February, 2014. Lakeland, Florida. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Great Education Temple

Posted on February 18, 2014


When I spotted Florida Southern College on a map of Lakeland, it certainly didn’t ring any bells with this Michigander. But then, neither did Flagler College in St. Augustine (another post), and what a surprise THAT was.

water dome

Water Dome, 1948

photo (26)They say good things come in small packages, and this small package turned out to hold the largest number of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings on one site in the world.

How this tiny church-affiliated college with an enrollment today of around 1,800 managed to attract the attention of a world-renowned architect has an amazingly simple answer.

Someone asked him.

In 1934, still mired in the Great Depression but dreaming of better days to come, then-president Dr. Ludd Spivey sent a telegram to Wright at Taliesin West: “Desire conference with you concerning plans for great education temple in Florida.” Dr. Spivey, dreaming about “the college of tomorrow”, remembered Wright once voiced the opinion that college campuses as a whole were architectural failures.

The timing was exactly right. The architect, beset by personal drama and professional backbiting, felt his career was languishing.  What he needed was a monumental project to propel himself back into the architectural limelight.

FrankIt was a match.  Spivey visited the architect at his Wisconsin home, plans were made, and ground was broken for the first of 12 Wright-designed buildings in 1938. The project would occupy him for the next 20 years. Additional buildings were later added by Wright student and protege, Nils Schweizer.

photo (25)

Esplanade, 1941-1958

Wright designed a complex of structures built around a central spectacular fountain, connected by a network of covered walkways called esplanades.  He envisioned buildings “rising (sic) out of the ground, and into the light, a child of the sun”.

The construction material chosen for the project was concrete blocks made from cement,  Florida sand and coquina, then reinforced with iron rods.

The proposed location, in the remnants of an orange grove overlooking one of Lakeland’s many lakes, was perfect for Wright’s “organic architecture,” the central principle of which maintains that the building should develop out of its natural surroundings.

IMG_FSC-FLW_HBW_06However, Wright had no money, and thanks to the Great Depression neither did Florida Southern, so five of the buildings were constructed by the students themselves in exchange for tuition.

Students wrestled wheelbarrows up the hill to pour the forms; later when the boys went off to World War II, college women were harnessed two to a leather yoke. Wright employed other shortcuts, too – such as using urine, another student contribution, to age copper.

Because of sometimes-erratic workmanship combined with Wright’s brilliant, but unpractical designs, the buildings have not aged well.  As the average older sunbather will agree, Florida’s heat, humidity and harsh sun eventually take their toll.

DSCN0388Unlike block construction covered with a coat of stucco, Wright’s exposed blocks allowed moisture to eventually seep in, causing the iron support bars to rust, leading to cracks, buckling and crumbling.

Many of the blocks are also perforated and inset with glass, making more seams available to intrusion by moisture and insects.

After Schweizer’s additions – he was the college’s official architect from 1959 to 1985 –  other buildings have been added to the campus to meet the needs of changing times and technology. These additions were all carefully designed to complement the existing buildings.

And so Florida Southern is continually faced with the challenge of maintaining this unique architectural treasure while simultaneously dealing with the financial problems facing all colleges today.

Restoration of the Water Dome, Esplanades and Pfieffer Chapel are currently underway,  but there’s much work to be done at other sites and it’s obvious this is one of those projects that will never be completely finished.

Ann Pfieffer Chapel

Ann Pfieffer Chapel

Water and insects easily invade through even tiny cracks.

Water and insects easily invade through even tiny cracks.

In some cases, bad repairs were probably better than no repairs at all.

In some cases, bad repairs were probably better than no repairs at all.

Posted in: Travel - Florida