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Book looks at Wright’s Florida College buildings
By Jay MacDonald   - 02/10/2008

The News-Press

Among Florida’s many manmade attractions, one stands above the mouse ears and Art Deco dreams as a true 20th century architectural shrine: Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Child of the Sun” campus at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.

In “The Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern College” (Arcadia, $19.99), FSC faculty members Randall MacDonald, Nora Galbraith and James Rogers Jr. compile an impressive photographic retrospective that chronicles the 20-year construction of Wright’s vision. It would be the American master’s only college campus, and remains the world’s largest single-site collection of Wright’s work.

At age 70, Wright was already an icon when he accepted the FSC commission in 1938. The founder of the distinctly American Prairie School of organic architecture envisioned an 18-building campus growing “out of the ground into the light — a Child of the Sun” amid the 100-acre orange grove on the banks of Lake Hollingsworth.

“It’s fun to try to imagine whether Wright saw all of this in three dimensions before he started to put any of it on paper or whether one piece sprang from another,” says MacDonald. “My guess is that he saw all of this in his mind and had to figure out a way to express it.”

Wright first completed the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel in 1941. The chapel’s textured block base gives rise to a distinctive concrete lantern tower with its wrought-iron superstructure, referred to by today’s students as the “bicycle rack in the sky.” As the first structure to rise above the grove, it must have had quite an impact.

Each subsequent building added to FSC’s rich architectural vocabulary: the futuristic, circular E.T. Roux Library, the jewel-like Danforth Chapel, the ambitious Waterdome fountain. A mile and a half of distinctive copper-covered walkways, called esplanades, provided the unifying touch between the buildings.

Wright’s intriguing designs sometimes overrode the functional needs of a college campus. For instance, the irregularly shaped light wells he designed to provide natural light in the library played havoc with the placement of shelves and were useless at night, forcing the school to spring for table lamps.

“Wright would arrive on campus and all of the desk lamps had to be moved elsewhere so he wouldn’t see that his building was being used in a way that wasn’t appropriate to its original design,” says MacDonald.

The Waterdome was equally problematic; it sputtered and spat and was finally filled in for many years. Thanks to improved technology, it was recently restored to the master's vision. Check out video of the well-attended premier at www.youtube.com by searching for "Frank Lloyd Wright water dome."

"Since it's been refurbished, it's just fantastic. It draws people here," says Galbraith. "To me, it's one of the genius things that he's done here."

Wright lived to see 12 of his 18 buildings completed. He did not, however, anticipate the corrosive effect of Lakeland's moist climate on his indigenous building materials, primarily St. Augustine coquina shell.
MacDonald sees the ongoing maintenance as a restoration opportunity.

"The restorers are being very deliberate in checking plans at Taliesin (Wright's studio) and as many old photographs as they have access to for anything that gives any sense of how the buildings have changed since the time they were designed and built," he says. "There are newer methods of making replacement blocks and hopefully those will hold up."

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