During a mid-March road trip through central Florida, we stopped in Lakeland for a visit to Florida Southern College.
We were once affiliated with Florida Southern, one of us (Kay) as an undergraduate student and the other (David) as a professor. Our visit was intended to become better acquainted with Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture for which the college is well-known.
Thirteen campus structures were designed by the famed architect.
A highlight of our visit was joining the college's In-Depth Tour offered by the Tourism and Education Center.
The tour entails a two-and-a-half- to three-hour walk through campus while exploring the FLW buildings.
Along the way, tour guide Paul Waterman offered an interesting history of Wright's association with the college.
Florida Southern moved to Lakeland in 1922. The small campus consisted of several brick buildings surrounded by citrus trees on a hill overlooking a large lake.
An enrollment decline during the 1930s caused college president, Dr. Ludd Spivey, to consider expanding the campus with “dramatic architecture” that would attract students.
Never having met Wright, Spivey sent the architect a telegram asking for a meeting “concerning plans for a great educational temple in Florida.” When the two met in spring of 1938, Spivey explained he had no money but would work diligently to raise the funds. Wright suggested using student labor.
Wright drew a master plan for the campus with 18 buildings. At 69 years of age, this was his largest project and the beginning of a 20-year relationship with the college.
Following Wright's suggestion, Spivey allowed students to assist in construction in lieu of tuition.
Male and female students also made furniture, cushions and curtains during a period that lasted through World War II when the first five buildings were completed.
During our visit, we met Robert Caldwell who graduated from Florida Southern in 1942. As a student, he helped build Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, Wright's first campus building. Caldwell told us they encountered difficulty getting the correct sand mixture for blocks used to construct the buildings.
Building walls are constructed of textile blocks with geometric patterns. Many include holes decorated with pieces of colored glass. Floors of most buildings are cement-colored Cherokee red, Wright's (and current college president Anne Kerr's) favorite color.
Annie Pfeiffer Chapel is probably the most recognized campus building. Some believe Wright copied its cantilevered wings and balconies from the design for one of his most famous homes, Fallingwater.
The chapel's textile block walls are filled with colored-glass inserts. The main source of light originates from clear glass in the central ceiling.
The E.T. Roux Library required several years to build due to a shortage of materials during World War II. It has been suggested that Wright may have gotten his idea for the Guggenheim Museum's circular shape from this round library at Florida Southern.
A new Roux Library was completed in 1968 and the circular reading room of the original library is now utilized as a lecture hall.
Two of Wright's campus buildings contain one-of-a-kind designs.
Ordway Arts includes his only theater-in-the-round. The theater's walls and ceiling were designed so that sound is directed to the center of the room.
During the tour, participants took turns standing in the center and speaking. It was eerie to hear your voice come back to you.
Wright's largest campus structure is the Polk County Science Building that contains several unique features. It is the only building on campus with a basement that is now utilized for storage.
The building also incorporates a planetarium, another unique Wright project.
An unusual Wright-designed water feature is a circular pool with fountains that shoot 45 feet toward the center, forming a dome. Wright called this the “fountain of knowledge, his tribute to education.”
Wright's buildings are connected by one-and-a-third miles of covered walkways, or as Wright called them, “esplanades.”
Most of the support pillars are designed to appear as stylized orange trees. Edges of the low roofs are trimmed in oxidized copper with some roofs having geometric cutouts that cast unusual shadows on the walkways.
The newest Wright-designed campus building, the Usonian house, was constructed in 2013. Wright's original plan called for 20 of these to be built as faculty housing.
The 1,333 square-foot house was constructed with less than 2,000 textile blocks and nearly 6,000 pieces of colored glass in 48 different geometric designs. The house has two bedrooms, one bath, a small kitchen, a large fireplace, a wall of windows and little storage space.
We would move in tomorrow if we could locate a place to store all our stuff.
David and Kay Scott are authors of “The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot). Visit them at mypages.valdosta.edu/dlscott/Scott.html. They live in Valdosta, Ga.