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Florida Southern College: A campus done Wright

In 1938, amid the Great Depression and with Florida Southern College struggling financially, the school’s president concocted an improbable plan to keep the school alive.

Ludd M. Spivey was convinced that prospective students would take notice and enroll if he could expand Florida Southern’s campus and fill it with dynamic, spectacular new buildings. So he sent a telegram to Frank Lloyd Wright, then the nation’s most acclaimed architect, and offered him the job.

Wright, who had designed many notable buildings and homes, but never an entire college campus, was interested. He traveled from his home in Wisconsin to Lakeland to see what was already there — a few red brick buildings and numerous orange trees planted on land that sloped gradually toward nearby Lake Hollingsworth.

The architectural icon, then nearly 69, liked what he saw. He grabbed a handful of the sandy Florida soil and let it fall between his fingers. That’s when he began to envision, he said later, a college campus of his own design “coming out of the ground and into the light just like a child of the sun.”

For a $13,000 fee, Wright designed 18 major structures for Florida Southern and, over the following 20 years, a dozen were built, including the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel in 1941 and the Polk County Science Building in 1958. The buildings are linked by more than a mile of covered walkways held up by concrete pillars designed to look like stylized orange trees. The structures, including the 45-foot-tall Water Dome fountain, comprise the largest collection of Wright’s work in one location.

Spivey was right. The Wright connection did spur more enrollment. In fact, there was such enthusiasm for the buildings that some of the students — in lieu of having to pay tuition — helped build the first five buildings.

Now, more than 30,000 people visit the campus each year just to see Wright’s architecture. Their donations, in turn, help pay for maintaining and renovating the Wright structures. The college estimated nearly 10 years ago that restoring every building to its original condition would require about $50 million. The college hasn’t spent that much, says Florida Southern President Anne Kerr, but she estimates that at least $5 million has been spent since 2007 on repairs.

Wright, who originated the Prairie School movement of architecture, intended for his buildings to work in harmony with the surrounding environment, but his buildings aren’t easy to maintain. The Florida Southern structures are made with molded concrete blocks. The blocks, which have small, colored-glass insets, are held together by mortar and interior steel bars. When rain gets between the blocks, the rods rust, causing the blocks to crack.

And the repairs, from replacing concrete blocks to fixing doors or windows, are always expensive.

“Everything in a Frank Lloyd Wright structure is custom made,” says Mark Tlachac, director of Florida Southern’s Frank Lloyd Wright Visitors Program. “You just can’t go to a Home Depot and buy a new door.”

Despite the challenges, Kerr feels fortunate to work in a building designed by Wright.

“I have, to my knowledge, the only college president’s office in the world designed by Frank Lloyd Wright,” Kerr says. “I have a fireplace in here. The room has beautiful light. At one time there was a built-in desk, but Dr. Spivey took that out after it rained on the desk. It was located right under this juncture of the ceiling and it would always leak on his desk. My desk is moved over a little bit. I love this architecture. We get to study and work in what many would say are museum-quality structures — and not many people in the world have that advantage.”

Usonian House

In 2013, Florida Southern College built a small house that has become a starting point for many of the 30,000 people who visit the college each year just to see the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. The 1,333-sq.- ft. Structure, called the Usonian House, was constructed from Wright’s original plans for faculty housing and is furnished just as Wright envisioned — with one major difference: The home is air-conditioned.

“He didn’t think airconditioning was natural,” says Mark Tlachac, director of Florida Southern’s Frank Lloyd Wright Visitors Program. “Of course, he probably never spent a summer in Florida.”

You can tour the Usonian House for $7. A basic tour of Wright’s campus buildings cost $20 and lasts about an hour. A more in-depth tour, lasting more than two hours, costs $35 per person. A “behind-thescenes” tour, lasting 3½ hours, cost $55.

For more information: 863/680-4597 or flsouthern.edu/visitors/ fllw-visitors.aspx

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