WINTER HAVEN – Dozens of family and friends of esteemed architect Gene Leedy attended a celebration of life party Thursday, Nov. 29 at the Winter Haven Garden Center, one of the many buildings Leedy designed around Winter Haven over the years.
Gene Leedy passed to a better life Nov. 24 at the age of 90.
“Dad loved a good funeral because he said they always had deviled eggs and he loved deviled eggs and he loved telling stories and reminiscing,” his daughter Saffie Farris said Thursday.
Next to the sign-in book were a few bottles of scotch and boxes of expensive cigars, two of his other favorites.
All four of his children attended, Saffie Farris, Ingram Leedy, Robert Leedy and Helen Patterson along with many of his grandchildren. Liquor and laughs flowed.
“Robert was really good at imitating him,” Ingram said. “Robert would grab a sip of scotch and a cigar, pat his chest, look at the building he just designed and built and would say, ‘Masterpiece.’”
Leedy designed hundreds of buildings across the state of Florida and beyond but the largest concentration of his work is where he decided to raise his family.
After graduating from the University of Florida in 1950, Leedy began working in Sarasota. Searching for a niche of his own, in 1954 Leedy moved to the quiet citrus town of Winter Haven where he was commissioned to design a home for former theater manager Frank Sparrow on Lake Otis just northeast of what is now Winter Haven High School. The “Sparrow House” won accolades in House and Home Magazine that helped to launch his career.
One of his next Winter Haven projects was designing several on Drexel Avenue near what is now Lake Elbert Elementary in 1956, collectively called “Leedy Land.” They are all relatively small homes with flat roofs and concrete blocked in courtyards with ivy walls around the property lines. In some glass walls look out at a garden courtyard instead of seeing the street. Gene Leedy purchased one of these to raise his own family.
“These houses changed people, brought them together,” Ingram said. “It made life for living.”
Driving by the houses now, it is easy to tell which are Leedy homes. Audio tours are available at www.geneleedy.com .
“It seems like everybody who has lived in one of my dad’s houses always had a strong identity,” said Gene’s son Ingram Leedy. “They are always somebody who does something. They have a successful business or somebody who is famous.”
Ingram said many of his father’s clients turned into lifelong friends. Gene Leedy designed Winter Haven City Hall and several other downtown buildings before building an office for himself in 1961, showcasing a style that he is probably most known for. Gene Leedy used load bearing, pre-stressed concrete “double Ts” with eight-foot overhands for added shade, glass walls and black iron gates which were affordable to build and naturally kept the inside space cool at a time when air conditioning did not exist. Other architects liked his designs and starting copying his work.
“Imitation is the highest form of flattery,” Leedy said in a recorded interview on his website. “I wish I had patented it. I would have made a fortune.”
Looking at his old office and some of the other buildings he designed over the years, many have seen better days and others have been partially redesigned.
“Architecture is a great profession but one that has real pitfalls,” Gene Leedy posted online. “You do a building and somebody comes along and does something to it. It’s heartbreaking. It makes you feel like you’d be happier on the moon.”
Leedy was once given an award based on the psychological aspects of his designs.
“Architecture is important in everyday life,” Leedy once said. “It makes you feel good. A good house or good office makes you feel good in it.”
Leedy paid attention to detail and always dressed well according to his friends. Bill Nowling lived next door to Leedy since 1984 and remembered when bus tours were scheduled to drive by, Leedy would ask Nowling and others to straighten up their properties, his pride and ego strong even toward the end.
“He was very proud of his work,” his daughter Saffie said. “He had a big ego, knew his work was good. It has stood the test of time.”
Max Strang grew up in a Leedy-designed home and was inspired to become an architect himself.
“When a building becomes more than a building and a work of architecture that is when you know the architect got it right,” Strang said. “Nine times out of ten, probably more than that, Gene’s buildings are much more than a building. They have a certain inherent quality that elevates into a work of architecture and that is worth preserving.”
Gene’s step grandson Jake Farris now works with Strang as a design apprentice.
Gene Leedy was not just creative with his designs but also creative in convincing others. Back in 1990 when the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce building was built, city leaders were not keen on building it in the middle of a park. Leedy creatively came up with the concept of building a park path through the middle of the building. City leaders quickly got on board.
“Gene Leedy had a strong identity, with confidence,” Ingram said. “His clients were the same and were the top of their own professions and were also unique. They wanted something that stood out and was different.”
It may have been Gene Leedy’s friendly spirit more than his architectural accomplishments that were celebrated Thursday night however.
“The party was probably exactly what he would have wanted,” Saffie said. “Daddy was very social. I’m sure he was smiling down on us."