I have traveled through Lakeland, Florida, from Tampa to Orlando on I-4 while visiting some of Florida’s major tourist venues. When I decided to stop and visit Lakeland, I discovered a long history of historic architecture and aviation. Lakeland is the home to Florida Southern College, whose campus was designed by America’s preeminent architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. It is also home to Fantasy of Flight and the Florida Air Museum that house world-class vintage aircraft restorations.
Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern College
The campus of Florida Southern College is a living legacy of Architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The University hired Wright in 1938 to design the campus. Wright’s work has been in continual use for eighty-three years since its creation. I mused as I walked the Esplanade designed by Wright. Do the students realize they walk through living history each day? I doubt they have time to dwell on that as they go about their studies.
Florida Southern College
Founded in 1883 as a seminary, Florida Southern is Florida’s oldest four-year private college. Southern found its home in Lakeland, Florida, in 1922 on a sixty-seven-acre citrus grove. The gently sloping hill toward Lake Hollingsworth made for an ideal site. The campus is surrounded by Lakeland’s first suburb, a historic neighborhood featuring many Sears and Roebuck prefab houses built between 1908 and 1950.
Architect Frederick Trimble designed the original campus plan with quads, a domed library, and a great lawn. The red brick building’s design was very structured, and two of the original buildings remain today.
Dr. Lud Spivey, President of Florida Southern 1925-1957
Dr. Spivey, born in Eclectic, Alabama, was bright and ambitious. Spivey wanted the Southern to be the “Harvard of the South.” He was a genius fundraiser. Beginning with only 150 students in 1925, he grew enrollment to 800 students in 1929. After the stock market crash, enrollment dropped to eighty students. Refusing to declare it a lost cause, Spivey regained about 250 students by the mid-1930s. Some students traded crops and livestock for class time. When the school’s finances stabilized, Spivey sort an architect to design something unique for the campus. Frank Lloyd Wright was that architect.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Born in 1867, Wright is the most celebrated, influential, and greatest of all American architects. His catalog of work is 538 builds, all of which but eight are in the US. His organic architecture integrates itself into the surrounding landscape of the land. Wright thought architecture should not just be on the land, but it should belong to the land. He saw architecture as boxes upon boxes. He intended to break the box with a more free-flowing architecture. He was the pioneer of the open concept and a more informal atmosphere within the home.
Wright’s design for Florida Southern
The campus is one of the most obscure gems of Wright’s career. It is also Wright’s most essential and complex works and his longest-lasting commission, lasting twenty years, 1938-1958. The designs are instilled with layers of meaning that you will see as you walk his mile long Esplanade and visit the thirteen buildings.
Wright completed his masterpiece design, Falling Water, in 1937. Dr. Spivey, President of the Florida Southern, cabled Wright about designing the school campus. The two met, and Wright was promised ‘total design authority” in May 1938. After a three-day visit to Florida for landscape notes and drawings, Wright returned in October with the complete campus plan and designs for the first building series.
Eighteen different buildings were designed for college. President Spivey funded twelve of the buildings, with the Usonian House being the only building completed after Wright’s death. Thirteen of Wright’s buildings are found throughout the campus.
Wright incorporated the original orange groves are reflected into the organic feel of the columns of the Esplanade. The six-foot, seven-inch clearance height was deliberate, it was the trim height of the orange trees.
Nature and repeated patterns are woven throughout Wright’s campus design. The Esplanade walk is the single longest covered walkway Wright designed and connects many of the buildings. As you walk the campus visitors will see how the buildings submerge themselves into the hillside. Wright wanted that, “Every building is out of the ground and into the light, a child of the sun.”
The Usonian House
The Usonian House is the centerpiece of the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor’s Center. Its floor-to-ceiling glass windows break the box. Wright designed the house in 1939, and it was to be the first home in a neighborhood that would serve as faculty housing. Unfortunately, the school couldn’t fund all the faculty housing.
The Usonian was completed in 2013 and is constructed of concrete blocks just as the other campus buildings. The restoration team learned a lot during the construction of the house. The Usonian was commissioned the same year, 1939, as the Rosenbaum House in Florence, AL. See my article on the Rosenbaum House here.
Buildings on the campus
Carpentry was the most popular class at Southern In the 1930s for men and women. Students earned a full scholarship for working just three, twelve-hour shifts on the building’s construction. Because of the large student participation in the campus construction, no professional crews were needed to construct the campus buildings. Women did most of the construction on the original library structure in the 1940s.
The Annie Pfeiffer Chapel is the oldest building on campus, constructed 1938-1941. It is the vertical centerpiece of the campus. There are fifty thousand pieces of glass in the building, and there is no pattern to the glass installation. Wright preferred the randomness of the glass in the building. The building is supported by four hollow columns, just as Wright’s Falling Water.
The William Danforth Chapel was built between1954-1955 as a wedding chapel. It is smaller and intimate than the Pfeiffer Chapel. The stained glass is the centerpiece of the building. It was Wright’s largest and last stained glass window.
Perforated concrete blocks were the secret to the buildings’ low-cost construction. Southern’s campus is the only design of Wright’s where colored glass is used. Visitors will see Wright’s unusual use of glass in both the chapels.
The Water Dome is Wright’s single largest fountain at 160 feet across. It dominates the center of the campus. Wright did not see the fountain with the jets installed, which creates the dome effect. It was beyond the technology of the 1940s. The Roux library was added in 1968.
Buckner Admin Building was the original campus library used for classes and is heavily modified. Its magnificent circular room has remained and served as the original campus library.
The fifty thousand square foot Polk County Science building constructed between 1953 and 1958 has an industrial look because of the piping installed on the roof. It houses labs, classrooms, and a planetarium. A full restoration of the outside is complete, and the interior will be next. It was the first educational building to use aluminum in its architecture. Inside there are two levels of hallways, an express lane for those in a hurry, and the gathering side where students can interact and enter the labs and classrooms.
Cost of Buildings
Not surprisingly, all of the buildings went over budget during construction. Annie Pfeiffer Chapel cost one hundred forty-seven thousand dollars and, when completed, was five times over budget. Three seminar buildings were built between1940-1941 when the school needed classrooms. Students constructed these in nine months at the cost of seven thousand dollars each. The Esplanade was a bargain at the cost of sixty-four thousand dollars.
The 1984 business building, or the campus ‘carbuncle’, stands out on the Wright designed campus. One of the architects who worked on the business building stated that “saying yes to that building’s design was the worst greatest architectural mistake the college ever made.”
Southern is an active college campus used every day; a busy preservation team is on duty daily. Restoration architect Jeff Baker heads the team. Baker worked at Monticello and the University of Virginia. The maintenance team cannot touch a building without the preservation architect’s ok.
Architectural tours of the campus are available through the visitors center. Jack Coffey was my guide. Jack first saw the buildings at age twelve when the chapel captured his imagination. Coffey is now the coordinator of Tours and Educational Programs for the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor’s Center. To say he is knowledgeable is an understatement.
Florida Southen’s unique history stands as a testament to the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright. It is one of the county’s most accessible of Wright’s designs. Make a stop in central Florida Southern to dive deep into America’s architectural history.
Aviation History in Lakeland, Florida
Florida Air Museum
The Sun and Fun Expo is the signature event for the Florida Air Museum. The museum began as an idea of some of Sun and Fun Expo members. 1986 saw the creation of the campus, where a small corner of the building had a dedicated space for a museum display. By 1989, the museum had created a permanent collection. Then the museum opened to the public in 1992. It became an official aviation museum in 2002, and in 2014 it began to focus on stem education for students.
The museum area was alive with activity with planes buzzing overhead on the day. I had arrived on the day of paired down (thanks to Covid), Sun and Fun weekend. I toured the hanger of museum exhibits and the Aviation Hall of Fame. The museum is not large, but it packs a punch with information on Howard Hughes, racing planes, and the inductees to the Florida Aviation Hall of Fame.
Sun and Fun Expo will take place on April 5-19, 2022. It is the go-to for Southeastern pilots and aviation enthusiasts. Mark your calendars; this is something you will not want to miss.
Kermit Week’s Lights the Spark of Aviation at Fantasy of Flight
Fantasy of Flight is located just north of Lakeland, Florida, in Polk City. Week’s astounding collection of some 200 aircraft is the result of his lifelong dedication to the pursuit of aviation. Each aircraft is owned and flown by Weeks. I was impressed by the meticulously restored aircraft and the details of each plane’s history. Week’s mission to educate and light the spark of aviation in his visitors is curated through the tour guides for the small museum.
As a boy, Weeks learned about building planes. He went on to get his pilots’ license, which he initially found boring until he discovered aerobatics. He found his passion. Week’s flew with the US aerobatics team for a dozen years, winning some twenty medals throughout his career.
Kermit was fortunate to have “come into” some family money and how he has amassed his collection of vintage aircraft. His first purchase was a P51 and then a T28 trainer. He needed the T28 to learn to fly the P51. Once he began buying airplanes, people found him. The aviation world can be a small one.
Fantasy of Flight
Having amassed a growing vintage aircraft collection, Weeks opened the Weeks Aviation Museum in Miami in 1985. The museum was destroyed in 1992, and many of the aircraft were damaged when Hurricane Andrew devastated the area.
Weeks knew tourists flood into Central Florida, so he purchased 250 acres of cow pastures and orange groves near Polk City. He built two engineered runways that were overlaid with grass to land the vintage World War 1 aircraft. Then built fifty thousand square feet of warehouse space for the collection and restoration shops.
Weeks opened the Fantasy of Flight museum in 1995. He had created a high quality aviation attraction. He designed a 1930s style building housing a restaurant, restoration shop, and museum and experience area. After twenty years of operation, the attraction closed in 2014. Today with three paid employees, a small sample of the Week’s vintage collection is on view. Here visitors learn the history of these exquisitely restored vintage aircraft.
Fantasy of Flight is a Mecca for aviation enthusiasts. Don’t miss it while visiting Central Florida’s many vacation offerings.
Lakeland may be a transportation hub but don’t just transit through, pull off I-4 and discover historical architecture and aviation in central Florida. Interested in more aviation history, you can find many aviation related stories on Roadrunner Journeys. You might like some aviation videos on my YouTube channel too.