“There’s a magic here that works its spell on nearly everybody that sees it. It’s a certain integrity, a certain feeling of nature, and alliance with the true element of growth.”
Tapped by The Princeton Review as one of the nation’s most beautiful campuses and by US News and World Report as among the South’s most prominent private colleges, Florida Southern College’s standing as the state’s leading 20th-century architectural landmark has been unrivaled since 1938 when Frank Lloyd Wright initiated plans for what the visionary icon described as “the first uniquely American campus.”
With 13 of 20 original Wright designs now built on a former lakeside orange grove, the Central Florida institution’s “Children of the Sun” campus, a National Historic Landmark, is the world’s largest single-site collection of buildings and structures designed by Wright.
At one time, Florida’s mid-century vanguard architecture was poised to become one of the state’s significant calling cards. Influenced as much by Wright as Le Corbusier, architect Ralph Twitchell introduced Modernism’s artful concrete-and-glass motifs to Sarasota, joined by Paul Rudolph in 1941, becoming known among the pioneers of the Sarasota School of Architecture. Mid-Century Modern designs thrived during the 1950s and 1960s, practiced by numerous area architects including Jack West, Mark Hampton, Victor Lundy, and Gene Leedy.
On Miami Beach, Morris Lapidus developed his “laboratory of design” at the Fontainebleau (1954), Lincoln Road (1960), and numerous Collins Avenue venues. While Miami’s distinct Mid-century Modern works are known today as MiMo, Coconut Grove architect Alfred Browning Parker adapted Wright’s concepts into what he termed the Tropical Modern style. Edward Durell Stone brought his International signature style to Palm Beach (400 Building, 1962), Orlando (Tupperware, 1969), and Tallahassee (Capitol Complex, 1969-1970).
After Walt Disney World’s 27,000-acre Magic Kingdom theme park opened in 1971, Cinderella’s Castle and Fantasyland became the state’s prime destination. Celebrating its 50th anniversary, who remembers Disney’s 1982 plan for EPCOT – Experimental Community of Tomorrow? Described then as a “planned, controlled community, a showcase for industry, research, schools, cultural and educational opportunities … there will be no slums, no landowners and therefore no voting control. People will rent homes …” But there was Spaceship Earth. After much rebranding and renaming, remember Future World. EPCOT 82 became Epcot 94, offering the “The Magical World of Barbie.” Epcot 2021 has just opened Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure with a “stylish new entrance and a reimagined color-changing fountain.”
Along with Disney’s carnival of the virtual and the artificial, the past 50 years of unconstrained development has led to franchise fast food drive-thrus, office parks and shopping malls, parking garages, and subdivisions. Florida’s waterways and oceanfronts are walled with condominium towers and super-sized mansions with little regard for indigenous architectural designs.
Here are some of my impressions of Wright’s ever-changing kaleidoscope during the course of my 18-hour visit to the Florida Southern College campus from late afternoon until the following morning.
“Each building is individual in character … delightfully informal and easy as a whole … the architecture for the million-dollar project would be a new type peculiar to Florida.” [Miami Herald, September 25, 1938.]
Annie Pfeiffer Chapel
“You should remember it is not just a chapel we’re designing but the first unit in an aggregation of buildings – and what we work out now decides the fate of the whole …” [FLW, 1938]
Three years after its May 1938 groundbreaking, the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel was dedicated as the first of the 12 buildings and structures constructed during Wright’s lifetime. Believed to be the nation’s first college chapel with an architecturally modern design, the hexagonal-shaped chapel was designed to be 85-feet wide, 85-feet high and 104 feet in length, “… distinguished by its lack of resemblance to a chapel.”
Wright supervised the chapel’s construction that was primarily done by students in between classes. The 65-foot-high carillon bell tower was composed of concrete, stained glass and steel. With seating for 1,000 on its two levels, the interior was defined by vaulted skylights, its walls made of poured concrete with steel rods. Exterior flat surfaces were covered with smooth stucco. With its cantilevered balconies and 30-60-90 triangular east-west elevations, when viewed from above the chapel’s shape resembled a ship.
“After all, the chapel is a thing of and for the spirit and best serves its purpose when the body is comfortable. It never was in Gothic architecture. There will be little of the “grand” but much of the divine—if divine is where the spirit is.” [FLW, 1940]
The chapel was named for its principal donor, New York philanthropist Annie Merner Pfeiffer whose husband Henry Pfeiffer, president of the Warner Pharmaceutical (Warner-Lambert), died in 1939, leaving her a sizable fortune. The Merner-Pfeiffer Papers are at the Pfeiffer Library at Pfeiffer University in North Carolina.
A major restoration effort in 2016 addressed the effects of moisture and age that caused the concrete sand-cast blocks to crack and disintegrate. The original 9” x 36” blocks were not designed to repel moisture or to seal the building. The blocks, described by Wright as “a concrete fabric wall,” were composed of coquina shells, sand and concrete, molded and produced onsite from Wright’s formula. The redesigned replacement blocks are moisture resistant, produced by a hand-casting method.
Raulerson Seminar Buildings
Three separate adjoining classrooms separated by breezeways were built in 1941, later connected into one building. No longer classrooms, today the Raulerson houses the college’s financial aid and business offices, located on the east side of the Water Dome and opposite the Watson-Fine Buildings.
E.T. Roux Library (now Buckner Building)
Eleanor Searle Whitney, the second Mrs. Cornelius “Sonny” Vanderbilt Whitney and a former student of Florida Southern’s School of Music, served as chair for the development of the Roux Library building. Though designed in 1941, because of the war it was not completed until 1945. While students served as construction workers at the Pfeiffer Chapel and the Raulerson Seminar Building, the library was unique as it was almost completely built by women as many of the male students had enlisted in the armed forces. Built for $100,000, Whitney’s goal was to fund the acquisition of 100,000 books. She surpassed her goal, as the library opened with more than 200,000 books.
When the current Roux Library was constructed in 1968, the former library was partitioned. One section made room for organizational meetings and lectures while the other was divided into offices for the registrar, provost, and student travel. While Whitney supported efforts to build a Wright-designed Music School building, it remained unbuilt.
The Wright-designed buildings were connected by esplanades, a series of mostly cantilevered covered walkways, supported by piers, said to have been inspired by orange trees and built no higher than seven feet. Each was inscribed with the name of someone significant to the college. “The esplanades not only link the buildings together, but weave in and out of the buildings. Further, most all of the elements of scale, dimension and materials are embodied by the esplanades,” wrote Nils Schweizer, the college’s architect in the post-Wright era.
Situated on the college’s highest elevation, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed 160-foot circular pond was designed for its water jets to recreate the form of a Neoclassical dome. Because the technology did not exist at the time for it to function properly, it was built simply built as a pond. Later, the area was paved. In 2007 Wright’s initial vision become a reality when the fountain’s water jets were re-engineered to project a dome-shaped figure.
Emile Watson – Benjamin Fine Buildings
In 1948, the Emile E. Watson and Benjamin Fine Buildings became the base for the college’s administration offices, including the President’s Office. The two buildings were located between the Water Dome to the east and Johnson Avenue on the west. Since their completion, they have been utilized as administration offices. The President’s office, co-designed with Ludd Spivey, is housed in the Watson Building, located across the courtyard from the Fine Building.
Lucius Pond Ordway Building
Originally designed in 1942, the 30,000 square-foot building, most often compared with Taliesin West, was first a student center and industrial arts complex. Completed at a cost of $52,000, it was first dedicated as the Horsey Building in September of 1952.
Polk Science Building (Cosmography Building)
The Polk Science Building is the largest and the last completed of Wright’s campus buildings built within the architect’s lifetime. It contains Wright’s only constructed Planetarium. Named the Cosmography Building by Wright, the complex was intended to provide classrooms and laboratories for students to “… afford the student an actual view of the features making up the world and the relation of the planet to the universe …”
Children of the Sun West Campus
For information on restoration efforts contact: FRIENDS OF FRANK
Photography Augustus Mayhew