Friday, September 18, 2009

The Frank Lloyd Wright campus

Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, looking towards Lake Hollingsworth. Completed in 1941, the chapel stands as the centerpiece for the college's Wright-designed buildings and structures included among the World Monument Fund's list of endangered sites in 2008.
The Frank Lloyd Wright campus at Florida Southern College
by Augustus Mayhew

With Florida's coastline walled with condominiums and turnkey mansions, subdivisions blitzed with neo-traditionalist look-a-like houses and the state's historic districts adorned with Spanish and Italian imports, where more surprising to find Frank Lloyd Wright’s most inspired complex of buildings and appreciate the prime minister of organic architecture’s design concepts than on a college campus located between Disney World’s theme parks and the Everglades.

Far from the sophisticated environs of Scottsdale and Oak Park, but only slightly more than a two-hour drive from Palm Beach, Wright’s 18-building master plan for a “College of Tomorrow” at Florida Southern College in Lakeland was never fully-realized but the existing ensemble of twelve buildings and structures constructed between 1938 and 1958 serves as the architect’s most articulate integrated showcase for a life’s work that encouraged Americans to free themselves from the constraints of foursquare floor plans and dehumanizing glass boxes and enrich their lives with alternative open forms of sustainable living spaces.

“It is a distinct privilege to be the conservator of this international architectural treasure. We are fortunate to work and learn in a living, breathing museum, and we are committed to preserving Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpieces for future generations of faculty, staff, students, and visitors to enjoy,” stated Dr. Anne Kerr, president of Florida Southern College.

Yet, whatever the lakeside campus’ aesthetic magnitude, it has never garnered the same level of regard as Wright’s more iconic commissions, such as Fallingwater or the Guggenheim Museum. If you missed Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward, the recent exhibition at the Guggenheim, or can never get enough of the Wright stuff, here are some of my impressions of Florida Southern's architectural gems, photographed at different stages during the ongoing restoration, accompanied by historic images from the State Archives of Florida and Florida Southern College, including glimpses of the Wisconsin wizard during his campus inspection visits.
Recent restoration work has enhanced Wright’s original designs while plans for new buildings inspired by the architect’s principles insure that Wright's legacy will be preserved. As well as the college's ongoing $50 million restoration program, this summer it announced plans to build a Wright-designed Usonian house that will serve as a Visitor Center. The county's board of commissioners committed $1 million, and having received the Taliesin Foundation's approval, the college is still in need of $1 million for the project.

"Florida Southern College may never be more than a freshwater college among the big institutions of the country, but its architecture will cause it to become a beacon of light." — Frank Lloyd Wright, 1949, during a speech at Pfeiffer Chapel.
Dr. Ludd Spivey, left, president of Florida Southern College, and Frank Lloyd Wright, at a campus dedication. Dr. Spivey invited Wright to turn his Lakeland campus into an architectural landmark. Wright was paid $13,000 for the master plan plus his standard ten percent fee of each building's cost.
Florida Southern College, original master plan. After a freeze destroyed the orange grove where the campus was sited, Wright went back to the drawing board. Courtesy the State Archives of Florida.
Florida Southern College, final master plan. Courtesy the State Archives of Florida.
With his hand resting on one of his signature textile blocks, Wright could have been contemplating his next change of plans. Mr. Wright strolling the campus with his cane but without his cape. Frank Lloyd Wright spent the last two decades of his life overseeing the largest single-site collection of his designs.
“… out of the ground, into the light and into the sun." — Frank Lloyd Wright describing Florida Southern College.
From Taliesin West, the architect's winter camp in Arizona's Valley of the Sun, Wright would travel to his "Child of the Sun" campus in Central Florida.
Once an agreement was reached, Wright would send blueprints without specifications for each building, accompanied by one of his students, who then drafted construction drawings at the site. After the first building came in over budget, students traded their thinking caps for hard hats and became the college’s construction workers. During the war years, campus construction slowed, as manpower and material shortages resulted in more student labor, who, following Wright’s formula, were even recruited to mold and cast the distinctive three-foot concrete building blocks known as "textile blocks."
Wright student and protégé, Nils Schweizer, left, supervised the construction, while college students earned tuition credits by putting in shovel-and-hammer time.
After the Pfeiffer Chapel and the three seminar buildings were finished, the circular E. T. Roux Library was built in 1942. Following, came the Water Dome and the Esplanades, angled covered walkways to connect the existing buildings. Supported by piers shaped like the orange trees the campus supplanted on its site, the esplanades eventually formed a quadrangle, linking the administration buildings, three seminar units and the chapel.

The last Wright-designed buildings were the structurally subdued Danforth Chapel and the elaborate Polk County Science Building, what Wright termed his center for cosmology. Among Wright’s planned but unrealized buildings were an arts & crafts building, faculty and student dormitories, and the Whitney Building, a theatre/music building designed in 1944 as a memorial for Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney.
After Wright's death in 1959, Mr. Schweizer, right, continued Wright's work at FSC.
President Spivey with students in front of one of the seminar units completed after the Pfeiffer Chapel.
Named for the president of 3M, the Lucius P. Ordway Arts Building was initially conceived as a cafeteria and dining hall. Built for $52,000 and opened in the early 1950s, the Ordway Building was utilized for industrial arts classes before becoming a fine arts center.
Students leafing through textbooks, perhaps thankful their hard-hat days were over.
"When building is completed, the United States will have at least one example of the cultural value of organic buildings well suited to time, purpose and place." — Architectural Forum, January 1948.
Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, north elevation. Around the chapel's base, Wright used colored pieces of glass to perforate the blocks allowing a natural prism of light to enter. The building is referred to as “the bow-tie building,” reflecting the exterior concrete design. The linear grid wrought-iron work atop was originally designed to hang plants and is also described as “the bicycle rack in the sky.”
Pfeiffer Chapel, original interior. The National Trust recently awarded FSC a $350,000 Save America's Treasures grant to aid in the restoration of the chapel's interior.
Pfeiffer Chapel, exterior stairs.
Named for William H. Danforth, founder of Ralston-Purina, the Danforth Chapel is the site of Wright’s only leaded-glass composition, framed in native Florida tidewater red cypress woodwork. The chapel still contains the original pews designed by Wright and constructed by industrial arts and home economics students.
Danforth Chapel, interior, 1955. The archival photograph shows the intimate setting as it looked when Wright designed it and the students built it.
The esplanades zig-zag for more than 1.5 miles around campus. They were built 6-foot 8-inches in height, as Wright prescribed them, the same height as a residential door opening.
As the supporting iron bars rusted, the walkway structures cracked and the roofs sagged. New expansion joints are replacing the originals, insuring the continued form and function of the walkways.
Esplanade, looking towards an entrance into Pfeiffer Chapel. Although Wright's belief that his campus made from indigenous resources and materials was built to last a thousand years might have been slightly off by 950 years, recent restoration efforts are securing the buildings and structures for at least another century.
Esplanade pier, design inspired by the site's original orange trees.
The esplanades restored, that is, for students under 6 ft. 8 ins. in height.
Looking north from the science building towards the back of Danforth Chapel.
The textile blocks with colored stones were created from sandstone and coquina shells, porous materials that over the years resulted in water damage to all the buildings. Before current restoration efforts, the blocks were structurally and aesthetically defaced and compromised by ad hoc caulking to prevent sporadic water leaks.
The plans and model for the former Roux Library, later known as the Thad Buckner Building, before becoming the venue for the Child of the Sun Visitor Center in 1992. The building -in-the-round serves as an exhibition and meeting space, as well as the center for all the Wright things.
The Buckner Building's multi-level Visitor Center is believed by some to have been among the inspirations for Wright's design of the Guggenheim Museum.
A view from the Visitor Center's lectern.
Buckner-Child of the Sun Visitor Center and Esplanade, east elevation. Clerestory windows and skylights make for a functional and artfully geometric roofline.
Roux Library-Buckner Building, original view.
This recent view of a corner-roof juncture at the Buckner-Visitor Center shows the caulking between the textile blocks.
The Benjamin Fine Administration Building's roof line at ground level.
The Fine Administration Building's uber-organic nearly subterranean roof line with windows at lawn-level.
The courtyard between the Fine-Watson Administration Buildings.
The courtyard pond and fountain between the two administration buildings.
The Emile Watson Administration Building wall. Completed in 1948 at a cost of $200,000, the two administration buildings were the fourth of Wright's designs and the first built by an outside construction company. Wright personally supervised their construction, housing the president's office.
Esplanade, looking west from the courtyard between the Watson-Fine Administration Buildings towards today's Child of the Sun Visitor's Center.
Esplanade, looking towards the Water Dome.
The horizontal extent of the Polk County Science Building's classrooms and research labs measures longer than a football field.
Wright called the building his center for science and cosmography. Completed for $1 million, the cluster of buildings includes the only Wright-designed planetarium.
A signature Frank Lloyd Wright geometric placed in front of the cosmography buildings.
The Water Dome. Nearly 70 years after Wright first designed this architectural folly, the circular Water Dome's 75 water jets were re-engineered in 2007, allowing Wright's vision to be realized. Wesley Hall, the first of the college's two new student facilities known as the Barnett Residential Life Center, facing Lake Hollingsworth, 2008. Robert A. M. Stern, architect. Inspired by Wright's design philosophy, Stern's second multi-story residence facility, Nicholas Hall, was dedicated last month and features Stern-designed tile and light fixtures engineered by Enrico Franzolini.
Speaking at last month's formal dedication of Nicholas Hall, the college's second residence hall, Robert A. M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, remarked on Florida Southern College's continuing efforts to preserve its Frank Lloyd Wright campus, "They are looking back and going forward at the same time, which is a remarkable journey for any group of people at an institution. It's a great privilege for me to have been asked to shoulder some of the responsibility of that journey," Stern said. Now under construction, the Dr. Marcene and Robert Christoverson Humanities Building, also designed by Stern, is scheduled to open next year.
If you go:

Florida Southern College
111 Lake Hollingsworth Drive
Lakeland, Florida, 33801-5698

Visitor Center and Esplanade Gift Shop: Monday - Friday 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. Self-guided walking tours: Available at all times: Tour maps located at the directional sign under the esplanades at Parking Lot VB. Water Dome: Monday through Sunday, 10:15 a.m. – 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. – 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Photographs by Augustus Mayhew. Historic images courtesy of the State of Florida Archives and Florida Southern College.

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