

A grand live oak stretches its lumbering branches across a courtyard in Lido Key. It creates a canopy that reaches out to a contemporary structure composed of bright white walls and sharp angles. The tree seeps Old Florida from every crevice of its weathered trunk. Yet nestled near an angular modern building, the oak takes on a new, ephemeral, abstract quality, poised like a living sculpture on view. 

This synthesis of nature with abstract forms and clean lines is the essence of Florida modernism. In the 1950s, graduates from some of the nation’s most prestigious architecture schools saw Florida as a playscape ripe for booming development. 

Ralph Twitchell and Paul Rudolph first came to Sarasota in the 1940s and were soon joined by a pack of brilliant architects including Tim Seibert, Victor Lundy, Jack West and Gene Leedy. Together they gave rise to a regional style of architecture now known as the Sarasota School of Architecture or Sarasota Modern. They were influenced by the early-20th-century Bauhaus movement, combined with the modernist mindset that nature should be revered in an increasingly industrialized world. Spearheading a new type of architecture that brought the outside in, they created a lifestyle where respite was found without compromising aesthetics. The legacy of their extraordinary work continues to nourish residents and visitors alike across the area. 

The ideal Florida lifestyle is the opportunity to blend architecture, landscape design and interiors...
—Jerry Sparkman

Today, one Sarasota firm stands out as the force carrying this iconic design mantle forward with projects along Florida’s Gulf Coast, from Englewood to Bradenton. Sweet Sparkman Architecture & Interiors is led by co-founders Todd Sweet and Jerry Sparkman, whose private and public works have helped preserve and define the region’s character. Infusing their own style with a respect for the past, the firm inspires a more conscious future of Florida living.  

“The ideal Florida lifestyle is the opportunity to blend architecture, landscape design and interiors as one comprehensive design challenge. The environment lends itself to blurring the distinction between outside and inside,” Sparkman says. Sparkman’s background in landscape architecture shapes his design ethos when approaching residential projects. Covered outdoor “rooms” that are integrated into the architecture of a home provide both shade, one of Florida’s most valuable commodities, and beautiful spaces beloved by their clients. 

Sweet Sparkman’s appreciation for the Sarasota School is best reflected in many of its public projects along the Gulf Coast. The  partners sought guidance from iconic architect Tim Seibert in their revising of Siesta Key Park and Pavilion, a project Seibert and Jack West completed for the city in 1960. Today, the firm is in the early stages of the redevelopment of The Bay Sarasota, drawing inspiration from the design philosophy behind the recently demolished Selby Library, a beautiful work of modernist architecture by Walter Netsch. While the influence of Florida modernism is present in their work, Sweet and Sparkman also look to 21st-century firms, like Texas-based Lake Flato, which are taking a creative, cutting-edge approach to sustainability necessary to meet the moment. 

The SeaThru house provides sweeping views of Sarasota Bay and a private courtyard for children to play. Photography courtesy of Sweet Sparkman.

“There are a few firms that we really admire in practice, how they are able to capture a modern vernacular unique to their location,” Sweet says. “That is what we are trying to do, not just regurgitate the Sarasota School, but modernize it for our time.”

Sweet describes resiliency as one of the greatest drivers of innovation at leading architecture firms today. In Florida, climate change and the challenges it presents, like intensified storm seasons and rising sea levels, require architects to explore more durable materials that can withstand high-velocity winds and new approaches to construction to accommodate flooding that mid-century firms did not have to contend with.  Sweet Sparkman is a firm that celebrates sustainability and recognizes that a dedication to resiliency is what will allow its beautiful works to endure for the enjoyment of future generations. It is a forward-thinking perspective that continues to earn Sweet and Sparkman accolades, but it is their deep appreciation for the artful nature of architecture that nourishes their drive to be leaders in the field. 

Family life brought Sweet and Sparkman together. Their wives met at a playdate, bonding over sons born only three days apart and husbands with similar careers. The two women forged a friendship. It was through his wife that Sweet became acquainted with Sparkman and his work. The two men would talk shop at gatherings, and when Sweet decided to make a career shift, he used Sparkman as a sounding board while exploring the idea of starting his own firm. 

In this photo of the living space, you see a warm wood staircase with a modern railing with cable railing. Concrete or terrazzo floorings stretches out across the space. A living room is anchored by a rectangular rug with a couch facing the TV, windows and colorful artwork. A circular dining table sits on a circular rug.
In the Binnacle House, a neutral palette allows the owner's Gilligan's Island artwork to pop. The plethora of windows welcomes waterfront views. Photography by Ryan Gamma.

“I really trusted Jerry’s judgment. I respected him. I found him to be a really good designer and a sensible, patient person,” says Sweet. “He was the type of person I could see myself going into business with.” Sparkman was with a firm known for high-end residential architecture, while Sweet’s experience was in the public sector. Both men brought different skill sets to the table, and in 2004, their collaboration came to fruition. Now, almost 20 years later, their firm has grown into one of the Gulf Coast’s most influential forces in architecture and design.

Today, innovators like Sweet and Sparkman are creating a New Florida vernacular influenced by an influx of savvy urbanites with a keen eye for design and a deep appreciation for outdoor living. Whether these are snowbirds in search of warmer winters or Floridians returning home from city life in New York and California, they are choosing Sarasota Bay as an affordable alternative to Miami. 

“In our area, we are seeing a very sophisticated clientele. They are a little more discriminating about architecture, and what they want is a high design aesthetic,” Sweet says. “They are challenging us, allowing us to be more creative. They are keeping us and our staff on our toes.”

The Binnacle house, designed by Sweet Sparkman, provides stunning views of the surrounding mangroves and water. Photography courtesy of Sweet Sparkman.

It isn’t just cosmopolitan clients inspiring the firm to push the boundaries of design. Climate change is also profoundly shaping architecture across the state. Sweet and Sparkman are pioneers in an emergent generation of architects driven by creativity and resiliency. From erecting buildings above flood elevations to utilizing new durable building materials that can take the brunt of a ferocious storm season without compromising beauty, the team at Sweet Sparkman Architecture & Interiors bring innovation and imagination to their approach in both public and residential projects. 

“The most inspiring projects are those that allow creativity to flourish. Creativity is a form of well-being, and projects that tap that potential bring great joy to the whole team,” Sparkman says.