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Wright's Stuff

In a hot, dusty maintenance yard at Florida Southern College, Ken Uracius and two apprentices are pounding sand. Uracius, a New England mason who specializes in historic preservation, watches as his interns pack a grainy concrete mixture into a wooden frame and hammer it down hard with a pneumatic tool. Then they clamp another piece of wood tightly across the top and lift the wooden box onto a pallet. Gingerly, they remove the frame to reveal an
architectural casting that looks like a square sand castle — and for the moment is just as fragile.

Builders are using the legendary architect's original method to restore his creations that are now crumbling. See how it's done.

View from inside the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, Florida Southern College [Photo: Steve Widoff]
Browse more photos of Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings in a photo tour of Florida Southern College.

Over the next 24 hours, if Uracius’ workers have gotten the mixture right, the casting will suck moisture out of the humid Florida air and harden. In the process, the delicate sand structure will transform into an exact replica of the building blocks that Frank Lloyd Wright created in building 12 structures on Florida Southern’s Lakeland campus between 1939 and 1958. This particular block will replace a crumbling piece of one of the Seminars, one-story combination classroom and office buildings completed in 1941.

Wright left the small private liberal arts college with the largest single-site collection of his structures in the world. But the iconic American architect’s unusual engineering and experimental materials like textile blocks — precast concrete blocks with hollow edges that create cavities for steel reinforcing rods — haven’t fared well in Florida’s climate. Six decades later, much of his legacy is in poor condition. Squirrels zip in and out of buildings through crumbling textile block walls. Moisture seeping in through the porous surfaces has rusted the rebar. Workers recently had to repair sections of the Esplanades — a series of low-hanging, covered walkways — that had tilted precariously, unbalanced by the gradual shifting of the ground.


AUTHENTICITY: Florida Southern President Anne Kerr had a hard time convincing the World Monument Fund that Frank Lloyd Wright actually designed the buildings on the school’s campus in Lakeland. “You don’t have a Frank Lloyd campus,” she says a man there told her. “What you have is somebody who’s used Frank Lloyd Wright’s look.” [Photo: Steve Widoff]
“In Florida, there’s no way it could have stood the test of time, but during his era there was no research for him to know that it wouldn’t,” says Anne Kerr, Florida Southern’s president since 2004.

Restoring Wright’s handiwork will cost about $50 million. Kerr has to raise that money and manage the process so that it doesn’t end with the college owning a collection of valuable but impractical museum pieces. “At the end of the day,” she says, “they have to be workable for our students and faculty.”

Modernity

Wright had already made a name for himself by 1938, when he received a telegram from then-FSC President Ludd Spivey. Undaunted by Wright’s reputation, Spivey fearlessly asked the architect to consider building a “great education temple” on 100 acres of orange groves in Florida. Wright, legendary for both his ego and his talent, wasn’t put off by Spivey’s audacity, sensing a kindred spirit in the charismatic, ambitious college president with grandiose plans. The architect accepted the challenge to build the “first uniquely American campus.” “I think he wanted to leave behind a legacy for himself,” says James Rogers, chairman of Florida Southern’s department of art and art history.


"I don’t see how we can consider ourselves as civilized, cultured people if we live ignorant of the nature of our
environment; if we do not understand what we do to make it. Where the buildings that we live in are false, where they do not represent truth and beauty in any sense, where they are merely stupid or merely copying something that’s not understood, we have no true culture."

— Frank Lloyd Wright, founders week address at Florida Southern College, March 3, 1950

Wright, then 70, visited Lakeland. For $13,000, he drew up plans for 18 structures, including a chapel, library, classrooms and a planetarium. As a focal point for the campus, Wright envisioned a giant circular pool ringed with jets that would spray water 75 feet into the air, forming a hemispherical dome of water nearly 160 feet in diameter. The “Water Dome” would symbolize the fountain of knowledge, the journey of the students attending Florida Southern. Meanwhile, to shield students from the oppressive sun and frequent summer rains, he connected his buildings with a mile and a half of covered walkways, which were cantilevered and supported by columns meant to represent abstract orange trees.

A leader in organic architecture — a design philosophy that involves blending structures into their surroundings and using natural materials whenever possible — Wright designed buildings of a modest height. The only tall structure on campus is the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, a towering building that students have nicknamed the “bicycle rack in the sky” because of the intricate wrought iron work atop its skylights.

In the aftermath of the Great Depression, with money tight, Spivey enlisted students as construction workers on the buildings, offering them tuition in exchange for their labor. During World War II, female students finished the E.T. Roux Library on their own, using an elaborate system of pulleys to cart heavy loads of concrete up to the second floor. In 1958, 20 years after Wright began designing the campus, the Polk County Science Building was finished, the 12th and final Wright building to be constructed.

Steep costs

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]
The school’s ambitious renovation plan will ultimately include replacing windows, walls and doors of several buildings and hiding unsightly air-conditioning ducts that were added years later, marring the flow of Wright’s designs. During the summer, teams of construction workers fixed leaning portions of the concrete Esplanades. The task, an architect explains, was arduous, tantamount to moving a building.

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.”