The sign promising "Frank Lloyd Wright Architecture'' seems out of place on a dull stretch of Interstate 4 east of Tampa.
It takes just a few minutes from the busy highway to get through downtown and its fringe to reach Florida Southern College. The drive is nondescript, but then Wright, America's most famous architect, was never a fan of the grand entrance.
Yet his own presence here was flamboyant, marked by the iconic broad hat and caped coat, flowing tie and waving cane. He was so fearsome and odd that Lakeland locals walked on the opposite side of the street.
But when the public approached his work, he wanted them unaware and kept them from the drama, compressing access and keeping them in the dark until they were inside his world and then . . . wow.
The Florida Southern campus is on a bluff sloping down to Lake Hollingsworth, yet the entrance is not at the crown of the hill but on its brow, as at Taliesin, Wright's famed Wisconsin studio. His first buildings are small, administrative offices and a library with a round reading room and trapezoids of stacks and skylights.
Slowly the hillside reveals a floating grid of geometric shapes at firm 30-, 60- and 90-degree diagonals, yet they are almost organic in texture. The sand-colored buildings rise gradually from the falling slope. They were once more of a surprise, concealed in a grid of orange trees. Finally a chapel rears up and raises a man-made pattern of concrete and red metal, a "steeple'' of bow-tie triangles that students called "God's bicycle rack.''
Oddly, for an architect famously tied to Chicago, Wisconsin, California, Arizona and New York, the biggest single site of his works is on a Central Florida lakeside grove. (The most buildings in a city are in Oak Park, Ill.) He built only one house in Florida (in Tallahassee) although his apprentices designed Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater and the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota.
Yet over 20 years he built 12 buildings and 1.5 miles of esplanades in Lakeland. Most trees are gone now, but in the walkways, the triangular columns mimic tree trunks spreading a canopy to fend off sun and rain.
Thinking about the future
How Wright and this campus came to be here is classic Florida dream and hype from the late 1930s thanks to men with bigger egos than bank accounts. Dr. Ludd M. Spivey, president of the small Methodist school, urged Wright to remake it into a university of the future. He had no money, just student labor.
In 1938, Wright was over 70 years old and on his third marriage, his suburban Chicago houses were 30 years old, Fallingwater in Pennsylvania was finished and work on Taliesin West in Arizona had just begun. He accepted Spivey's challenge, and called the campus the "Child of the Sun.'' It would be one of his last, largest works, yet forgotten by critics. Wright died 50 years ago Wednesday at age 92.
Attention will be paid this year to Wright in various cities that boast his buildings and at a 50th anniversary retrospective at Guggenheim museums in New York and Bilbao, Spain.
Florida Southern is more Wright-proud than ever and draws 25,000 visitors annually. First-year architecture students are regulars, and even a crisp contemporary architect like Brussels-educated Michael Halflants of Sarasota, an associate professor at University of South Florida, says the campus is "worthwhile seeing, and seeing again, especially the church. A building can be from any period and we can learn from it.''
Enter the darkened Annie Pfeiffer Chapel (the bicycle rack) and Wright's building blocks shine like jewels with tiny squares of colored glass. There are no windows, just marvelous skylights drawing eyes and spirits up.
Add in labs, classrooms and offices for a full course in Wright thinking. You can see the big idea, his dream Broadacre City as a school, and feel the human scale, ceilings just high enough for someone 6-feet-plus. Upper stories are cleverly cantilevered; roofs are flat (and leaking). Accent colors are old-copper green and Cherokee Red. Small private spaces intricately open with courtyards, clerestory windows and small gardens. Fireplaces warm the library and chapel.
His "textile block'' concrete was shaped on site in dozens of patterns that mimic the horizontal lines of the prairie-style houses — and shame modern concrete block. On one wall, they have colors from gray to tan to pink, all made from Florida sands and coquina. A wooden form that made them is on display too.
The inside story on the buildings
For the human story, go on a walking tour with docent Mark Tlachac, a Wright scholar from Tampa. He can explain Wright's genius (and scandals) and retell construction stories. Students wrestled wheelbarrows up the hill to pour the forms; when the boys went to war, college women were harnessed two to a leather yoke.
He also recounts how Wright shortcut the aging of copper with urine, another student contribution. When Wright bumped a plate glass window, he devised a pointed red design as a warning symbol that is now the college logo.
Florida Southern keeps Wright's work alive with federal and state help and a U.N. designation as an endangered world monument. The great Water Dome fountain works again, the theater in the round is in renovation and the endless repair of sadly weakened block has begun.
Undoing 60 years of wear could cost $50 million ultimately, but great architecture is more than a history lesson. To add dormitories it engaged modern legend Robert A.M. Stern, a historian and dean of architecture at Yale, who has called Florida Southern "the coolest architectural campus" in the world.
Working on the buildings was exciting and a "little scary'' said Michael Lamis, a Stern partner. Though the firm has integrated new buildings on traditional campuses, "Here the buildings are singular and Wright-ian'' and the layout naturalistic and site hugging in an informal American style.
They looked at Wright's plans for planned dormitories but Lamis conceded, "It's very dangerous to try to copy Wright.'' So Stern's dormitories are four stories and modern white but tagged with Wright red and situated so their long, thin rectangles emerge slowly on Wright's grid and open to embrace the lake.
They cast a long shadow. Like Wright's legacy.
Chris Sherman, a former food critic and staff writer at the St. Petersburg Times, covers restaurants and travel for Florida Trend magazine.