A brief history of Frank Lloyd Wright’s relationship with Florida Southern College

You probably recognize some of these silhouettes from Lakeland tea towels and keychains, but do you know the history of how they came to be?

Annie Pfeiffer Chapel

Frank Lloyd Wright’s first design at Florida Southern College, the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, built in 1938. | Photo via Florida Memory

If you’ve spent any time in Lakeland, you’ve likely seen Florida Southern College’s campus. In 2020, the school was rated “Florida’s Most Beautiful Campus” by the Princeton Review, and the accolades don’t stop there. For over a decade, Florida Southern has been listed in The Princeton Review’s list of “The Best 386 Colleges,” which takes into account campus beauty and architectural heritage.

And for that, the college (and Lakeland) can thank one Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright’s work, which covers 80 acres of the campus, prioritizes sustainability and harmonious environmental design, referred to as organic architecture. In his lifetime, Wright saw 12 of his 18 original designs come to fruition. The Usonian Faculty House, Wright’s thirteenth design, was posthumously built in 2013.

Photo of Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright inspecting his work at Florida Southern College, circa 1940 | Photo via Florida Memory

The plans Wright oversaw included Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, the Buckner Building (previously known as the Roux Library), the Polk County Science Building, the Watson-Fine Building, the Three Seminars (the L.A. Raulerson Building), the Esplanades, the Ordway Building, the Danforth Chapel, and the Water Dome.

So, how did an architectural legend make his way to Lakeland?

In 1938, Ludd M. Spivey, the college’s president, extended his vision for the school to the architect in the hopes that Wright could bring the dream to life. In his now-famous telegram, Spivey proposed a “great education temple,” and as they say, the rest is history.

Crews completing work on the Polk Science Building, circa 1950

Crews completing work on the Polk Science Building, circa 1950. | Photo via Florida Memory

In 1938, 70-year-old Wright visited the campus, an inoperative citrus field, and was surprised to find such a non-traditional Floridian landscape. The 80-ft hill beside Lake Hollingsworth, groves of citrus trees, and completely undeveloped campus inspired Wright to refer to the imagined design as “a child of the sun.” With that, the vision was born, and plans for the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel were presented soon after.

The Annie Pfeiffer Chapel took three years to complete and work ceased in 1941. As construction was being done in the chapel, headway was being made on smaller buildings including the Three Seminars, which were completed by 1942. Shortly thereafter, the E.T. Roux Library (now the Buckner Building) was finished.

Subsequent buildings to reach completion in 1948 were the Emile E. Watson + Benjamin Fine Administration buildings, as well as Wright’s largest water feature in the world: the Water Dome.

Photo of the library

E.T. Roux Library + students beneath the Esplanade, circa 1950 | Photo via Florida Memory

Buildings were rising during World War II, so accommodations had to be made. Student laborers were employed to construct five of Frank’s buildings, and with most young men off to war, construction crews were made up of mostly women.

The 1950s brought The Lucius Pond Ordway Industrial Arts Building (Wright’s personal favorite, completed in 1952), the William H. Danforth Chapel, (featuring Wright’s final completed stained-glass window, finished in 1955), and the Polk County Science Building (completed in 1958), which was the final project completed before the architect died in 1959.

Photo of the chapel

The Annie Pfeiffer Chapel + Esplanades, circa 1961 | Photo via Florida Memory

The next building to be built based on Frank’s design would be the Usonian Faculty House in 2013.

Throughout his 20-year commission with Spivey and Florida Southern College, Wright presented 18 building designs. The unique working relationship was the longest of his career, and is also his only completed design of a college campus.

The National Park Service of the US Department of the Interior dubbed the campus a National Historic Landmark in 2012. The distinction was given to the campus due to it boasting the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture on a single site in the world.

Photo of the chapel

The Annie Pfeiffer Chapel circa 1960s | Photo via Florida Memory

Ready to see for yourself? The Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center is open for tours. Check out the different ways you can experience this collection of historic architecture:

  • Self-Guided Walking Tour, $5 | Experience the sights at your own pace by following the walking tour map, available for purchase inside the Tourism + Education Center from 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
  • Usonian House Tour, $15 | View the most recent addition to Florida Southern College’s campus, built in 2013 based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s original 1939 designs. Tours are available daily on demand from 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
  • Basic Tour, $35 | This 90-minute guided tour takes place daily at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Originating in the Tourism + Education Center, this tour explains Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision and shares the story of each building throughout the campus.
  • In-Depth Tour, $50 | This 2.5-hour tour encompasses the Basic Tour and allows visitors to go inside each featured building. Tours take place daily at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.
  • Behind the Scenes Tour, $125 | Reservations are required for this tour inside all of Wright’s designs, including some exclusive to this specific tour like the planetarium — groups are limited to 10 attendees.

Book your tour here.

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