LAKELAND, Fla. — It’s so not Florida. So not a college campus. So Frank Lloyd Wright.
Generally acknowledged as this country’s greatest architect, Wright has frequently been described as a brilliant eccentric. He may have met his match in Ludd M. Spivey, who became president of Florida Southern College in 1925, kept it afloat during the Depression, and then decided to turn the school into a national attraction. In 1938 Spivey sent a telegram to Wright at his Wisconsin home, inviting him to design “a great education temple in Florida.” The architect accepted.
Wright designed 18 structures at the college, 12 of which were built during his lifetime, between 1938 and 1958. With no budget and no endowment, Spivey begged and borrowed money to pay for the grand project. He offered free tuition to students who would haul cement and build buildings — and when most prospective male college students went off to fight in World War II, the female students picked up the slack.
Today Wright’s spare, geometric, form-follows-function mark is everywhere on the Florida Southern campus, from the cantilevered covered walkways to the stained glass in the chapel to the Water Dome fountain. The college claims to have the largest single-site collection of Wright’s architecture in the world, and to be the site of the only Wright-designed planetarium and theater in the round. The Florida Southern College Historic District, encompassing the Wright buildings, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2012. Visitors can see the exterior structures on their own, but excellent guided tours include interior visits, and add depth and perspective to the unlikely alliance between the architect and the academician.
From the highest point on the main campus, there’s an 80-foot drop to Lake Hollingsworth, a perfect terrain for Wright’s step organic architecture, which molds buildings into the topography. Known for a fanatical — some say controlling — attention to detail, Wright designed everything: buildings, esplanades, fountain, planetarium, furniture, and landscaping. Details such as flower beds in the double esplanade shaped exactly like the cutouts in the overhang above help create a strikingly integrated whole.
Tours begin in the new Usonian House, built from Wright’s design and opened in 2013. This building uses approximately 2,000 interlocking blocks and is adorned with nearly 6,000 hand-inserted pieces of colored glass. The home illustrates Wright’s Usonian ideals: respect for the natural landscape, economy of size, and the use of native materials (in this case, tidewater cypress) for construction. The house has Wright’s trademark Cherokee red concrete floor and built-in furnishings. The earliest Usonian houses were supposed to be Prairie-style dwellings for the masses and sell for $5,000. Wright designed a ring of them around the university for faculty housing, but they were never built. This Usonian house, a two-bedroom, one-bath dwelling with geothermal heating and cooling, cost more than $1 million to build. Wright considered garages a waste of space; as an alternative, he invented the carport.
Wright’s “textile blocks,” used throughout the campus, are patterned concrete blocks with a half-circle groove on all four sides, where slim steel bars were inserted for strength. The blocks are stacked, not staggered. Wright said the steel bars would “knit” the blocks together — hence the term “textile blocks.” In his autobiography Wright recalls playing with stacking Froebel blocks as a child, and the connection to his “textile blocks” is evident.
The esplanades, or covered walkways, total 1.5 miles and connect the campus structures, both literally and visually. Our guide, Bill Stephens, challenged us to guess what their design represented. To me, the supporting columns looked vaguely Egyptian with their narrow bases and flanged tops. But when Stephens explained that the columns are abstractions of orange trees and Wright spaced them to replicate a working citrus grove, we saw the image at once. The walkways are stepped to accommodate the changes in elevation, and trimmed with molded copper, which has turned a pleasing soft green — just as Wright intended.
The Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, constructed largely by students from 1939 to 1941, is considered the college’s hallmark. Wright used colored pieces of glass to break the monotony of the textile blocks, allowing natural light to enter. The design atop the tower is supposed to represent hands folded in prayer, our guide said, but students call it “God’s bicycle rack.” The smaller William H. Danforth Chapel next door contains Wright’s only leaded glass work on campus. The chapel feels contemporary even today, with its sharp angles and vertical panes of red, gold, and white glass. Wright situated the pulpit so that if you’re sitting in the pews looking out, you see clouds and blue sky behind the minister, making the small space feel expansive.
The Lucius Pond Ordway Building housed the fine arts center with a theater in the round, designed for speech and elocution classes. Wright is said to have called this structure the “most purposeful” building he had ever designed. Inside the theater our guide instructed each of us to stand in the middle of the stage and speak as softly as possible. When we did, our voices reverberated loudly, easily reaching the farthest seats in the theater. The effect, Stephens said, was created purely by the design, adding that Wright was just a few months shy of earning his degree in civil engineering when he switched to architecture.
Our last stop was the Water Dome, completed in 1948 and restored in 2007, thanks to an aggressive fund-raising campaign by college President Anne B. Kerr. Kerr was also the driving force behind a restoration and landscaping initiative that earned the college a designation as the Most Beautiful Campus in America by The Princeton Review in 2011 and 2012. The Water Dome is a perfect circle, 160 feet across with high-pressure water nozzles installed around the perimeter. Controlled by a (now) computerized fountain system, water is propelled 45 feet into the air, creating a dome. The dome was symbolic on many levels, our guide said: It represented the proverbial fountain of knowledge, and the shape echoed traditional American college campus buildings. In the interest of conservation, the dome typically runs at about 30 percent capacity. But on the day before graduation, seniors climb into the basin and the administration turns on the fountain full blast — a fitting way to say goodbye to an extraordinary college campus.
Ellen Albanese can be reached at ellen