Saturday, January 23, 2010

Frank Lloyd Wright's College Campus

Florida Southern College
Lakeland, Florida

Florida Southern College is home to the largest single-site collection of Frank Lloyd Wright structures (twelve), yet they remain among the least known. At the urging of President Dr. Ludd Spivey, the college embarked upon an ambitious building program in the 1930s under the direction of the famed architect. His work transformed the campus and put the nearly bankrupt college on the map nationally. When Wright first visited the site in 1938, he was struck by the natural setting of groves of orange trees on a bluff above a large lake. At the time the college was housed in a clutch of 1920s era traditional red brick buildings that occupied only a small portion of the acreage available. Wright subsequently designed a grand 18-unit “Child of the Sun” campus, where buildings would emerge from the Florida sand into the light, an organic concept (click any image to enlarge).

Named for Lucius Pond Ordway, president of 3M Company, the Ordway Arts Building (photo above and below) was initially conceived as a cafeteria and dining hall, before its use evolved into an industrial arts center. Architecturally, the building is evocative of Wright’s Taliesin West (Arizona), which had been completed just a few years before.

The buildings are especially suited to the landscape and are connected by a 1.5 mile long series of covered concrete walkways that Wright called “esplanades,” in which thin cantilevered flat roofs, trimmed with embossed copper, span thick concrete supports, providing much needed protection from the Florida sun. These esplanades, originally built without expansion joints, were difficult to maintain and had fallen into disrepair. The college has just completed a top to bottom restoration of these unique structures that link most of the campus buildings, correcting design and construction deficiencies along the way. They have been returned to their original sandy beige color.

Another architectural giant, Gene Leedy of Winter Haven, a leading member of the Sarasota School of Modernists, was working in Florida in the 1950s when Wright was still alive and presiding over his work at Florida Southern. He recalls Wright walking with a cane and broad hat under the controversial esplanades which critics attacked for insufficient head clearance. Says Leedy, “He raised his cane and tapped the roof and said, 'This is exactly the right height.'” Wright was a man of noticeably short stature.

Wright worked on the Florida Southern project during the last twenty years of his life, the same period in which he was engaged with the Guggenheim museum project in New York City. He charged the college $13,000 in architectural fees, plus his usual ten percent of construction costs. Spivey's charisma and charm were such that Wright agreed to allow the college to pay in installments, sending along money as it became available. The school often had a tough time scraping together the architectural fees and sometimes had to resort to creative measures, such as robbing the faculty fund of $250 to satisfy an obligation. Wright received substandard commissions, however, because most of the labor for the first four buildings was provided by students. In exchange for full room, board and tuition, the student workers attended classes 3 days a week, worked construction 3 days a week and then had Sundays off. When WWII came along, and male students were scarce, women who were enrolled at the college stepped in and continued construction under the same terms.

The landmark Pfeiffer Chapel was the first building erected on campus (completed 1941) and was built exclusively with unpaid student labor (photos above and below). Spivey pushed this project through so that he could have something to show prospective donors and subscribers. Generous contributor Annie Pfeiffer, widow of the founder of Pfeiffer Chemical Company, was a bit taken aback by the avant-garde architecture of the chapel which bears her name. During her speech delivered at the opening, she said, "They tell me it is complete," a reference to the unfinished look of the metal grid that sits atop the tower. In 1941 Pfeiffer was awarded an honorary doctorate for her generosity. She even donated the pipe organ, manufactured by the Reuter company in Kansas, that stood in the balcony from the 1940s until the late 1970s.

The photo above shows the angled seating (not original) and rear cantilevered balcony. Below is a photo of the embossed Aztec inspired concrete screen that shields the pipe organ and choir, which are placed in a balcony above the chapel's pulpit.

Archive photos show Wright speaking in this room from a pulpit of his own design (since removed), and indicate that the original furnishings included modular angled leather-upholstered bench seats with plank wood backs. The floors and steps were Wright's favorite red-painted concrete, and the exterior doors were of wood, since replaced by commercial metal ones. These changes, along with air conditioning and carpeting, were made when the chapel was less than 20 years old.

The Pfeiffer Chapel is the only Wright building on campus of any height; all the rest are uniformly low slung. In many ways the exterior of this structure echoes his landmark Pennsylvania private residence, Falling Water. Wright designed one-off sand colored molded concrete blocks for the lower exterior surfaces of the Pfeiffer chapel. Each one had to be crafted by hand, and many of them contained recessed square pieces of stained glass.

Note: Florida Southern still owns the original molds for these unique building blocks. The architects of the new McKay building that houses the Wright archives borrowed two of them to craft identical new ones for use in their 2009 project, which sits beside an original Wright campus building, thus affording a transition relating to the historic cluster of land-marked structures.

A smaller chapel (below) displays a distinctly horizontal profile that suggests forward motion. It is named after William Danforth, the founder of Ralston-Purina. Happily the interior contains the original pews and chancel furnishings, all designed by Wright and constructed by students, and houses a floor to ceiling wall of Wright-designed leaded glass.

Student laborers prepared a mixture of concrete, sand and ground up coquina shells to pour into wooden molds to form each of the blocks, which served as both interior and exterior finished surfaces of the structures for which they were specified. Inspired by Mayan graphic designs, they were stacked like children's building blocks, secured by thin iron rods. Because the buildings were not air conditioned, these porous blocks promoted mold growth and, lacking a vapor shield, absorbed rain water, which eventually caused rusting and swelling of the vertical iron rods that ran through the center of them. As these buildings are restored, such deficiencies are being corrected. While none of Wright's buildings is easy to maintain, these blocks (fine for use in projects in the arid southwest) became a maintenance headache in Florida's rainy, humid climate.

The last structure to be built was completed in 1958, a year before Wright’s death. However, many of the campus buildings of Wright’s master plan were never realized. Drawings exist for six projects that were never undertaken; many were abandoned for lack of funds, and the retirement of Spivey (1957) and death of Wright in 1959 signaled the end of a symbiotic relationship between two men of genius. Those who have seen sketches of the unbuilt designs says that a planned music building is especially noteworthy.

In another instance, plans for a building that would hold an art gallery, studio workspace and small recital auditoriums met with criticism from the donor. The plans, requested by the college in 1942, were submitted for approval in 1944. Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, who had studied music at Florida Southern in the 1920s, offered to fund the construction of a new arts building on campus. But she disapproved of Wright's design, and demanded that changes be made. Wright refused, and the project was abandoned.

Below is Wright's master plan for Florida Southern College (click to enlarge). Note that he left the groves of orange trees largely intact. The ampitheater on the right of the drawing near the lake shore was never built.

A large circular water dome was an original Wright designed feature (lower left in master plan illustration). However, when it was constructed in the 1940s, sufficient water pressure and jets powerful enough to shoot a blast of water 45 feet into the air did not exist. Nearly 70 years after Wright first designed this architectural folly, the water dome was re-engineered (2007) so that 75 water jets are able to span the entire 160- foot diameter of the fountain. Today's visitors can view Wright's creation as it was originally meant to be enjoyed. Computers control the various combinations of underwater lights and the intensity of the streams of water.

Preservation and restoration projects are ongoing. Florida Southern College’s collection of Wright buildings was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, and the college has begun a $50 million restoration project targeting the original Wright structures. Current campus restoration work includes Wright's only planetarium (in the Polk Science building, below) and theatre-in-the-round (in the Ordway Arts building).

Many have compared the importance of Wright’s work at Florida Southern College to that of Thomas Jefferson’s designs for the University of Virginia. The archive photos below show Wright at work in his on-sight office in the 1940s and surveying construction progress with college president Spivey, who made the initial contact with the famed architect a decade earlier by sending him a telegraph.

Interiors of the Wright campus buildings are distinguished by shallow steps (4.5" risers), painted concrete surfaces, high clerestory windows and thin vertical iron screens painted brick red (click photos to enlarge).

Wright did not take into account the unique climate of central Florida’s citrus belt, which was hurricane prone, and the day-to-day heat and humidity took their toll on these buildings. Pfeiffer Chapel’s wrought-iron grid at the top of the tower was originally designed to house hanging plants, but no watering system was incorporated into the plans; consequently, everything planted soon perished. Tragically, just three years after completion, the Pfeiffer Chapel suffered serious hurricane damage. The immense skylights and iron grid atop the tower were heavily damaged, and water damaged both the interior and exterior. Under Wright’s supervision, the rebuilt portions were altered to withstand severe weather. Most of the “tapestry” or “textile” building blocks (each one painstakingly crafted by hand) placed near the base of the tower were covered with stucco to make them more water resistant (see photo from 1941, below).

Architectural distinction at Florida Southern continues to this day. Famed architect Robert A. M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, has designed several new structures, including two dormitories and a recently completed humanities building. Nicholas Hall, a lakefront dormitory facility, echoes the ship’s prow angles of Pfeiffer Chapel and incorporates Wright’s signature cantilevered eaves and brick red trim.

Straughn Trout Architects (Lakeland, FL) designed the new McKay Archives Center, which houses Frank Lloyd Wright documents, drawings, photographs, and other memorabilia from the architect's association with the college. The building, which was dedicated on February 20, 2009, pays homage to Wright’s original designs for the campus. Note the molded blocks at the base of the structure (replicated from the college's extant original Wright-era forms) and cantilevers at the top in the photo below. The long sandstone blocks used at the base of the building were manufactured using the original molds, which are still in possession of the college. This building recently won an AIA award.

A sundial designed by Wright still stands in its original position. The photos that follow illustrate various architectural details of these landmark status buildings.