See college the Wright way

Washington PostNovember 17, 2012 


The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Annie Pfeiffer Chapel and Danforth Chapel at Florida Southern College in Lakeland. Florida Southern is the world's only Wright-designed college and the largest single-site collection of his works. Illustrates FLORIDA-WRIGHT (category t) by Andrea Sachs (c) 2012, The Washington Post. Moved Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: By Robin Hill)

ROBIN HILL — The Washington Post

If I had attended Florida Southern College in Lakeland, I would have based my education on the building. Specifically, which classes were taught in which Frank Lloyd Wright structure.

Famous architects and college campuses groove together as well as spring and fling. Yale flaunts an Eero Saarinen, and Harvard claims a Le Corbusier and a Walter Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus. But FSC occupies a particularly prominent place with its Child of the Sun campus, the world’s only Wright-designed college and the largest single-site collection of his works.

Founded in Orlando in 1883, the private United Methodist-affiliated college relocated to a 100-acre orange grove on Lake Hollingsworth in 1922, when traditional red brick was au courant. Today enrollment is about 2,000, an undergraduates-to-Wright-buildings ratio of roughly 166-to-1.

Prettiest U.S. campus

The institution has earned distinctions for its academic standards but, more impressive, it recently received a shout-out from the Princeton Review as the nation’s most beautiful campus. The school also joined the National Historic Landmarks club this year, a limited membership including such lofty sites as the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building and Taliesin West, Wright’s former home and school in Arizona.

Throughout the year, guides lead tours of the grounds. Wright fanciers can also grab a map from the visitor center and go it alone. But you may receive special allowances with a guide, such as the thrill of standing beneath the theater’s acoustically crisp cupola dome and performing your best Olivier-as-Hamlet impression.

“Wright said that he would design buildings that would look like they were coming out of the earth, like a child in the sun,” guide Bill Stephens (class of 1970) said of the architect’s vision. “The name stuck.”

The tour starts at the Child of the Sun visitor center, which is housed in the former library, completed in 1946 for $100,000.

Stephens’ talk touched on the personal (three wives, three mistresses) and the professional (Prairie-style houses in the Midwest, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Taliesin East in Wisconsin), then turned to the reason we were sitting in a UFO-shaped room with an 18-foot skylight and no interior walls.

In 1938, FSC president Ludd Spivey sent Wright a letter requesting a meeting to build “a great education temple in Florida.”

The pair stuck together for nearly 20 years, from the first construction, the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel in 1941, to Wright’s last: the Polk County Science Building, dedicated in 1958, a year after Spivey’s retirement and a year before Wright’s death.

Stephens pointed out some of the library’s Wrightian details: the angled bookshelves, the Cherokee red concrete floor (oxidized, not painted) and the clerestory window that lets in sharp shards of natural light.

Building the library

Of the dozen structures, the library took the longest to build because of World War II, which sapped materials and labor. As part of a work-study program, students mixed concrete and hauled blocks in exchange for room, board and tuition. During the crucible of battle, women dominated the construction force.

To create a cohesive whole, Wright designed a 1.5-mile network of covered walkways that string together the disparate buildings. The esplanades aren’t just a pedestrian highway but also a work of art. Geometric cutouts overhead mirror flower planters below. Oxidized copper trim runs like a ribbon along the upper part.

The Danforth Chapel (1955) has a leaded stained-glass wall behind the pulpit and a wimple-like roof, and it looks and feels holy. The church is also a sacred site for Wright believers: His spirit soars from red floor to sloped roof.

As we continued onward, to the science, fine arts and administrative buildings, I felt myself advancing in the Higher Education of Wright. Though I’d visited many of his houses and institutions over the years, at FSC I experienced a number of one-and-onlys: the world’s only Wright-made planetarium and theater-in-the-round, and his largest water feature, the 160-foot-wide Water Dome.

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