Founded in Orlando in 1883, the private United Methodist-affiliated college relocated to a 100-acre orange grove on Lake Hollingsworth in 1922, when traditional red brick was au courant. Today’s student body numbers around 2,000, an undergraduates-to-Wright-buildings ratio of roughly 166-to-1. (The proportion shifts slightly if you toss in the three edifices by Robert A.M. Stern, dean of Yale’s School of Architecture, and the 117 graduate students.)
The institution has earned distinctions for its academic standards but, more impressive, it recently received a shout-out from the Princeton Review as the most beautiful campus in the United States (first place in 2011 and 2012). The school also joined the National Historic Landmarks club this year, a limited membership including such lofty sites as the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building and Taliesin West, Wright’s former home and school in Arizona.
Throughout the year, even when students are on holiday and Florida’s summer sun is melting flip-flops, guides lead tours of the grounds. Wright fanciers can also grab a map from the parking lot and go it alone. But you may receive special allowances with a guide, such as the thrill of standing beneath the theater’s acoustically crisp cupola dome and performing your best Olivier-as-Hamlet impression.
“Wright said that he would design buildings that would look like they were coming out of the earth, like a child in the sun,” guide Bill Stephens (class of ’70) said of the architect’s vision. “The name stuck.”
The tour starts, appropriately enough, at the Child of the Sun visitor center, which is housed in the former library, completed in 1946 for $100,000. Like an earnest freshman, I took a seat in the former reading room and listened to Bill’s brief discourse on Wright’s life. He touched on the personal (three wives, three mistresses) and the professional (Prairie-style houses in the Midwest, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Taliesin East in Wisconsin), then turned to the reason we were sitting in a UFO-shaped room with an 18-foot-high pit skylight and no interior walls.
In 1938, FSC president Ludd M. Spivey sent Wright a letter requesting a meeting to build “a great education temple in Florida.” Spivey hoped that the architect’s fame could boost interest and applications. The pair stuck together for nearly 20 years, from the first construction, the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel in 1941, to Wright’s last: the Polk County Science Building, dedicated in 1958, a year after Spivey’s retirement and a year before Wright’s death.