By Design: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Florida Southern College
By Kristen Hare
The walking tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture on Florida Southern College’s campus takes you through low-hanging covered esplanades, into chapels and classrooms and past a gushing water dome.
It’s a glimpse into the mind of Frank Lloyd Wright, one of America’s greatest architects, and into a place even many Floridians don’t know about.
Wright, who lived from 1867 until 1959, was known to have quite a high IQ, docent Jim Smith told his group as they set off on a recent tour.
“You’re going to see on campus some of the results of that IQ,” he said.
The private college in Lakeland, starting with a few red brick colonial buildings in 1922, sits on what was once 67 acres of orange groves near Lake Hollingsworth.
Then, in 1936, Frank Lloyd Wright got involved.
Wright worked closely with then-campus president Ludd M. Spivey toward the end of both men’s lifetimes. They planned 18 buildings for the “college of tomorrow.” A dozen of those buildings now grace the campus, representing the largest concentration of Wright-designed buildings in the world.
“We, as you might imagine, believe that Frank Lloyd Wright is America’s greatest architect,” said Dr. Anne Kerr, Florida Southern’s president.
Wright believed his concept of Organic Architecture would unite the individual structures with their environment and as a group, enabling them to work together to create a whole better than the sum of its parts.
Florida Southern was named a National Historic Landmark in 2012. Today, you can explore the college campus Frank Lloyd Wright designed through daily tours that cost from $7 to $55 depending on time and depth of detail, or wander about the campus on your own for free.
The campus itself is laid out on a geometrical grid that blends with the landscape in ways that are unique to architecture, said Jeff Baker, an architect at Mesick, Cohen, Wilson, Baker Architects in New York. As you start walking across campus, you’ll find shapes above, below and all around that repeat themselves in concrete and in shadows.
A good place to start is the Water Dome, the focal point of the campus. It stretches a watery 45 feet into the air when turned to full power.
From the Dome, move on to the communal (the library, built by female students during World War II) to the spiritual (the expansive Annie Pfeiffer Chapel and the intimate Danforth Chapel) to the limit-pushing (the Polk Science building and planetarium) and the practical (the industrial arts building.) Each piece of the campus fits together purposefully, Kerr said.
“I think it tells the story of humanity and, even more perhaps, the story of American humanity,” she said.
The tour ends back in the present with the latest addition to the campus — the Usonian House. The two-bedroom home here was designed by Wright in 1939 and meant to be one of 20 faculty houses nestled across campus. All those didn’t get built, but you can see in this example the 1,330-square-foot open-concept homes Wright envisioned.
Baker, who worked on the restoration of the Pfeiffer Chapel, thinks that the campus remains among Wright’s lesser-known projects because Florida wasn’t as big a tourism destination during Wright’s heyday, when the campus was being built.
“I think if people have taken the time to really, truly understand and study the buildings there, they’ll see that, in fact, it’s some of his greatest work,” Baker said. “He felt that way.”
If you go…
Frank Lloyd Wright Architecture at Florida Southern College
111 Lake Hollingsworth Drive
Lakeland, FL 33801