If you look up from this magazine to see a lovely view through your sliding glass doors, thank Sarasota’s Eldon "Woody" Witte, who helped pioneer the technology that made those enormous expanses of see-through glass such an important part of Florida homes. Witte worked side by side with some of the legendary names of the Sarasota School of Architecture and their successors-among them Ralph Twitchell, Paul Rudolph, Tim Seibert, Victor Lundy, Bert Brosmith, Jack West, Ralph and Bill Zimmerman, Frank Folsom Smith and Carl Abbott. The Sarasota School architects did not invent the slider-Le Corbusier, Richard Neutra and other modern luminaries were already using movable walls of glass when the Sarasota boys got their hands on them. But the Sarasota architects, whose designs relied on generous expanses of glass that helped provide ventilation and take advantage of spectacular tropical views, refined and vastly improved those transparent sliders.
Woody, now 79, first began working with modern architects in the early 1950s, when the father-and-son Zimmerman team was waiting for a shipment from California of the newfangled glass doors. The delay stretched on; finally, the Sarasota architects got frustrated and Woody got busy.
"I thought to myself, ‘How hard can this be?’" Woody remembers. In 1953, he and a partner formed a company called Specialume Products, Inc., located near the airport. "That was the beginning of it all," he says. "We did some amazing projects."
Over the years, first with Specialume and now with his present company Alfab, which he established in 1961 to produce aluminum construction products, Woody worked with all the bright lights in residential and commercial design to erect such structures as the old Sarasota Terrace, Zinn’s Restaurant (remember the glass in the Waterfall Room?), Riverview High School, Alta Vista Elementary School, Galloway’s Furniture showroom, Plymouth Harbor and some remarkable homes all over the state.
"Each job was different, as all those architects went off on their own tangent," he says. "They’d bring me a challenge and I’d figure out a way to construct it and make it work. One of the highest glass sliders I was asked to do was in 1959 for the Deering residence on Casey Key. Paul Rudolph was the architect. He wanted a slider 14 feet high. When you stood in that house, you didn’t know if you were inside or outside. That was the beauty of those Sarasota School homes." Another Witte favorite is the house he did in 1956 with Ralph Twitchell in Yankeetown, north of the Crystal River. The house was 80 feet long and 40 wide, with glass that wrapped all the way around.
Witte believes sliders changed the way people lived here. "When we first did these walls of moveable glass, they provided views we never had before; and, of course, when you opened them, you got this great air flow. This was important once modest block homes started being built on concrete slabs. Block homes held the heat, but the sliding glass doors meant relief."
In the old days, the sliders were made of one-quarter-inch, non-tempered glass with no tint or film. Today, governmental codes require tempered glass; the thickness depends on the insulation and wind resistance specified by the architect. Witte says weather stripping has improved, and new films further ensure the integrity of the glass without imparting any color. And you still can’t beat the views.