Anne Kerr is trying to restore the biggest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the world -- keeping them as working parts of a college and not museum pieces.
While the 12 buildings on the Florida Southern campus amount to the single largest collection of Wright’s work, they may also be among his least known — making Kerr’s job of rounding up funds for the renovation particularly challenging. She says she had a difficult time convincing the World Monument Fund that Frank Lloyd Wright had in fact designed the college: “You don’t have a Frank Lloyd campus,” Kerr says a man there told her. “What you have is somebody who’s used Frank Lloyd Wright’s look. They’re not originals.” It wasn’t until she reached into a bag and hauled out Wright’s original drawings for the campus buildings that the man “literally recoiled” in surprise.
The price tag for restoring Wright’s handiwork — about $50 million.
Above: Walkway on the campus of Florida Southern College.
Below: The college’s renovation plan calls for replacing windows, walls and doors and restoring the campus’s fabled Water Dome, which had been covered over in concrete. [Photos: Steve Widoff]
There’s also been significant progress in restoring Wright’s fabled Water Dome, which in 1966 was covered over in concrete and converted into a plaza with four separate pools. The concrete has since been dug up; an alligator that had taken up residence has been removed. Using original plans for the Water Dome discovered in an archive at Taliesin West, Wright’s Arizona home, engineers have figured out how far apart they need to space the water nozzles and what pressure to use to fulfill Wright’s original vision of the water sculpture. The school is planning a ceremony to celebrate the new dome this month.
Kerr says the most expensive portion of the project will be moving the ductwork on the Polk County Science Building underground.
Thus far, Kerr has raised more than $3 million from the state, private foundations and individuals toward the $50 million she needs. The college received an encouraging endorsement this summer from the World Monument Fund, which put Florida Southern’s campus on its 2008 Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites.
The designation is already attracting attention. Based on the uptick in visitors he’s seen, docent Mark Tlachac predicts the number of tourists who visit the school should double to 50,000 a year. The school offers guided tours.
Meanwhile, the renovation project is creating educational opportunities for the college’s students. As part of a grant from the Getty Foundation, some students in the college’s honors program are participating in the renovation by developing detailed historical records on each building that will be compiled on a website. The school also may develop a summer field school where students can learn building and restoration techniques. “Frank Lloyd Wright’s way of learning is very much the Florida Southern way of learning — active and engaged,” says Rogers.
If Florida Southern can raise enough money, Kerr says the school may take the restoration one step further and try to construct one or more of the six buildings that Wright designed for the campus but which were never built. “That’s my dream,” she says. “To at least do one of them.”
Wright’s designs include plans for residence halls that Kerr says probably wouldn’t work because the needs of students have changed so much in the intervening years. The music building that Wright designed is a different story, however. “It’s beautiful,” Kerr says. “Beautiful.”