The Wright Light: Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern College

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Sunset glow at Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, west elevation. Florida Southern College, Lakeland, Florida. During my recent visit, I discovered the earth-tone palette of Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic buildings and structures takes on a bolder range of shades produced by Central Florida’s sunrises, sunsets, and after-dark lighting.

“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.”

Soon after FSC president Ludd M. Spivey met with Frank Lloyd Wright in 1936 to propose the renowned architect create a “campus of tomorrow” that would transform Florida’s oldest private college into an institution of national significance, Wright arrived in May 1938 with plans for the college’s west campus that would feature a “new and indigenous architecture for Florida,” as “No real Florida form of architecture has yet been produced.” [Sculpture by Don Haugen & Teena Stern Haugen]

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.

“The color of the whole will be very light and clean but will not be glaring, as I see it.” [FLW, 1939].

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.

Nightfall at the Fine Administration Building, south and east elevations.
Sunrise at the Miller Planetarium. Polk Science Building, south and east elevations.
Sunrise at the original Roux Library, north elevation. “There is no great building until that sense of the ground characterizes the building, until it rises out of the ground into the light. That is architecture. That is building.” FLW.
Providing shelter from sun and rain, the mile-long Esplanades light the way, linking the network of Wright-designed buildings.
Sunrise at the Polk Science Building, east elevation. View across a sea of dewdrops on a watery green lawnscape.

“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.]

Florida Southern College, Frank Lloyd Wright Master plan for the “Children of the Sun” Campus, c. 1955. [Library of Congress.]

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]

Sunset at Pfeiffer Chapel, north and west elevations.

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.

Sunrise at Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, view along the east elevation, ablaze with sunlight along the Cherokee red walkway.
Annie Pfeiffer Chapel. Morning, view of northeast elevation.
Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, early morning view with jet trail from the esplanade; left, Polk Science Building.

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.

Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, concrete fabric wall. Each block was cast with holes to insert colored glass, allowing a spectrum of diffused light into the building’s interior.
Sunset at the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, west elevation.
Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, early evening view looking south across the Water Dome.
Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, nightfall.

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.

Raulerson Seminar Buildings, a sunrise view with the esplanade linking the three separate classrooms. A view east toward the Ordway Arts Building.
Morning at the Raulerson Building.
Dusk. Raulerson Seminar Building. West elevation overlooking the Water Dome pond, view east to the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel.
Dusk. Raulerson Seminar Building, detail. The Raulerson contains some of the oldest of the original blocks.

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.

Sunrise at the Buckner Building. East elevation.
Sunrise at the Buckner Building, east elevation.

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.

At dusk, the esplanade lights are activated.
Esplanade, intersection. The weathered copper flashing can be found in various states, some recently replaced while others are distressed.
Esplanade. Weathered copper flashing, distressed.
Esplanade, piers. Sunrise and sunset.
Esplanade, intersection.
Esplanade, intersections.
Esplanade, view toward Annie Pfeiffer Chapel.
Esplanade, sunset at Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, north and west elevations.
During the past decade Wright-inspired metal trellises were installed to reinforce distressed esplanades.

Water Dome

Dusk. View of the Water Dome pond south to the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, left, and, right, the Branscom Memorial Auditorium (1964, Nils Schweitzer, architect).

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.

Watson Building, cornerstone.
Watson Building. Concrete block, corrosion detail.
Early evening at the Fine Building, view northwest across the Water Dome.
Fine Building, south elevation.
Fine Building, cantilevered shade extension with pentagon cutouts, detail.
Fine Building, cantilevered shade extension with pentagon cutouts, detail.
Courtyard between the Watson and Fine Buildings.
Courtyard between the Watson and Fine Buildings.
Esplanade between the Fine and Watson Buildings, looking south to the original Roux Library.
Esplanade, looking north from the Roux Library toward the Administration Buildings.
Esplanade, detail.
Esplanade between the administration buildings, view to the south.
Esplanade detail.

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.

Several years later, after the college added social science and psychology classes, it was rededicated and renamed for 3M co-founder and president Lucius Pond Ordway Sr. (1862-1948), by Ordway’s sons, Jack Ordway and longtime Palm Beach resident Lucius P. Ordway Jr. [Courtesy Ellen Glendinning Ordway Collection]

Ordway Building, lecture hall with lofty ceilings and clerestory windows. Today, The Ordway, as it is called, also houses an Honors Lounge, several clubs, and the original circular theatre-in-the-round.
Ordway Building at dusk, looking north. A multi-dimensional courtyard with an inner grass court and terrace landing flanked by classrooms with floor-to-ceiling glass.
Ordway Building. A Wrightian pavilion at the entrance.

Esplanades link The Ordway with existing Wright-designed buildings.

Danforth Chapel

Sunset at Danforth Chapel, west elevation. A worship and performance space with an intimate capacity, the Danforth Chapel’s west wall is poised to capture sunsets with a set of leaded-glass windows. The following year, Wright’s Guggenheim Museum opened in New York.
At sunrise while the dew was still on the roses … The museum-quality Rose Garden is located to the east of the Polk Science Building.

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 …”

Cosmography Building (Polk Science Building), original drawings. Today the Polk’s complex of several connected buildings houses offices for STEM professors, labs for science labs, large lecture rooms, and several computer stations. The planetarium is located at the building’s southeast end. [Library of Congress]
Sunrise at Polk Science Building, northeast elevation. Afar, the carillon tower at Pfeiffer Chapel.
Sunrise at Polk Science Building, Planetarium. Southeast elevation.
Polk Science Building, rooftop. The laboratory ventilators were added for safety reasons and not part of original design. Air-conditioning ducts were also added.
Dusk at Polk Science Building, west elevation. Esplanade leading to the Pfeiffer Chapel.
Sunrise at the Polk Science Building, northwest elevation.

Contemporary additions
Children of the Sun West Campus

The Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center includes a Usonian-house designed by Wright in 1939 as a proposed faculty home that was finally constructed in late 2013. Usonian House, pictured above, in an early morning fog, with an outdoor bench inspired by Wright’s designs.
Wesley Hall, 2009. West elevation at sunset. Robert A. M. Stern, architect.
Sunset at Christoverson Humanities Building, 2010. South elevation. Robert A. M. Stern, architect; Lunz Group, associate architect.
Wynee Warden Dance Studio, 2014. East elevation. Lunz Group, architect.

For information on restoration efforts contact: FRIENDS OF FRANK

 Photography Augustus Mayhew

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