ALL PHOTOS: ROBIN HILL
Lakeland, Fla. - Florida Southern College’s long-hidden treasure trove of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings—the largest single-site collection of the architect’s work in the world—is ready for a new dawn. Known collectively as “Child of the Sun,” the 12 structures will be featured in the upcoming exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. In the context of Wright’s other projects, the show, “Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward” (May 15 through August 23), will feature photos and drawings of Wright’s one-of-a-kind master plan. Coincidentally, an ambitious restoration effort is currently under way on Wright’s college campus.
The project occupied Wright for 21 years, from 1938 until his death in 1959, but it all began with a simple telegram sent by then-president Dr. Ludd Spivey to Wright in Taliesin West: “Desire conference with you concerning plans for great education temple in Florida.” Eager to realize his dream of masterminding an entire city, Wright designed 18 buildings for Spivey, 12 of which were built. To save money, five of the buildings were constructed by the students themselves in exchange for tuition.
Wright’s centerpiece, a massive, 160-foot-diameter, 74-jet fountain called the Water Dome, was too technically advanced for its time. It was finally completed in 2007, the first Wright design to be built for an original client at the original site since 1966. The other buildings, however, including one-and-a-half miles of covered esplanades Wright designed to reference the site’s original orange trees, had fallen into disrepair as modifications altered the original designs and their walls of porous local soil became cracked and waterlogged. A $1.6-million grant from the State of Florida saved the walkways, and grants for $350,000 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Save America’s Treasures Program and $195,000 from the Getty Foundation, as well as a spot on the National Register of Historic Places and the current World Monuments Watch List of “100 Most Endangered Sites,” is helping raise awareness and restore the campus to its original splendor.
More than $5 million dollars in federal and state grants and private gifts, combined with the work of New York-based architect Jeff Baker of Mesick-Cohen-Wilson-Baker, is helping transform the campus back to Wright’s original masterpiece. To be renovated are Wright’s only planetarium and theatre-in-the-round. The latter, in the Lucius Pond Ordway Building, was one of Wright’s favorites on campus, echoing the light-filled interiors of his own Arizona school, Taliesin West. The William H. Danforth Chapel is resplendent in brilliant leaded glass windows—a Wright staple, but marred by theft and weather over the years.
The highlight of the campus is the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel from 1941, the first building of the lot to be completed. Light pours into the chapel through colored glass inlays in the hand-cast, textured bricks, while a tower looking like a stack of Wright’s famous bow ties rises from the roof. Baker will use Wright’s original molds to recast blocks for the façade and parts of the rusting steel tower frame—called the “the bicycle rack in the sky” by students. Work is set to finish by 2010.
Architect and dean of the Yale School of Architecture Robert A.M. Stern is working on two new residence halls and a humanities classroom building for Florida Southern College. The buildings are designed to echo Wright’s trademark overhanging roofs and devoted relationship to the natural landscape. The second residence hall will be completed this year, with the humanities building to follow in 2010. Stern, a long-time admirer of the site, which he calls “the coolest architectural campus,” will lecture on Florida Southern’s place in architectural history as one of the most important examples of Wright’s work at a dinner to be held by the College at the Guggenheim Museum on June 26.