Saturday, March 28, 2009

Frank Lloyd Wright's Child of the Sun

I have recently returned from another quick trip to Florida. While I was there I spent a great deal of time pondering a Florida-related book manuscript that has been weighing heavily on me lo these past 16 years. As I noted in my last column, I currently find myself in a situation where one must fish or cut bait. So an unexpected return to Florida gave me an opportunity to look at this project anew resulting in a burst of energy which I hope will rekindle this project. I also figured it might be helpful if I sat down and wrote something about it . . . shuffling the coals around in the hearth hoping a new flame, a new heat might spring forth.

A little background for the uninitiated. I attended Florida Southern College as an undergraduate, receiving my BA degree in 1974. The college happens to be the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings on a single site . . . the only integrated college campus design of his long and distinguished career. While I went on to graduate school in Arizona and Maryland, my good friend and classmate Ray Fischer remained at the college where he ended up serving as Director of Public Relations. It was in this role that he began to work on a history of Wright’s long and fascinating association with the college in the latter years of his life and career. Sadly, Ray was cut down in the prime of his life, succumbing to cancer in the autumn of 1992. Attending his memorial service in the college chapel designed by Wright, I listened as the chaplain mourned the fact that the story Ray was assembling might never be told. It was then that I picked up the torch with the goal of completing this project. Now it is approaching a long awaited and, I hope, a satisfying conclusion. There is interest out there, so today I want to share some of the story with you. To look at some photographs of the Wright-designed buildings at Florida Southern College, please visit:

Located in central Florida, the city of Lakeland is almost equidistant from Tampa and Orlando. It has been known for decades as the capital of the Florida citrus industry, and since 1920 it has been the home of Florida Southern College, a small liberal arts school affiliated with the Methodist Church. As the city grew and developed during the era of real estate speculation in Florida in the 1920s, so too did Florida Southern College. Beginning with a single red brick building set among the orange groves on a hill overlooking Lake Hollingsworth, the campus expanded with the construction of an additional brick classroom building. The collapse of the real estate boom in the late 1920s, however, saw the college fall on hard times due to a declining enrollment and insufficient monies to pay its faculty. The Board of Trustee gave serious consideration to closing the college for good.

But Florida Southern College survived, thanks in large measure to the optimism and vision of its young president, Ludd M. Spivey, who came to Lakeland in 1925 and immediately set out to raise money to expand the college's enrollment and its physical plant. Spivey opposed all attempts to downsize or close the college. He managed to keep the classrooms open while everything seemed to be collapsing around him.

The future of Florida Southern College was largely guaranteed by the creation of the E. Stanley Jones Foundation in 1936. Named in honor of a world-renowned missionary to India whom Spivey had met aboard a ship returning from Europe, this foundation sought to raise one million dollars for Spivey's expansion programs. Spivey also decided that, if Florida Southern College became the institution he envisioned, its campus would have to symbolize this progress. A number of traditional brick classroom and dormitory buildings were constructed throughout the mid-1930s as enrollment slowly increased, yet Spivey was looking for something unique, something that would set Florida Southern College apart from other colleges.

In early 1938, Spivey focused his attention on Frank Lloyd Wright as the man who could translate his vision into reality. There are many stories of how Spivey came to select Wright, but once Spivey made up his mind, there was nothing that would deter him. On April 11, 1938, he sent a telegram to Wright, who at the time was working on the construction of his new winter home and studio, Taliesin West, outside of Phoenix, and requested a meeting "concerning plans for a great education temple in Florida." On April 21, 1938, Spivey arrived at Taliesin, the architect's home and studio near Spring Green, Wisconsin, and made a pledge to the architect. If Wright agreed to design a master plan for a new campus, he would find the money to pay for it. Spivey had already gained the reputation as a fundraiser par excellence, and his plans piqued Wright's curiosity.

Two weeks later, Wright traveled to Lakeland to tour the 63-acre campus where Spivey hoped to erect an "architectural center of the south." Wright told the students and faculty that it was high time that America had an architecture of its own, and promised that he could give the campus fresh form, a Florida form. Wright rarely agreed to undertake a project, especially such a large one, on little more than a handshake, but he was struck by Spivey's optimism and obvious charisma, and willingly accepted the commission. Spivey agreed to pay an initial fee of $10,000 for the master plan, including renderings of the whole plan and each separate unit, and Wright returned to Spring Green and set out to design his "Child of the Sun," a college to be constructed among an orange grove in central Florida.

Wright's 1938 master plan called for the construction of an integrated complex of 18 separate buildings, including a chapel, library, administration building, music building, an industrial arts building, a science and cosmology building, an art gallery with studio workshops, and a number of seminars and faculty houses. Each building would be unique in style and form according to its specific function, yet part of an integrated and symmetrical whole. This sense of continuity would be achieved by the use of a limited palette of materials: glass, steel and concrete - glass to break down the barriers between exterior and interior, adding light and heightening the sense of space; steel to provide strength; and concrete textile blocks, the basic fabric of construction, were manufactured on the campus using local sand and crushed coquina shell.

In the master plan, Wright moved emphatically away from the regimentation of classic and gothic architecture typically found on the American college campus. Poured concrete and the textile blocks permitted him to experiment with various geometric shapes and other design options. The master plan also called for the construction of a circular pool, or waterdome, to serve as a focal point for the new campus, as well as a network of "esplanades," or covered walkways, connecting the individual components of the plan which called for extensive landscaping in a pattern of terraces and arbors. Wright wanted the surrounding orange grove to be left undisturbed as much as possible and each new building would be surrounded with various semi-tropical plants.

As Wright prepared the master plan for the new campus, he was also designing a chapel, the first building to be constructed and the centerpiece of the entire complex. Spivey insisted that the plans for the chapel be completed as soon as possible so as to assist in the college's fund-raising activities. By November 1938, the chapel's foundation had been laid and the cornerstone dedicated, yet actual construction did not commence until the summer of 1939, and it progressed very slowly. In order to save money, students did much of the construction work under the supervision of Robert Wehr, an industrial arts instructor. In return for room, board and tuition, these student workers spent three days a week on the job and attended classes on the remaining three days. They had Sundays off. With little or no experience with Wright's construction techniques and the nature of the material being used, Wehr and his workers ran into a number of difficulties manufacturing the requisite number of blocks and achieving the correct consistency in the concrete mixture. Numerous letters and telegrams went between Lakeland and the Taliesin Fellowship solving problems so that construction could continue. William Wesley Peters, one of Wright's first and most trusted apprentices (and later a son-in-law), eventually traveled to Lakeland to lend his expertise and his knowledge of Wright’s designs to the construction of the chapel.

The progress of construction also depended upon fund-raising. Spivey sent Wright money when he had it, and the architect was often hesitant to continue without payment. Spivey replied that he could not raise more money or collect pledges unless construction continued uninterrupted. By January 1941, the chapel was nearing completion and it was finally dedicated in March 1941 and named in honor of Annie Pfeiffer, a major college benefactor. Also completed that year were three small one-story seminar buildings separated by two small narrow courtyards. Located directly north of the chapel, each of these buildings contained a classroom and two offices, including a new office for President Spivey.

Shortly after the chapel's dedication, Wright completed plans for a new library, just west of the chapel site and connected to that building by the first segment of the esplanade. The library's foundation was laid in May 1941, and Robert Wehr and his crew of 45 students hoped to complete the construction by the Spring of 1942. The United States' entry into the war, however, interrupted construction when many of the male students entered the military and construction materials, especially steel, became rather scarce. President Spivey made numerous appeals to the War Production Board, contending that the college could not operate effectively without a library. Spivey was forced by circumstances to improvise. He employed female students to work on the library which progressed slowly and only when steel and other materials were available. To make matters worse, a hurricane struck Lakeland in late 1944 destroying the chapel's tower. Once again Spivey appealed to Washington for steel to make the necessary repairs. The library was eventually dedicated in March 1945 although finishing work remained incomplete until after the war.

Wright completed the design for a new administration building in October 1946. Although some claim that the architect personally supervised its construction, this important task was assigned to Kenneth Lockhart, one of Wright's young apprentices sent from the Taliesin Fellowship. Ground was broken in December 1946 and construction was completed in late 1948 as was the adjacent Wright-designed waterdome, the circular pool located between the new administration building and the smaller seminar units and directly north of the chapel and library, that was to serve as the focal point of the new campus. A double-wide portion of the esplanade was extended from the library to the administration building.

The construction of a large industrial arts building followed, the most ambitious structure to date. Already in early 1941, before the chapel had been completed, Wright was promising the preliminary sketches for this building. He completed them the following year, and Spivey hoped the College could manage the construction of the library and the industrial arts building simultaneously. The war and the shortage of manpower, the scarcity of building materials, and the college’s inability to raise the requisite funds to pay Wright, made this impossible. The completion of the library took precedence over other construction and the available funds and materials were used for that purpose. The drawings for the industrial arts building were resurrected in 1949, following the completion of the administration building and the waterdome. Once again, Kenneth Lockhart supervised the construction which was completed in 1952. The esplanade network was extended from the seminars and the chapel to the new building.

Construction on two more buildings began prior to Wright's death in April 1959. The Science and Cosmology Building, which Spivey had hoped to construct as early as 1942, was finally started in 1953. The largest building in the Wright complex, it is over 400 feet in length and contains the only planetarium designed by Wright. While incorporating the now ubiquitous concrete blocks and reinforced concrete slabs, it was also the first building in the complex to use molded aluminum. A smaller chapel was also constructed adjacent to the main chapel, based on preliminary sketches sent to the College in 1942. Construction was postponed during the war and it was not built until 1955. Kenneth Lockhart had by this time returned to the Taliesin Fellowship, and Nils Schweizer, who was appointed Wright's representative in the Southeastern states in 1952, supervised the construction of both of these later buildings.

Wright's master plan also called for the construction of several additional buildings, none of which was constructed. Wright formulated three separate designs for a music building. The first design, dating from 1943, was followed by a second design three years later. By that time, however, all available funds and energy were directed into the completion of the administration building and the waterdome. These plans were shelved and would not be resurrected until 1957, following the completion of the industrial arts building, the science building, and the minor chapel. President Spivey, upon his retirement in June 1957, urged the College to finally construct a music building, and Wright prepared yet another design, working drawings of which were submitted in 1958. The building was never built.

In late 1948, the college was busy at work trying to raise the necessary funds to construct an Olympic-size swimming pool and a large circular amphitheater on the edge of Lake Hollingsworth, on the southern end of the new campus. Designed to seat over 5,000 people, this structure would serve to counterbalance the large circular waterdome at the north end of the complex, as well as the various other circular design elements intersperse throughout the complex. This project, despite all the enthusiasm surrounding it, never progressed beyond the planning stage.

Plans for a building that would hold an art gallery, studio workspace and small recital auditoriums met a similar fate even though Wright had prepared two separate designs. The first, requested by the college in 1942, was submitted for approval in 1944. Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, who had studied music at FSC in the 1920s, offered to fund the construction of a new arts building on campus, but she greatly disapproved of Wright's design and demanded that substantive changes be made. Wright refused and the project was abandoned. Wright prepared new drawings in 1949 based on an earlier design dating from 1921. It included gallery and studio space as well as additional lecture halls and classrooms. Again, these projects were eventually abandoned due to a lack of funds and the college's efforts to complete the library and administration building during the lean war years.

The association between Florida Southern College and the Taliesin Fellowship
began to wane following Spivey's retirement in 1957 and Wright's subsequent death in 1959. With these two men out of the picture, there was no one left to ensure that Spivey's original vision as embodied in Wright's master plan would be brought to completion. Following the completion of the science building, plans for construction of the remaining buildings described in the master plan were abandoned. Instead, Nils Schweizer, the Wright apprentice who had left Lakeland to establish his own architectural practice in nearby Orlando, was named College Architect. He designed and supervised the construction of a number of buildings situated among those designed by Wright. He also oversaw the expansion and modification of certain of the Wright building, including the seminars and the library, to provide for their adaptive reuse as administrative offices. It was now clear that the Wright era at FSC was over.

The past three decades have not been kind to Wright's "Child of the Sun." His buildings became interesting conversation pieces over the years, and their true significance went largely unrecognized until just recently. Years of damage from the sun and moisture have also exacted a high toll, and many of the buildings are in dire need of restoration, especially those earlier ones that were built before the Taliesin Fellowship assumed direct supervision of the construction. With a renewed interest in Frank Lloyd Wright and his architecture, the Wright-designed campus at Florida Southern College is getting a closer look because of its significance as the largest concentration of his buildings anywhere in the world. The college has also started to do its part; restoration has begun and the campus will continue to offer insight into the mind and vision of America's greatest architect.

NEXT WEEK: Cherry Blossoms Mean Springtime in Washington, DC

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