Pfeiffer Chapel: The Annie Pfeiffer Chapel (1941) was the first Wright building to be constructed. It bears many of Wright's trademark architecural elements, including the cantilevered wings and a central skylight.
And so began the long relationship between Florida Southern College and the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. In the end, it would be Wright's longest relationship with any client, and it would produce the largest collection of his works on one site anywhere in the world.
Florida Southern was established by the Methodist church in 1885 and is the oldest private college in Florida. It was relocated in 1922 to its present site near downtown Lakeland in Central Florida, a rather rural area at that time known primarily for its citrus groves.
|Water Dome: The Water Dome (1948, restored 2007) was a central point in Wright’s concept of the campus, representing the fountain of knowledge. It is the largest water feature (160 feet in diameter) he ever designed and only worked properly when modern technology was used in its restoration.|
A VISION FOR A MODERN CAMPUS
In the mid-1930s, Florida Southern's indomitable president, Dr. Ludd Spivey, visited Geneva and saw there the monuments to the Protestant Reformation. Inspired, he returned to campus, which at the time had only a few buildings, with a vision of constructing a modern campus. He wanted America's foremost architect, and he contacted Wright by telegram.
Dr. Spivey flew to Taliesin, Wright's home at Spring Green, Wisconsin, and described 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." The grandeur of the scheme must have appealed to Wright, and by all accounts he saw in Spivey a man like himself who dared to think big.
Wright was 70 years old on his first visit to Lakeland. Throughout his career, he rejected classical and European-influenced designs and was determined to create an indigenous American architecture. After seeing the campus, which sloped gently down to beautiful Lake Hollingsworth, he returned to Wisconsin and set to work.
|Esplanades: These covered walkways connect in a geometric pattern most of the Wright buildings of the west campus. The supports are said to suggest the orange trees that were then numerous on campus.|
WRIGHT'S MASTER PLAN
His master plan called for 18 structures, of which 12 were built during his lifetime. The first ground breaking ceremony was held May 24, 1938, for the signature building on campus, the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel. The collection-sometimes known as the "Child of the Sun" after a cryptic remark later attributed to Wright-took 20 years to build, concluding with the Polk County Science Building in 1959, which was finished shortly after Wright's death.
The Chapel and two other buildings-the Seminar Buildings, and the E.T. Roux Library-were built mostly with student labor. Dr. Spivey arranged for students' tuition to be paid in exchange for their work on the construction of the buildings. Steel and manpower shortages due to World War II slowed the construction.
The buildings employ simple modern angles and lines and reflect Wright's concept of "organic" architecture, in which manmade structures and nature are in harmony with each other and allow for interplay between them. For example, the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel's open tower above a central skylight allows natural light into the interior, and the use of natural light is a feature of nearly all of Wright's designs.
|Usonian house: Originally designed for faculty housing, the Usonian house (2013) was constructed using almost 2,000 interlocking "textile" blocks in 47 shapes, made from handcrafted molds. The blocks contain about 5,000 colored glass inserts in eight colors, part of Wright's original design. It serves as the Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center for the Wright collection at Florida Southern.|
There are some unique features among the structures.
Wright used distinctive "textile" blocks- so-called because they link together without the use of mortar-in the construction of many of the buildings. In some buildings they have small pieces of inset colored glass, giving the interiors a magical glow.
Among the structures are 1.5 miles of esplanades, covered walkways that link most of the central buildings. There are also the only theater-in-the-round and planetarium that Wright ever designed.
ELEMENTS OF THE WRIGHT COLLECTION
The structures have undergone modification over the years. The Annie Pfeiffer Chapel was rebuilt under Wright's supervision after a hurricane damaged the original. Interior walls, air conditioning, and ventilation systems were added to the buildings as necessity overruled Wright's pristine concepts. The effects of time and the Florida climate have taken their toll as well, causing some of the textile blocks to deteriorate.
In 2007, The World Monuments Fund placed the collection of Wright buildings on its list of Endangered Sites. Under the leadership of current President Anne Kerr, the college has endeavored to raise funds and awareness of the Wright collection in order to preserve and restore it. Those efforts have not only attempted to halt the effects of the weather, they have also successfully reclaimed some of Wright's original designs.
|Danforth Chapel: The William H. Danforth Chapel (1955) is the site of Wright's only work in leaded glass on campus. It still contains the original pews and cushions, designed by Wright and built by industrial arts and home economics classes.|
A central feature of the collection is a 160-foot-diameter fountain, the Water Dome, which did not work as Wright intended when it was built in 1948 because the technology was insufficient. Under the supervision of architect Jeff Baker of Albany, N.Y., the Water Dome was reconstructed and inaugurated in 2008. At full power, high-pressure nozzles propel water up to 45 feet high, creating the dome Wright envisioned.
In addition, the theater-in-the-round was restored to its original state in 2012.
WRIGHT'S LEGACY AT FLORIDA SOUTHERN
The latest effort to sustain Wright's legacy at the college is the construction of a "Usonian" house to be a visitor's center for the Wright collection. Wright conceived of Usonian houses in the 1930s as simple, low-cost homes with a distinctly American character, and he included Usonian designs for faculty housing as part of his plan for the FSC campus, although they were never built.
Under Baker's direction, the Usonian design was constructed, updated with modern features and building techniques, but otherwise faithful to Wright's architectural plan. The Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center opened in November 2013, giving a new window into Wright's genius. It was the first Wright design to be built on the original site for the original client in almost 60 years.
In 1975, the Child of the Sun collection was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service, and in 2012, it received the more prestigious designation of National Historic Landmark.
|Hollis Room: The William M. Hollis Seminar Room was originally the reading room of the Roux Library (1945). Today it is used as a lecture hall, but it retains the original curved reading desks.|
Thanks to Wright's vision, Florida Southern was listed among the Top Ten College Campuses with the Best Architecture by Architectural Digest in August 2011, and it was named the Most Beautiful Campus in the nation by The Princeton Review in 2012 and 2013.
At the dedication of the Usonian house, architect Jeff Baker offered these eloquent words in praise of keeping Wright's vision alive: "Any act of building is an act of faith. It is faith in the future, faith in ourselves, and faith in our ability to help shape that future. In many ways, this project is a story of faith," he said. "All of you here have resurrected an idea, and a passion, most thought dead. Yet, great ideas never die, and you have made certain that this one will live to see a new day."
Photography provided by Florida Southern College
has been publications editor for Florida Southern College since 2011. He was a journalist and columnist for 16 years, holding the position of religion editor for The Ledger of Lakeland, Florida, from 1997 to 2011.