Opinion: Florida Greats – John Volk and 21 Casuarina Concourse

Brett Gillis

Dr. Gillis is vice president of the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables (HPACG)


Built between 1958 and 1965, 21 Casuarina Concourse celebrates its 63rd birthday this year.  The residence was designed by John Volk for Mr. & Mrs. Swenson and constructed of CBS at a cost of $250,000.  As a point of comparison, the Youth Center cost $257,000 in 1956!  The only other single-family home that rivaled Mr. Volk’s Bermuda masterpiece at 21 Casuarina Concourse around this time was the residence of L.G. Wright at 3700 Granada Boulevard (constructed in 1956 at a cost of $235,000).

Mr. Swenson was president of First National Bank, and Mrs. Swenson was president of Everglades School.  A Miami Herald clipping shows Mrs. Swenson playing hostess at the Junior League’s 1966 coffee fundraiser: “The North Wind jolly well blew at the waterfront home of the Edward Swensons Jr. in Gables Estates.  But it blew hundreds of guests to the Junior League’s annual coffee,” the article touted.

The Bermuda style originated on the British colony of Bermuda as a subtropical adaptation of the Georgian style.  The Bermuda roof is its dominant feature—it is either hipped, gabled, or a combination of both and offers virtually no overhang (but may feature stubby rafter tails).  Windows and doors are generally flush to exterior walls or only minimally recessed.  The primary entrance is frequently adorned with a set of stairs or curved banisters known as “welcoming arms.”  One or more prominent chimneys are typically enjoyed.  Projecting bays are common and may appear at right angles to the primary façade when they are the result of additions or part of an elaborate design.  Verandas tend to be smaller when compared to the porches and verandas found on other kindred vernacular homes across the Caribe and American South.  Pilasters or quoins at corners are common, and architraves, fanlights, and other decorative features may also adorn windows or doors on high-style examples.

After the First World War, the island of Bermuda saw an influx of wealthy Americans.  They purchased old houses and are reported to have, for the most part, restored them to their former glory.  To this day, America is still recognized for its contribution to saving some of Bermuda’s historic buildings. 

In 1923, John Humphreys published his iconic book Bermuda Houses.  During the World War II era, boatbuilder-turned-housebuilder Nathaniel White Hutchings and his faithful team restored numerous historic homes and constructed new ones in the Bermuda style.  Since then, American, and particularly Floridian, fascination with Bermudian architecture has never ceased.

Constructed in 1925, Howard Major’s Major Alley at 417 Peruvian Avenue in Palm Beach may be described as Florida’s first “Bermuda village.”  It may have been a catalyst for the construction of Coral Gables’ beloved villages that sprung up shortly thereafter in other exotic styles. 

Street View of Major Alley in 2020 (Image by Author)

Much to the chagrin of his contemporary architects that still favored the Mediterranean style at the time, Mr. Major took to the press with his opinions that Spanish and Mediterranean architecture were not the best solutions to architecture in Florida.  “If one need to look beyond the nation’s border,” Major declared, “Cuba, Bermuda, Nassau and the West Indies were South Florida’s proper building models, not Granada’s Alhambra or Seville’s Giralda Tower.”  Mr. Major’s theory eventually took hold, but he never received proper recognition for his landmark village during his lifetime.  When construction picked up again after the Great Hurricane of 1926 and Great Depression, the Spanish and Mediterranean styles were quickly abandoned.  Colonial-inspired styles (such as the Colonial Revival, Neoclassical, Monterey, and Bermuda) had finally found the time to shine in South Florida.

Master architect John Volk (1901-1984) was also a strong proponent of the Bermuda style.  He is recognized as having designed the first major single-family Bermuda home in Palm Beach (White Gables at 598 South Country Road) in 1936.  Mr. Volk went on to become one of the most celebrated architects in Florida.  Earning many of the Palm Beach Bermuda mansion commissions cemented him as one of the leaders of the Bermuda movement.

Undated Photograph of John Volk (Author’s Collection)

Though most of the landmark examples of the Bermuda style are located in Palm Beach, one example has also been identified in Hollywood-by-the-Sea at 1601 Harrison Street.  In Coral Gables, Mr. Volk designed 21 Casuarina Concourse—a monumental example of his work and of the style.  Like some of the landmark examples on the island of Bermuda, 21 Casuarina Concourse has somewhat of cruciform, or cross-like form—this form is a unique adaptation to the subtropics in its attempt to increase surface area to capture more sunlight and prevailing breezes.

21 Casuarina Concourse—the palms—the hours shift their shadows, but not their admiration, for they, too, rest in the shadows—of this home’s rare beauty.

References:

America’s First: Howard Major at Palm Beach. Palm Beach Social Diary: 2017.

Bermuda Architecture. The Bermuda National Trust (undated).

City of Coral Gables Permit Books and Plans, 1950-1959.

Design Guidelines for Historic Properties and Districts, Hollywood: 2005.

John L. Volk. Palm Beach County History Online (undated).

Miami Herald Clippings: 1958, 1966.

Header image: 21 Casuarina Concourse as seen in 1960 (Image Courtesy of Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc.)

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