Long before the cool lines of mid-century modern graced Sarasota, the leafy Lakeland neighborhood of Dixieland could have been the site of the most imaginative residential designs of the 20th century: the Usonian houses of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Scratch "could have been.'' We have one now.
A Usonian house - Wright's dream of simple, well-designed and affordable homes for masses of the middle class in the America some thinkers called Usonia - has been built at last from plans the architect drew 75 years ago. It is still so forward-thinking that to stand inside it is to feel the genius of Wright's sense of space.
He designed this house of 1,300 carefully outfitted square feet in 1939 as faculty housing, where professors could live close to the students at Florida Southern College. He was invited by the college's ebullient president, Dr. Bud Spivey, to design a campus that was rooted in American material, style and spirit. The two spent 40 years designing and building it on a hill overlooking Lake Hollingsworth. What Wright called the Child of the Sun is today the largest collection of Wright buildings in the world. But as war approached, the faculty housing was never started.
Until now. Under another visionary president, Anne Kerr, Florida Southern has restored and expanded its architectural legacy. Kerr had worked on beautiful campuses before and had visited FSC over the years, but says, "I never dreamed I would end up being the curator.''
Buildings got renovated, the Water Dome's symbolic fountain of knowledge splashed again, and Kerr and architects started sifting through Wright's plans for structures unbuilt.
The most appealing and doable was a plan for a small faculty house that is now the Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center for the more than 30,000 architecture fans who make the pilgrimage to Lakeland each year from around the world.
Admirers and critics love to explore the campus' organic esplanades, sparkling glass in concrete block and soaring heights. Yet classrooms, auditoriums, offices and chapels are institutional spaces meant for sharing. The new building is personal; you can dream of having the space to yourself.
"And now we have a house!'' says Mark Tlachac, the college's resident Wright scholar. The new Sharp Center that sits at the brow overlooking the sloping campus is a real house and a modest one at that. The site is about where Wright would have built it.
You can feel what it would be like to live in Wright's design on a personal scale. Not the spectacular extravagance of Fallingwater or other Wright residences for the wealthy but a two-bedroom, one-bath no bigger than an old Florida ranch.
The materials and principles are the same as in the larger buildings: Cherokee Red concrete floors, Florida cypress, custom-made textile block of sand and cement studded with small blocks of colored glass, overhanging eaves, light captured by narrow clerestories and expanses of folding glass doors - and fit for a small family.
As always, Wright plays with light and dark, compression and spaciousness: guiding, almost forcing the occupants to live as he thought best, gathered together and engaged with nature and art, and tastefully organized.
As the architect did not believe in garages, you enter from a single-space carport under a long marquee leading to the front door and a darkened entryway lined with shelves and twinkling with colored glass. Then a sharp right puts you into the heart of the house, a central space open to a vast wall of windows and a raised ceiling, a room that seems twice as vast as the small house itself.
Indeed it is the public space for everything a family would do: A long dining table juts out from one wall next to a tiny open kitchen; a built-in sofa could seat guests while concealing storage. There is still room for more seating clusters, a cantilevered fireplace and perhaps the fine piano Wright thought every home should have. It is also large enough that a professor could have a classful of students over. Long before any builder's marketing brochure, Wright called it a gathering space.
Off to the corner are a small bathroom and two bedrooms. Even the master bedroom is smaller than today's preferences, yet each has floor-to-ceiling windows that enlarge the space by letting in the outside. They now are furnished with benches and video screens for visitors, but your mind can import an IKEA model room and imagine putting our gluttony for space on a diet.
Even the college's president feels the personal appeal of its scale, the beautiful woodwork, the tiny spots of color.
"I love the size of the main room and the small bedrooms," Kerr says. "It's comforting. It just feels peaceful: No clutter. People's personalities would be the focus. I could live here.''
To bring this old plan to life took generous donations - the structure is named for Tampa alumnus and former trustee Dr. Robert Sharp and his wife, Peggy - and several years of effort by a team of architects, masons, carpenters, glassmakers and roofers.
"The most gratifying aspect was our collective abilities to realize the same principles Wright conceived and refined throughout his career ... and prove that it is possible to apply them using 21st century building technology," according to architect Jeffrey Baker, who directed the building project.
He has a keen sense of history and an appreciation for both technology and manual craftsmanship.
"Everyone pulled out all the stops to ensure this would be something they would be proud of for the remainder of their days."
That does not mean constructing a 1939 building was easy. Baker and his team had Wright's floor plan, several elevations, a rendering and initial plans for the blocks, as well as the Wright buildings around them and Usonian homes elsewhere. They worked almost as Wright's apprentices, redrawing and detailing all the plans to fit modern codes, adding air-conditioning and tweaking the flat roofs to drain Florida downpours more efficiently.
The cantilevered structure for the ceiling over the gathering space was a big challenge, but the "textile" blocks were the toughest. In Wright's vision, and in his earlier work on campus, local sand could be poured by students.
Not today. Not when the plan called for 2,000 blocks in 47 configurations featuring 600 pieces of glass. In 2012 and 2013, these had to be made by artisans in Massachusetts, each single block individually numbered and shipped south.
But if you skipped such elaborately detailed block, could you build a similar house today? For, say, under $250,000?
"Absolutely,'' Baker says. "Wright designed many wonderful houses using 'common block'.'' And local building suppliers may someday make more varieties of block closer to home to encourage such imaginative building.
Working on the Usonian house has proven to Baker that Wright's work remains vitally relevant. His firm, Mesick, Cohen, Wilson and Baker, has worked on buildings by American greats from Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Latrobe to H.H. Richardson and Stanford White, and he still puts Wright above and apart from the others.
"His mind could envision three-dimensional space at a level of completeness and complexity that far surpasses any other architect we have encountered or likely ever will encounter,'' Baker says.
Perhaps it's a shame that the full dream of Wright and Spivey for 20 faculty houses were never built. Baker fantasizes it would have been perhaps the "most beautiful, wonderful intriguing neighborhood that could have been produced in the 20th century.''
Yet we at least have one, and the exciting chance to imagine that Wright designed it for you today.
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- The Florida Southern College campus designed by Frank Lloyd Wright is at the intersection of Johnson Avenue and Frank Lloyd Wright Way east of U.S. 98, in Lakeland. The Usonian House, the Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center, is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. daily. Knowledgeable guides are available for tours of the house and the campus. For reservations, call (863) 680-4597.
- In Winter Haven, visitors can take a driving tour of the progressive modern architecture of Gene Leedy, a prominent member of the Sarasota school. Maps of the 28 buildings on the tour can be found at the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce and at GeneLeedy.com.
- The signature building of Florida Polytechnic University designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava is under construction and can be seen at the intersection of Interstate 4 and the Polk Parkway.