Frank Lloyd Wright's Campus

A Florida College Restores its Wright Collection.

Frank Lloyd Wright designed the administration building at Florida Southern College.

Credit: Florida Southern College

Midway between Tampa and Orlando in central Florida is a small college with a big architectural secret. Frank Lloyd Wright designed 12 buildings at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, the largest single collection of his work in the world and the only college campus he created. Today a major renovation is under way, and a major college expansion, designed by renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern, is nearly halfway completed. The $45-$50 million project is a tall order for such a small school, with an enrollment of 1,800 in a city with just 100,000 residents. 

Stern promises the new buildings will "honor Wright's historic legacy while putting my own mark on the campus by complimenting, not copying, Wright." Stern, whose first residence hall was completed this spring, says working on the project "is a great challenge and privilege, not just in adding to the campus but reclaiming the campus. Florida Southern is not a [financially] rich campus, but now they have a clear idea of the importance of their identity."

Big Dreams for a Small College

The historic campus had humble beginnings. Then-President Dr. Ludd M. Spivey was forced to relocate the college after a devastating fire and chose the present location in the middle of an orange grove. His passion and dream was matched only by the forward thinking Wright, leading to the master architect's bold plans in a central Florida citrus swamp. Spivey was cash-strapped but promised Wright that if the buildings were constructed, the campus would find a way to finance them. 

"Both Wright and Spivey were intent on building a legacy and were willing to bend over backwards to make it happen," says architect Jeffrey Baker, principal architect, Mesick/Cohen/Wilson/Baker Architects, who is overseeing the restoration. Wright bartered for services, enlisted the college's students in construction, and sometimes cut corners. Over a 20-year period, from 1938 to 1958, twelve of Wright's 18 drawings miraculously were built with a contract worth little more than a handshake. "Wright had no money and his sophisticated designs were crudely built, Stern says. "In many ways, [the buildings] were a seat-of-the-pants creation." 

Restoring 12 Wright Designs

Last October, the first piece of the restoration was completed when Wright's Water Dome, the first structure he designed for the campus, reopened to the public. The 160 feet-diameter circular fountain, with about 75 jets that toss water 45 feet high is "the starting point for Wright's ingenious mathematical and aesthetic design for our campus," says Anne Kerr, college president. Also near completion is the repair of the 1.6 miles of Wright's covered walkways that connect his buildings. According to Kerr, the work includes structural reinforcement and relocating utility lines below ground.  

The first of 12 structures Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Florida Southern College, this water dome reopened in October after its restoration.

Credit: Florida Southern College

The college is implementing the recommendations of a so-called campus heritage plan, which included an architectural assessment of the condition of each Wright structure, and a restoration plan led by Baker. 

"We are armed with an incredible treasure trove of knowledge," says Baker, citing archival research at the Frank Lloyd Wright archives in Scottsdale, Ariz., and a "mountain of information" stored at Florida Southern College. He says both institutions left a "good paper trail" of more than 600 archival photographs, drawings, work orders and bills for materials, and correspondence. 

The Wright collection, called the "Child of the Sun," includes two chapels, three seminar buildings, a library, two administration buildings, an industrial arts building, a science building, the esplanades, and the water dome. It is a designated local historic district in Lakeland and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The college is in the process of applying for National Historic Landmark status, the country's highest honor.  

The Need for Speed

Many of those structures are badly in need of repair. Baker says his report "shows the buildings suffer multiple problems, including changes and modifications made in ways that are not sympathetic to Wright's original designs, such as air-conditioning units put in [unsightly locations] and new walls created to hide mechanicals." In addition, "There are also material failures, such as the concrete blocks Wright used that are now collecting water, resulting in the steel reinforcements rusting away and structural failures in the wall."

Some of the problems with the structures, Baker says, "came from the fact that Wright was a step beyond the materials of his day. For example, raw materials like polymers and synthetics can now be used on the roofs, but [did] not work so well in his lifetime. He used materials that were not meant to be expressed in ways he expressed them."

Medium-sized image unavailable for this photo.
Frank Lloyd Wright designed 12 buildings on Florida Southern College's campus, the country's largest Wright collection.

Credit: Courtesy Florida Southern College

Stern's new residence hall designs expand on some typical Wright characteristics, such as the cantilevered roofs and dramatic angles but Stern says he's also departed from some of the master's elements. For example, where Wright used concrete, Stern utilizes stucco, which he says holds up better in Florida's heat and wind-driven rain. He has also created some personal touches for the new buildings, such as natural light from windows instead of towers of fluorescent lights and lounge areas with beautiful lake views.

Funding will come from a variety of public and private sources, says Dr. Kerr, who acknowledges "the tremendous impact of the Wright structures not just only to architecture, not only to the college, but to the nation and the world." As proof of such impact, Kerr notes that these Wright-designed buildings have been included on the World Monument Fund's "2008 Watch List" of 100 most endangered sites in the world. "We welcome being on the list," says Kerr, "because it brings worldwide attention to the Frank Lloyd Wright legacy at Florida Southern, and it will provide recognition for our ongoing fundraising efforts for these structures and the entire campus."

Other recognition has come from a state partner of the National Trust for Historic Preservation: This month, Florida Southern College is scheduled to receive an award from the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, an organization which recognizes significant contributions to the preservation of Florida's historic resources, according to Kimberly Fairall, the nonprofit's preservation and education coordinator.         

Baker says President Kerr has been a "great advocate for the campus and in the forefront of recognizing and developing the responsibility the campus has been given." She has not set a timetable for the college's restoration and expansion goals, which are all dependent on how quickly the funds can be raised. 

"I have a dream to some day build one of the [six] Wright designs that was never created," Kerr says. We would have to decide which structure is most adaptable for our current needs." It has been suggested to Kerr that a new architecture degree would be a natural fit for the college's mission.  When asked if her "dream" building would house a new architecture school, Kerr coyly replies, "You never know. You never know."

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Submitted by San Francisco observer at: May 30, 2009
I have little faith in the current managers of the campus if they think that Robert Stern will design buildings which complement Frank Lloyd Wright's! Why didn't they hire a modernist with forward looking but different ideas from Wright rather than an historic architect who has no personal design philogophy except classicism?

Submitted by Ken at: April 30, 2009
I first saw Florida Southern College over 15 years ago and although the architecture and building details were mostly impressive, with some claustrophobic spaces, i.e., low ceilings, the buildings were in decline even then. I'm not saying that Frank Lloyd Wright structures are high maintenance; just that buildings require ongoing maintenance and the facilities staff needs to be fully supported by the college. The campus is a wonderful place to visit and learn; my niece attended Florida Southern College and should have her doctorate by the end of the year. A guided tour, both on-campus and Online may help support and demonstrate the need for building preservation. Otherwise the photo gallery is available if interested:

Submitted by Kim at: May 8, 2008
I was fortunate to have one of Wright's apprentices who also helped to build part of this campus, as a visitng architecture professor. It was fascinating to see him and another visiting preservation architecture professor stand in the middle of Annie Pfeiffer Chapel trying to figure out the structural supports on the huge tower of glass and steel suspended above the open seating space. They never could agree on how it is supported. This campus is a must see for anyone who appreciates Wright's work.

Submitted by michiganbill at: May 7, 2008
Whether restored or awaiting restoration, this is one of the wonders of the architectural world, worth a major trip by itself to central Florida. I first saw it in the mid 1950s, and still come back in awe.