If I had attended Florida Southern College in Lakeland, my career path would have jagged in an entirely different direction. Instead of choosing a major for the subject matter or the job prospects it offered, I would have based my education on the building. Specifically, which classes — fine arts, physics, criminology, cosmology — were taught in which Frank Lloyd Wright structure.
Famous architects and college campuses groove together as well as spring and fling. Yale flaunts an Eero Saarinen, for example, and Harvard claims a Le Corbusier and a Walter Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus. But FSC occupies a particularly prominent place in the pantheon with its Child of the Sun campus, the world’s only Wright-designed college and the largest single-site collection of his works. Go, FloSoCo; go, FloSoCo!
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.
Before heading out into the heat, Bill pointed out some of the library’s Wrightian details: the angled bookshelves that matchy-match the light wells, the Cherokee red concrete floor (oxidized, not painted) and the clerestory window that lets in sharp shards of natural light.
“There were times when the sun came through the east windows,” he said, “that you probably had to wear sunglasses to sit here and read.”
Of the dozen structures, the library took the longest to build because of World War II, which sapped materials and labor. As part of a work-study program, students mixed concrete and hauled blocks in exchange for room, board and tuition. During the crucible of battle, women dominated the construction force.
To create a cohesive whole, Wright designed a 1.5-mile network of covered walkways that string together the disparate buildings. The esplanades, no surprise, aren’t just a pedestrian highway but also a work of art. Geometric cutouts overhead mirror the flower planters below. An oxidized copper trim runs like a dirty ribbon along the upper portions. Abstract shapes on the bases evoke a feature typical of the Florida landscape. To protect Bill’s schtick, I won’t reveal the inspiration, but I will say that the answer is somewhere on this page.
The Danforth Chapel (1955) is less of a puzzle. With a leaded stained-glass wall behind the pulpit and a wimple-like roof, it looks and feels holy. The church is also a sacred site for Wright believers: His spirit soars from red floor to sloped roof and even rests on the cushioned pews.
“Wright was Mr. Posture. Virtually everything he designed was at a 90-degree angle,” Bill said as I tested one of the 550 seats. “As Wright’s furniture goes, these were relatively comfortable.”
As we continued onward, to the science, fine arts and administrative buildings, I felt myself advancing in the Higher Education of Wright. Though I’d visited many of his houses and institutions over the years, at FSC I experienced a number of one-and-onlys: the world’s only Wright-made planetarium and theater-in-the-round, and his largest water feature, the 160-foot-wide Water Dome. And in the category of most quotidian detail ever created by a legend: the window decal.
In the 1950s, before the advent of vertical blinds, people apparently banged into glass windows and doors — including Wright himself. To deter crashes, the architect, who loathed curtains, whipped up stickers resembling, to this observer’s eye, a deconstructed red panda. The school has since incorporated the shape into its logo.
Of course, Wright wasn’t always so practical or sensitive to the client’s needs. For the Water Dome, he envisioned high-powered jets spraying 45-foot-high arcs inward, like synchronized whales all exhaling at once. The design, however, proved too futuristic; the technology didn’t exist in 1948. In the 1960s, the college reduced his work to smaller pools set in a concrete plaza.
In 2007, a restoration project returned the Water Dome to its original state. But the college can activate the fountain only four times a day. Running it full time would violate the county’s water conservation policies.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Child
of the Sun campus
Florida Southern College
948 Johnson Ave.
Visitor center open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday noon to 4 p.m. (On Nov. 19, hours change to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.) One-hour basic tour departs four times a day Monday-Saturday and three times on Sunday; $20. Two-hour in-depth tour leaves twice daily; $35. Specialty tours (e.g., Restoration Tour, Behind the Scenes Tour) available on specific dates. Self-guided tour maps available at the visitor center .