Restoring a Campus-Full of Frank Lloyd Wright Florida Southern College is home to the largest collection on a single site of buildings designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. But the 12 buildings and covered walkways are crumbling, and the college has embarked on a long and expensive project to save them.
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Restoring a Campus-Full of Frank Lloyd Wright

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Restoring a Campus-Full of Frank Lloyd Wright

Restoring a Campus-Full of Frank Lloyd Wright

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From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Florida Southern College has the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the world. The Lakeland, Florida, campus has 12 buildings designed by the famous architect, all built in the 1940s and 1950s. Recently, the World Monuments Fund put the buildings on its list of 100 most endangered sites worldwide. The problems include the nature of the materials, concrete mixed with sand and shells; the workmanship, students did much of the labor; and the lack of funds for maintenance.

As NPR's Greg Allen reports, the university is now undertaking the beginning of what's expected to be a $50 million restoration project.

GREG ALLEN: Even before Frank Lloyd Wright began work here, Florida Southern College had a beautiful campus. A private Methodist college 35 miles east of Tampa, it was situated in an orange grove overlooking a picturesque lake.

NORRIS: desire conference with you concerning plans for great education temple in Florida.

Wright embraced the challenge and drew up a master plan - a complex of 18 buildings built around a central spectacular fountain and connected by a network of covered walkways, an esplanade.

In 1950, when he was on campus to receive an honorary doctorate, Wright said Florida Southern represented what he called a new type of American organic architecture.

FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT: So here on this little campus, your Dr. Spivey has planted a little green shoot in the realm of the spirit, something that is true to itself, something that is true to mankind, something that insists upon integrity.

ALLEN: Today, there are still orange trees scattered across the Florida Southern campus. And once again, the bucolic scene is interrupted by the sound of construction. Workers are pouring concrete to restore the basin of Wright's huge fountain, something he called the water dome.

JEFF BAKER: It's a perfect circle in plan, 160 feet across. And it will have nozzles all the way around its perimeter, shooting water about 45 feet in the air to create the appearance of a dome of water.

ALLEN: Jeff Baker is an architect who specializes in restoring historic buildings, especially on college campuses. He's preparing a plan for the restoration of all the Wright buildings here at Florida Southern, including elements like the water dome, a never really fulfilled Wright's vision. It was completed in 1948, but the lack of water pressure kept the water dome from ever really working. Now after installing new plumbing and pumps and restoring the fountain, Baker says the water dome will finally operate as Wright envisioned, at least, he hopes so.

BAKER: Well, I've seen one of the nozzles fired off in a test firing away from this site. And all I can say is, it's going to be really incredible to imagine about 75 of these things shooting at the same time. I think it's the largest dome of water anywhere in the world. And I think it's just going to be mind- blowing.

ALLEN: Just next to the water dome is another set of Wright buildings, the seminars, they're called, completed in 1941. These buildings and some others designed by Wright were largely built by Florida Southern students, many of whom worked as laborers in lieu of tuition.

Because of that sometimes-erratic workmanship and Wright's brilliant but not always practical design, Baker says the buildings have not aged well.

BAKER: No, I can pull apart this wall with my hands.

ALLEN: It's a wall in which many of the 3-foot-long cast concrete blocks - textile blocks, Wright called them - are literally crumbling.

BAKER: The reinforcing bars, as you can see here, are completely deteriorated. They're almost nonexistent in many parts. And so this entire outer veneer of block is disintegrated.

ALLEN: And what was the problem here? Was it the actual building material itself or what?

BAKER: It's the combination of some very soft mix of the mortar for the blocks and the fact that the mortar that held the blocks together didn't completely cover over the reinforcing bars. And the bars just rusted over the years.

ALLEN: The uniqueness of the Wright collection of buildings at Florida Southern, and their deteriorating state, recently drew the attention of the World Monument Fund. It monitors important architectural and cultural sites around the world, and put the college's Wright buildings on its list of the world's 100 most endangered sites.

Florida Southern's president, Anne Kerr, hopes the recognition will help the college in its drive to restore the Wright buildings, an effort that's expected to cost some $50 million.

ANNE KERR: That's a big number, very big number. But when you think that the greatest American-born architect's work is here, and that this is such an invaluable treasure, not only for our nation but the world, you know, then $50 million comes into better perspective.

ALLEN: To begin the restoration, Florida Southern has already received grants from the state of Florida and the Getty Foundation. Those grants have already allowed the college to restore a major component of Frank Lloyd Wright's design - the one and a half mile-long esplanade. It's a structure, says architect Jeff Baker, that's as impressive as the buildings themselves.

BAKER: In fact, Frank Lloyd Wright described this campus, at one point, as a series of esplanades that occasionally become buildings. And this is essentially the way he conceived this. And originally, when he conceived this campus, there were a series of orange groves here. And the whole notion was that these esplanades would be slicing through the orange groves. And eventually, you'd just come upon a building.

ALLEN: In all, 12 structures were built here by the time of Wright's death in 1959. Drawings exist for another six buildings that were never undertaken. After Wright died and Florida Southern's President Ludd Spivey retired, Jim Rogers says ill will between Wright's estate and the new college administration over money effectively ended the decades-long building project.

Rogers, a professor of art and architecture history at Florida Southern, says the campus was the product of a vision shared by Wright and Spivey. Letters between the two men show that many details, including billing, were things they handled personally.

JIM ROGERS: You know, in one of them, Wright is writing back to Spivey, who sent him $500 or something like that. And Wright says, thanks for the widow's might. In another one, Spivey sends $250 to Wright and says, you keep demanding money and this is all I could get. And I took this out of the faculty salary pool. So...

ALLEN: In the years after they were completed, Florida Southern made changes to the Wright buildings dictated by the college's needs and the changing times. Air-conditioning was added. The old library was converted into offices. The science building was modernized. And big ventilation ducts now dominate the old roofline.

Jeff Baker says as part of the restoration process, Florida Southern has some tough decisions ahead about how much of Wright's original vision it can still accommodate. Baker has done similar work on other historic campuses, including William Mary and the University of Virginia. He puts Florida Southern's campus in that same category.

BAKER: As time moves on, this is going to be seen in the same light as the University of Virginia and Thomas Jefferson's campus up there. Thinking in terms of hundreds of years, this will be - considered to be one of our most precious sites. And, you know, Frank Lloyd Wright was a genius who comes around maybe once in 500 years, a mind like that.

ALLEN: College officials say restoring Frank Lloyd Wright's legacy at Florida Southern is an effort expected to take a decade or more. They'll be celebrating the first phase - the premiere of Wright's water dome - on the campus in Lakeland later this month.

Greg Allen, NPR News.

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