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Out Of The Ground And Into The Light, A Child of The Sun-Frank Lloyd Wright Tour Florida

Frank Friday, July 2016

This is first of two consecutive posts about my visit to Florida Southern College Campus to see this unique collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings.   I’m not going to lie, this is a long post,  I thought about breaking down the buildings, but there is so much connectedness in their story.

Either you are an architecture fan or you’re not.  This one is for the former.  I tried to add as many photos as possible to break up the monotony of the words.History buffs may also be interested in this tour.

WHY did I visit? I have always loved Frank Lloyd Wright design. Since buildings of this famed American Architect have been placed on U.NE.S.C.O.  World Heritage Watch List, I have had a renewed interest in visiting a few more sites scattered around the United States.  Listed on The National Register of Historic Places, fans come from all over the world to see this unique and interesting place. Yes, it is an International Architectural Treasure.




National Register of Historic Places


Lakeland Florida is located between the two destinations of Tampa and Orlando.  This campus holds the largest collection of FLW designs in one locale. 18 buildings were designed. From 1938-1958 twelve of the buildings were constructed under the Master Architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  This blog is about the twelve buildings.

Mr. Wright was born in 1867, making him about 71 when this project began and 91 when this project was completed. (If my math is correct.)  Wright designed everything: buildings, esplanades, fountain, planetarium, furniture, and landscaping. To be able to love your work so much that you work into your later years and create such a masterpiece is a true human gift.



Frank Lloyd Wright



Once upon a time in the 1930’s, Florida was not full of Porsche’s, old people and amusement parks.  Instead, it was known as a very hot and humid place with lots of bugs, orange groves, and farmland.  Imagine a time when there was no air conditioning. Add to this Negative Nellie, it  was the Great Depression, many colleges and universities struggled to stay open. During this time, Florida Southern College President Dr. Ludd Spivey had the challenging task of reigning during this era of extremely difficult circumstances.

During this time, Florida Southern College President Dr. Ludd Spivey had the challenging  job of navigating this institution during extremely difficult circumstances.

Dr. Spivey  wondered how to attract prospective students? How could this college stand out? Dr. Spivey envisioned something different than the usual brick buildings with the same old domes on top. Not that they are not lovely.



Architecture of a prior era


At the time, this was the style of architecture that had been in vogue in the U.S.A., and for centuries by its European predecessors.

In 1937, Frank Lloyd Wright completed his masterpiece Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.  Even if you are not a FLW fan, you likely have seen a photo of the place. Fallingwater

Months later, Frank Lloyd Wright graced the cover of Time Magazine on January 17, 1938. [1] A science article entitled “Usonian Architect” [see below  article for definition] presented Frank Lloyd Wright as a brilliant architect, designing with a uniquely American style. This  article caught the attention of Dr. Spivey.

In 1938, Dr. Spivey visited Frank Lloyd Wright at his home Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and the universe aligned two great minds and social visionaries.

Frank Lloyd Wright Taliesin and it's Birdwalk

Taliesin Spring Green, Wisconsin

The two men both held the belief that college campuses were failures in design.  Dr. Spivey asked the architect to design a “college of tomorrow.”  There was just one great big problem? There was no money in this College budget, no endowments.  Dr. Spivey vowed to work night and day to raise the monies necessary. Wright was known to the world as egotistical, Dr. Spivey successfully appealed to the ego of this great architect. FLW was enthusiastic to design a campus from scratch and went to work immediately.

When Frank Lloyd Wright arrived at the campus, he envisioned buildings “rising out of the ground and into the light.” The project began to be called “Child of the Sun.”

He was further inspired by the orange groves that were growing on the property.  So much so that orange trees were incorporated into the designs. Initially, there were to be orange groves laid out in a grid with the Esplanades connecting them in such a way that the pathways would be in a sea of green and the buildings would seem to hover above them.  With this knowledge, if you think of this when you see the campus buildings it makes perfect sense.

Also, the initial drawing linked Lake Hollingsworth to the campus with an amphitheater at the base and a swimming pool at the bottom of the lake, half-in and half out of the lake.  Infinity edge?  Either way, after my tour, I couldn’t help but wonder how complete the campus would have been with the orange trees and that view.  With the 80 foot drop to the lake, it is a perfect canvas for FLW buildings to be painted into the slopes. Organic Architecture made real.



Situated on the bank of Lake Hollingsworth


 Frank Lloyd Wright was a master of Organic Architecture; a concept that perfectly compliments the surroundings with the use of organic materials. [2] One example of this concept is seen in these buildings with the use of local sand to make concrete and the use of local cypress for the wood. Think of a complete organism: site, materials, connectedness….I learned on my tour that this complex is built in six-foot square grids.  My non-mathematical mind has a difficult time envisioning this concept. 

These are not your ordinary concrete blocks, some of them hold magical powers.   On the tour, we learned that many of the original colored glass tiles have been taken by students.  Each year at student orientation, they are warned that this act will result in immediate expulsion and criminal prosecution.



Details on the concrete blocks



Students assisted in the building, and in return, received paid tuition.  Not even the absence of the young men during WWII stopped the project, the women pitched in doing some of the manual labor necessary to complete the projects.  Girl Power!


  1. The Sharp Family Tourism And Education Center-I chose to do the two-hour tour with a guide. I ordered tickets on-line and met the tour group at a small craftsmen style home converted into The Sharp Family Tourism And Education Center. I was given a headset and a brief history of what I was about to see. Our group crossed Frank Lloyd Wright Way and we began on the campus outside the Water Dome area.

2. The Water Dome- Symbolizing the fountain of knowledge, we learned that FLW designed this Water Dome to be the focal centerpiece of this campus.


Fountain at Lakeland College designed by Frank Lloyd Wright is a centerpiece of campus.

Measuring a diameter of 160 feet, this was the largest fountain that the architect had ever designed. The technology to make the dome came about in 1948; prior to that, it was simply an open pool. In 2007, the fountain was restored using a high-pressure water system enabling the water to get as high as 48 feet creating the dome that Mr. Wright envisioned.



View from below


Due to Florida water restrictions, the fountain runs at set intervals throughout the day. Three times per year the fountain is run at full power; homecoming and graduation, the third time is to be determined by the College President. Most recently, it was run for Laura Bush.

3. The Esplanades. The west part of campus is connected by over one mile of covered walkways. Designed to shield the students from the elements of rain and sun, they are practical as well as beautiful. FLW believed that buildings should not just be practical, but also be art. The supports are modeled after the orange trees that were at one time numerous about campus. The “ceiling” of the esplanades has a classic FLW design element of repetitive patterns.

I love the gardens under the esplanades. This was probably my favorite part of the buildings.


Esplanades at Lakeland college Frank Lloyd Wright

Patterns of light on the grounds and the geometric gardens that incorporate nature into the students world.



Cantilevered Covered Walkways [3]

We learned that people often turn their heads near the supports and 9-1-1 has been called on a few occasions.



Orange Trees built into the walkway


In the photo below, the signature green copper is visible.  The edge of the roofline was initially designed to be copper throughout the entire campus but during WWII, this material became unavailable and paint was used as a compromise.  The distant building in the photo below shows the painted edges while the forefront is copper.   I thought that the esplanades were also an example of compression-expansion. [4]


Esplanades columns are said to be designed after the orange groves on campus-Frank Lloyd Wright design.


Over one mile of gorgeous Esplanades at Lakeland College designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

4. Benjamin Fine Administration Building. Referred to as The Watson-Fine Administration Building, there are actually two buildings. The buildings were the first completed by an outside firm under the guidance of Wright.

On The Benjamin Fine building, I noticed the cantilevered rooflines and the red pole like the one at Taliesin West.  (see prior post from Frank Lloyd Wright link above)  We were not able to go into these buildings but were able to peek in the windows and saw how the copper trim was carried to the interior ceiling. I noticed a lot of light filtering in, cypress wood and plants.


Watson Administration building at Lakeland college designed by Frank Lloyd Wright


Watson Administration Building roofline designed by Frank Lloyd Wright


The Watson-Fine buildings are connected by Esplanades and gardens.


Esplanades connecting The Watson-Fine Buildings

5. The Watson-Fine Administration was my favorite building on the campus. Even though I was unable to enter the building, I loved the design and tranquility.  The pool and plantings are in place to greet visitors to the office. The concrete blocks on the far right feature colored glass that filters light into the building.


Emile Watson Administration Building at Florida Lakeland College. Frank Lloyd Wright design.

6. The E.T. Roux Library – On the day that I visited this building was in official use and I was unable to physically step inside. This building was originally a library. The library is now housed elsewhere on campus and this building was named after a benefactor by the name of Thad Buckner.

The tour guide informed us that this building has been extensively modified to hold offices. Originally, the reading room at the library, the circular room is still used for lectures and meetings. Some of the signature FLW design elements are the clerestory windows and “light wells” that bring natural light from the upper skylights on down to the bottom floor. Completed in 1941, this was the third and last building to have been completed with student labor.

flwlakelandroux.jpgAncient theorists believe….Just kidding, I had to interject that line from  Ancient Aliens, the T.V. show.  For real, some people think it looks like a U.F.O. Others liken it to Egyptian, Eastern European or Spanish Influence.

flwlakelandroux2.jpgI have included this third photo to show a few signature FLW design elements.  The clerestory windows and the light wells that allow light to enter from the skylights down to the floor.

*Interesting fact.  In 1957, Frank Lloyd Wright later returned to this circular design when he designed the Annunciation Greek orthodox Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. [5] Imagine orange trees planted where there is exposed concrete. flwlakelandroux3.jpg

7. Annie Pfeiffer Chapel – Historically, a Methodist College, this was the first building funded and constructed under Wright’s plan. Built between 1939 and 1941 with student labor, the chapel was funded by Annie Pfeiffer. Annie was married to Henry Pfeiffer Jr. who was the founder of Pfeiffer Chemical Company.   With no children born to them, their philanthropic interests were spread to many institutions throughout the United States.


The most noticeable feature of this building is the bell tower that rises upward.  The Florida Southern College uses the “bowtie” from the tower as their log.


From the exterior, where no windows are in place, it does not look as if light can pour into the building, it does.


The shapes of this building are hexagonal. It is difficult for me to describe in words, all of the details in this design. Imagine the shape of a cross with the points on end with the altar.  And check out the magic properties of that not so ho-hum concrete. Fairy dust, I think.


The upstairs area holds more seating and the choir is situated above the altar. The chapel sits just under 500 people and is still used for services well as other events.

flwlakelandannie up.jpg

As with other Frank Lloyd projects, people either love it or hate it.  It is said that when Mrs. Pfeiffer visited the chapel for the dedication ceremony, she stated, “they say it is done.”  some people refer to this building as “the bicycle rack” or “God’s bicycle rack,”  you can kind of see why in the photo below.

It is interesting to note that the original plans were for Bougainvillea plants to be in the “bow” areas and trail down the building.  We learned from our tour guide that no one had thought of the long dry seasons that happen in Florida and how watering could take place. I could envision how this is another feature that would have softened the stark concrete. 


The Annie Pfeiffer Chapel is on the list of the National Register of Historic Places and was named as a National Landmark in 2012.

8. William H. Danforth Chapel- Mr. Danforth was the founder of Ralston-Purina. Through the Danforth Foundation, Mr. Danforth helped with the construction of 24 non-denominational places of worship across the country.


We learned that there was a quote in each Danforth chapel


This building is the only design holds the FLW signature lead glass on this campus.


The stairs to get upstairs were interesting but quite narrow.


The upstairs held a pipe organ and a meeting room,  we learned that weddings and other events are held in this chapel.  flwlakelanddanforthwindowup.jpg

Our tour guide taught us that the original cypress pews were built by the industrial arts students, and the home economic students made the cushions.


*Interesting fact, this chapel was to be non-denominational, a Christian cross was not in the planning but the workers saw fit to install one. Before the chapel was dedicated, a student sawed off the cross. The cross was restored, but in 1990 the American Civil Liberty Union filed a lawsuit and the cross was removed to storage.

9. Polk County Science Building – was the last of Florida Southern campus buildings to be built during Wright’s lifetime. In fact, he died before seeing this building completed.


This long building seems to hug closely to the ground.



The middle of the building is tall and open with natural light pouring in.



Initially, the utilities were not on the roof but due to the need for ventilation in a science building, they were installed.  These are working classrooms.


We learned that the industrial units are to be removed due to a change of use for this building.


At the opposite end of the building is a planetarium that sadly is no longer in use due to budgetary restrictions.  I do not understand this fact. This is the only planetarium ever to be designed by the master architect.   There are no tours of the planetarium.

Leaving this area, we walked underneath the shady esplanades through the oak trees and gardens.



and through the award-winning gardens.



towards a nearly hidden from view Ordway Arts Building.


Although this angle does not show a close-up of the building, we learned that it has been compared to Taliesin West. I bet it is the student work area, I could for sure see that comparison.


10. Ordway Arts Building-This building is a compound with two wings or arms. Designed with an initial intention for use as classrooms, cafeteria, and lounge, it then housed the industrial arts classes, and later a student lounge. Although we did not go inside this building, I snapped a photo to show how the interior blends with the exterior design.



Student Lounge Ordway


I noticed this breezeway that went out to the sports fields.


Our group spent a good bit of time looking at the central courtyard.


We were told that this area was used for seating, theater, and other outdoor events.  The ground is sloped towards a hidden drain.


Located at the end of one arm, is one of the most unique and quite frankly, (no pun intended) genius features of this area is the theater-in-the-round. In the photo below,the round portion of the theater is noted.


Once inside, we learned the genius part.  I am not an engineer but we learned that the ceiling has a conical center. A very specific shape of this room was designed for a sound effect.  I have seen this in Taliesin West and it’s pretty fantastic.


The tour group was invited to stand in the middle of the floor and quietly speak.  The voice resonates loudly and can easily be heard from any seat in the theater. So much so, that this building is currently used for speech classes.

We were also invited to have two people stand in opposite spots across the theater. When you whispered into the wall, you can be heard clearly by the other person.  I felt so creeped out and while writing this, I got goosebumps.

12. Three Seminar Buildings-This series of buildings were created with student labor during the war years. Initially, these buildings were separate with a connecting courtyard. Skylights, colored glass insets in the “textile” block system. We learned that Frank Lloyd Wright changed the building three times and one can see this in the difference in color of the blocks.


Initially, these buildings were separate with a connecting courtyard. Skylights, colored glass insets  are in the “textile” block system.


We learned that Frank Lloyd Wright changed the building three times and one can see this in the difference in color of the blocks.

13.  The Usonian House that is the focus of my next blog and will be short in length.

MEGastars: 5 ***** A really fantastic tour with a lot of very interesting buildings.  In my head, I am always planning my own FLW Usonian home and this tour was really inspiring. having toured many FLW properties, I can say that Lakeland College is truly doing honor to this international treasure.  On the day that I toured people from Germany and Sweden were taking this tour. Thanks to Lakeland College on behalf of this FLW fan!

Sources and Notes:

[1] Time Magazine

[2] Organic Architecture –   The term was coined by Frank Lloyd Wright to describe the philosophy of bringing nature into our human habitats. I love FLW interpretation of this philosophy in simple terms. “Organic buildings are the strength and lightness of the spiders’ spinning, buildings qualified by light, bred by native character to environment, married to the ground.”-Frank Lloyd Wright From the FLW Foundation website. ‘organic’ architecture in which structure would stand as a unified whole, growing from—and being a blessing to—the landscape. For Wright, a truly organic building developed from within outwards and was thus in harmony with its time, place, and inhabitants. FLW Foundation Organic Architecture

[3] Cantilever- A beam, girder, or structural framework that is fixed at one end and is free at the other

[4] Compression Expansion  or “compression-release” or “tension and resolution” and“embrace and release.” Frank Lloyd Wright was a master at this design. It is using the feeling of compression (think a tiny dark hallway) and then the release (think  of stepping into a bright and open room.)   It is a sense of space as you walk through a building. Personally, this is one of my favorite design elements.

[5] Essential Frank Lloyd Wright, Caroline Knight p. 152

Usonian-“Usonian”-of/or related to the United States.  Frank Lloyd Wright adopted this term and used it to define a style distinct to the United States landscape (vs all of The America’s ie Canada and Mexico.) This home would be free of fluff and formality of European style homes.


  1. The Sharp Family Tourist and Education Center and Shop is located at 750 Frank Lloyd Wright Way in Lakeland, Florida.
  2. Open 362 days of the year from 9:30 AM-4:30 PM, closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.
  3. The water dome operates from 9:30-11:30 AM, 12:30-2:00 PM, 2:30-3:30 PM, 4:30-5:30 PM
  4. For people who want to self-tour the campus, do stop by the visitor center and pick up a pamphlet with a map. From that point, the exterior of all buildings may be viewed. In addition to the outdoor water fountain, Esplanade, the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel and The William Danforth Chapel and is open to the public.
  5. Wear walking shoes. There are stairs and uneven surfaces.
  6. Check out the award winning gardens.
  7. The Usonian House was completed was built in 2013 and may be toured solo for $7.00 or added into a tour package.
  8. Food and water are available at Tutu’s Cyber Cafe
  9. If you have the luxury to visit at graduation or homecoming to see the dome in  full glory.   I imagine that these are busy tour days. Do reserve your tickets at this time.
  10. Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Members bring your card, you will receive an additional discount.
  11. Check out the original aerial drawings. I am going to incorporate a few of these ideas into my dream home. Aerial drawings Site © by Mr. William Carpenter.
  12. We were told by the tour guide that the library holds original drawings that can be viewed, I ran out of time.


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