Frank Lloyd Wright’s Florida Southern Campus: Into the Light and Into the Sun

Out of the Ground, Into the Light and Into the Sun

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Annie Pfeiffer Chapel

The Early History: Florida Southern College

Florida Southern College was a small Methodist college snuggled down in the orange groves that bordered Lake Hollingsworth in Lakeland, Florida when the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright first visited the campus in 1938. There was no hint then among the scent of orange blossoms that the campus itself would one day blossom into Wright’s “Child of the Sun,” the site of the single largest collection of buildings designed by America’s foremost architect.

That Florida Southern College existed at all as a canvas upon which Wright could work his architectural magic was something of a wonder in itself. Although the college traced its founding to 1883 in Orlando, it had moved frequently and was nearly forced to close its doors on a number of occasions. It had moved from Orlando to Leesburg to Sutherland to Clearwater Beach and, ultimately, to Lakeland in 1922. It had weathered storms, fires, floods, flu epidemics, and economic depression. It had survived several name changes over the years. But due in large part to Ludd Spivey, who had been appointed president in 1925, the college persevered. This was the Florida Southern College that greeted Frank Lloyd Wright in 1938, an institution with very little money, but which luckily had a president who dreamed big dreams.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Florida Southern College

Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern

During a trip to Europe by Florida Southern College president Dr. Ludd Spivey in 1938, he viewed a war memorial that inspired him to return to the U.S. with the vision of constructing a campus in the orange groves. Even more inspiring to him was the autobiography of Frank Lloyd Wright. When Dr. Spivey flew to Taliesin at Spring Green, he approached Wright with his dream saying, “I have no money with which to build the modern American campus, but if you’ll design the buildings, I’ll work night and day to raise the means.”

Wright was 67 years-old when he first visited Lakeland, Florida. As he toured the orange grove area he envisioned the buildings rising “out of the ground, into the light and into the sun.” His master plan called for 18 buildings using the following basic materials: steel for strength; sand because it was native to Florida; and glass to bring God’s outdoors into man’s indoors.

The first ground breaking ceremony was held may 24, 1938 for the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel. Dedication of the building took place March 9, 1941. Following the completion of the Chapel, the three seminar units were built. As word spread about Wright’s creations, more and more people visited the campus to see his work. In 1942, ground was broken for the circular E.T. Roux Library, but steel and manpower shortages slowed the construction. These first buildings (Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, The Seminar Buildings, and the E.T. Roux Library) were built with student labor. Dr. Spivey arranged with the students that their tuition could be paid with manual assistance in the construction of the buildings. Dedication for the Roux Library was held in 1945.

Next up were the Emile E. Watson-Benjamin Fine Administration Buildings, the first to be built by an outside construction firm, followed by the J. Edgar Wall Waterdome in 1948. The construction of the 1.5 miles of esplanades began at the same time the first phase connecting the library and the administration building. The Ordway Arts Building was next to be constructed and the esplanades were extended from the seminars to the Ordway Building and then back to the chapel, forming the quadrangle. Danforth Chapel went up in the shadow of Annie Pfeiffer Chapel as the foundations were laid for the Polk County Science Building.

Wright Overseeing Work at the College

Wright visited the campus quite often during his twenty years of work at Florida Southern. Lakeland residents would turn out to see him in his preferred attire, which often included a flowing cape, beret or pork pie hat, and his walking stick, but few would engage him in conversation.

Preservation Projects at the College

Jeffrey Baker is an architect who specializes in preservation, so it is no surprise that he gets excited about showing off the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel at Florida Southern College, which has hired him to create a preservation plan. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the high-sided, hexagonal chapel has a tower that Mr. Baker says is “structurally incredibly complex, almost like origami in concrete.” But it is a surprise when he says the chapel is in good shape. The fist-size holes in its crumbling exterior walls could easily make you think otherwise. It turns out that what Mr. Baker means by “good shape” is that $2-million “would go a long way” toward fixing the walls, undoing some ill-advised changes made over the years, and putting in a fully functional climate-control system. As preservation price tags go, $2-million is nothing; Yale University just spent $44-million on a 1953 Louis Kahn art museum.

The Annie Pfeiffer Chapel was dedicated in 1941, the same year in which three other Wright buildings opened at Florida Southern; it ended up with a dozen structures designed by Wright. Florida Southern has the only college campus planned by Wright, who died in 1959, as well as the largest single collection of Wright buildings anywhere, many of which were built in part by students working in return for tuition and board.

But today, for a liberal-arts college of about 1,900 students with a modest endowment, that’s a mixed blessing. Striking and historically important as they are, the Wright buildings present a long list of challenges: some have structural problems that can be traced to Wright’s having relied on new and untested designs. Many are too small for the college’s current needs, and all have been hard to modernize affordably. Bundles of data cables snake indecorously through holes drilled in the walls of Wright’s compact seminar building, for instance, while the ventilation system added a few years ago to his science building disfigures its roof line so badly that you dare not imagine what the famously temperamental architect would have to say about it.

It was a great relief when the college received $195,000 from the Getty Foundation’s Campus Heritage Grant program to create a preservation plan for the Wright buildings, and Mr. Baker has been hard at work on the details of repairs and renovations. Anne B. Kerr, who has been Florida Southern’s president for three years, says that while her first responsibility is to Florida Southern’s students, faculty members, and educational mission, the college appreciates its role as conservator. “It seems to me to be very doable to raise money for Frank Lloyd Wright renovations,” she says, adding that “the deterioration is significant enough that if we don’t do something now,” at least some of the buildings will be in serious trouble. In fact, last week the World Monuments Fund included the college’s Wright buildings on its 2008 Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites.

Two preservation projects are already under way here. One, paid for with a special $1.6-million state appropriation, is the repair of a mile-and-a-half-long network of covered walkways, known as esplanades, that connect the Wright buildings. The walkways’ roofs cantilever out from concrete posts that Wright designed to recall the orange trees that previously grew in a grove on the site. The posts’ bases represent the trees’ trunks, spreading shapes stand in for the branches, and precise incisions in the concrete call to mind the leaves.

The grid on which the Wright buildings are arranged was also inspired by the grove, in which trees were placed 18 feet apart. Wright divided and subdivided that 18-foot distance to come up with other important dimensions for campus structures, like the three-foot length and nine-inch height of the concrete blocks used in every building. The grid and the posts were part of Wright’s search for what he referred to as “a real Florida form” that would set a new standard for architecture in the state. But Wright’s esplanade design did not include expansion joints, and that has proven to be a problem. The esplanades, Mr. Baker says, have created their own joints by cracking where they needed to, and at least one post failed altogether and had to be replaced. Luckily, the college has kept all of Wright’s concrete molds. “We have rooms filled with molds,” he says.

The other current project is the restoration of Wright’s “water dome,” a 90-foot-diameter pool over which 74 jets were intended to make a dome of water 40 to 50 feet high. Although previously the pumps were never able to create enough pressure to achieve the effect Wright sought, Mr. Baker says Wright “saw it as the spiritual center or heartbeat of the campus — it was the focal point of the entire design.” The original pool has been excavated and has been fitted with new high-pressure jets. Mr. Baker is also planning repairs for the Annie Pfieffer Chapel and several of Wright’s other buildings here. Like many Wright structures, the chapel has a number of innovative elements. The wall blocks, for instance, have openings for colored glass shapes meant to pierce the wall with light. But now the blocks, made on the campus by Florida Southern students, are causing trouble. Because Wright wanted each block to lie flat on the block beneath it, with no mortar separating the two, iron rods were embedded in the walls to hold the blocks in place. Unfortunately the process he specified for grouting around the iron rods didn’t really work, so when water got into the unmortared joints, the rods rusted and the blocks began cracking.

Another building in need of work opened in 1945 as the library. It now houses offices and, in the circular former reading room, a visitors’ center displaying concrete molds, uncomfortable-looking wooden furniture that Wright designed for the college, and other artifacts, including designs for as-yet-unbuilt Wright buildings. Unfortunately, the structure has some sagging rafters and cracking walls, which Mr. Baker estimates will cost some $3.5-million to fix.

Other Wright buildings here appear to be in better shape — a sprawling classroom building, a delightful set of administrative buildings designed on the residential scale that Wright excelled at, and the science complex. But almost every room offers some hint of the tension between making Wright’s buildings useful for 21st-century college students and preserving the architect’s sometimes-idiosyncratic vision — here, modern light fixtures Wright would have loathed; there, bold, polished ductwork that does its best to look stylish, even if it is not original. “I hold out a lot of hope for this campus,” says Mr. Baker. “A lot of the original fabric is intact.” Indeed, the gem of the campus — the tiny William H. Danforth Chapel, which peers out from beneath some trees beside the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel — appears to be in almost perfect condition. Movable pews designed by Wright and built by students are still in use, and climbing the narrow, angled stairway to Wright’s little choir loft is unexpectedly thrilling. A single piece of stained glass is missing from the big window behind the altar. That, at least, is an easy repair.

Walkways: The Seminar Rooms

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buildings at Florida Southern College

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Water Dome

Wright’s Water Dome Finally Comes to Life

Jets of water shot sideways into the air last Thursday evening, rising about 45 feet before curving down and inward to meet in the center of a circular basin 160 feet in diameter. Between the 75 or so powerful water jets, droplets of moisture created translucent, meshlike panels of water that became the water dome that architect Frank Lloyd Wright saw in his mind for Florida Southern College. It was a moment that took 69 years and close to a million dollars to happen.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Water Dome is an innovation that Wright designed in the late 1930s, but it had never been turned on before because it didn’t have the financial or mechanical support needed to operate. That changed this year. Drawings were unearthed, the mechanics improved and the large fountain restored. About 250,000 gallons of water fill a circular pool that’s painted a green-tinged teal. Contractors and subcontractors worked up to the last day putting the final touches on the fountain that FSC President Anne Kerr called Wright’s “inspired vision.”

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Water Dome Comes to Life

Readers can access a virtual walking tour of the Wright buildings on Florida Southern’s campus here.

Slide Show: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Florida Southern College Campus

(Please Click Image to View Slide Show)

Interested readers can obtain online access to the complete 1910 Wasmuth Frank Lloyd Wright folios. This was the first publication of Wright’s work to appear anywhere in the world, since Wright had not published any of his work in his twenty previous years of activity in the United States. Publication of his folios in Germany is said to have been the inspiration for founders of the important Bauhaus architectural movement, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Josef Albers.

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