At 71, the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright agreed to design a little Central Florida college. The rest is architectural history.

By Robert Plunket

The first time I visited the Frank Lloyd Wright campus of Florida Southern College in Lakeland, I had a déjà vu feeling. Had I been here before? Why was it speaking so strongly to me? Then, as clouds rolled over the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel and a very large lizard ran across the covered esplanade, it hit me. This was the set of a Flash Gordon movie.

Those dramatic intergalactic adventures, mostly made around 1940, were staples of after-school TV back in the 1950s, and I watched them over and over. Buster Crabbe went to Mars to battle Ming the Merciless. And here it was, come to life. The futuristic modern buildings, the dramatic angles, the sometimes bizarre art deco—or is it Aztec? Mayan?—ornamentation. It was a 1940s idea of what the future would look like, right here in Lakeland. Great architecture at its wackiest.

Let me say I love it. Aside from the Flash Gordon connection, Florida Southern is full of beautiful architecture. It’s also full of follies and misunderstandings and overthought ideas that don’t quite work. The campus is not considered must-see Wright, like Fallingwater and the Guggenheim, but that is starting to change as people realize what a pleasure it is. The architect’s entire career lies before you, with references to all the styles he used over the years. Wright intended this to be his “Florida Form,” his tropical version of his famous prairie house. But he misunderstood our state’s tricky ecological requirements. When a hurricane blew the chapel’s tower down in 1944, he professed to be astonished. No one had told him, he said, that Florida was located in the “hurricane belt.”

Florida Southern not only looks like a movie set. It has a backstory that sounds like one of those 1940s movies about college life. The charismatic college president with a terrible tragedy in his past (his son died from a rabid dog bite) convinces the world’s most famous architect (who has a tragedy of his own) to design a new campus in the middle of nowhere, a little town in rural central Florida. Drama ensues—scheming, rivalry, financial trouble, a world war. Yet genuine affection develops between the two men. There’s even a comic interlude with a beautiful society woman. And best of all, the students get to—or are forced to—build the college themselves. Even the girls.

The president was Ludd Spivey, a legend of Florida higher education. (He also founded Ringling College, today a highly regarded art school in Sarasota.) Spivey was both a Methodist pastor and an academic, with two postgraduate degrees from the University of Chicago. He believed that science coexists with religion and that stories in the Bible are not literally true but there to teach us lessons. As he began his career back in his native Alabama, this was a liberal attitude. For a while he was a controversial character and was even brought up on charges of heresy by the Methodist hierarchy. But he had a compelling personality and boundless energy and ambition.

Fate and a series of teaching jobs led Spivey to take the helm of Florida Southern in 1925. The school had a rocky history. Founded in 1852, the same year Florida became a state, it moved from town to town, depending on the vagaries of its finances and the number of students it could attract. The college moved to Lakeland in 1921, and when Spivey took over, it consisted of two buildings and around 150 students.

Spivey knew how to fundraise, and fundraising became his life. He struck a deal with a famous evangelist to promote the school and hired an architect from Bartow to create drawings of some college buildings. The evangelist’s famous name worked, and money started coming in. Central Florida was full of citrus barons and local boosters, and Spivey’s vision appealed to them.

That vision, combining Christianity with democracy, was hard to argue with. But those buildings the Bartow architect designed were awful. Ill-proportioned and overornamented, they were provincial and amateurish. So in 1938, with the bravado that characterizes great thinkers—and great fundraisers—Spivey sent the most famous architect in the world a telegram: “Desire conference with you concerning plans for great educational temple in Florida.”

Wright responded immediately. He rarely turned down a job and had even designed a gas station just for the money. Here was a whole college. It was a perfect job for him. He was a pedagogue by nature, famous for telling people what to do, how to do it, and what they were doing wrong. Theories about all sorts of things filled his mind. He advocated natural forms and organic solutions. He passionately hated certain things, odd things like the dome of St Peter’s. He could be a wise sage or an old windbag, depending on his mood and his audience.

He even had his own look. A suit (often made of velvet) with the cuffs of the pants drawn in (like harem pants)—subtle but noticeable, as was the mink collar of the overcoat always worn cape-like over his shoulders. On his head was a pork pie hat, and that cane he carried was used not for balance but to point and gesture. A major celebrity, he was always in the news, sometimes for his incredible designs (a mile-high skyscraper, never built) and sometimes for his scandalous personal life.

His first wife bore him six children, all the while forced to endure the stories of his womanizing. In 1909, Wright fell in love with Mamah Cheney, the wife of a client; they ran off to Europe together, a scandal that cost him a job designing an estate for Henry Ford. The couple returned several years later after the scandal died down and set up house in a sprawling home/studio in Taliesin, Wisconsin. The neighbors frowned on the arrangement, but a bizarre episode ended the idyll. A disgruntled servant went berserk and murdered Memah, her two children and four other employees, and then set Taliesin on fire. The publicity was enormous, and Wright was devastated.

Wright had always been attracted to dynamic women he believed to be his intellectual equal; and in 1924, he met his match and then some. Her name was Olgivanna Hinzenberg, and she was the estranged Montenegrin wife of a man she had met while living in Russia. She became Wright’s helpmate, buffer, agent, saleswoman, business partner and fiercest defender. Olgivanna was a follower of spiritual guru George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, and the couple developed a lifestyle that included mysticism, the occult and above all, reverence for nature.

The intimate William H. Danforth Chapel, built 1954-55 (upper left); in the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, no seat is more than 50 feet away from the sanctuary (lower left and upper right); the Esplanade covered walkway, more than a mile long, connects most of the Wright buildings (bottom right).

After receiving Spivey’s telegram, the 70-year-old Wright got to work. He traveled to Lakeland, where he was first subjected to a civic luncheon while Spivey showed off his latest acquisition to 300 of Lakeland’s movers and shakers. Then he spent three days walking the campus, a 67-acre citrus grove that sloped gently down an 80-foot hill to Lake Hollingsworth and was home to some 250 students.

In a sense, Wright had already designed a college. In the early 1930s, when his career was stalled, he and Olgivanna turned Taliesin into something they called a Fellowship. They accepted students, charged tuition, taught them things and had them work, not just doing architectural drawings but fixing the chicken coop as well. They all lived together, ate together and socialized in the evening, when Wright would often play Beethoven on the grand piano.

Olgivanna was in her element at the Fellowship, and she made certain that the spirituality of her guru, Gurdjieff, was a part of everyday life. Some critics have called Taliesen a cult, a band of true believers worshiping the genius of Wright. It’s clear that the Wrights saw it as a source of income, sometimes a major source. Famed architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it a “shameless scam,” but many young architects, despite being assigned to peel potatoes upon their arrival, achieved great success after studying at the Fellowship.

The Fellowship also gave Wright firsthand theories about what an education should be, and thankfully, these meshed with Spivey’s. Both men might be described as romantic humanists, in the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was an archetypal American way of thinking, rejecting the rigid strictures and institutional wisdom of Europe. Spirituality came from the inside, not from organized religion. The individual has immense power, and human beings are one with nature and must respect it always.

The E.T. Roux Library, now the administration building, was Wright's first circular building.

There was another exciting challenge to the project. Wright had never designed a group of buildings that were part of a larger whole, and here, finally, was his chance. After studying the land, he came up with a series of “esplanades”—covered outdoor walkways—that lead from one building to another. They are set at 30- and 60-degree angles, and together with the buildings they connect what might be described as an enormous geometric Swiss watch of angles and movements, with a circle here and there.

He also saw the campus as his chance to find his Florida Form. The famous Prairie House mimics the prairie itself and was made from local materials. What was the Florida equivalent? Wright was convinced it had nothing to do with Spanish colonial architecture. That was imported and had all disappeared, anyway. For Wright, Florida was a blank slate.

Like the prairie, he saw it in terms of nature. Florida was full of sunlight and beautiful flowers and plants. The whole place was a garden, brought alive by water. Florida architecture must have those elements.

Wright’s plan for Florida Southern had 18 buildings. (Thirteen were eventually built.) Although they appear large from a distance, they are, in fact, quite small in scale. Aside from the two chapels, they cling to the land unobtrusively. Stylistically they are a conglomeration of motifs and ideas Wright used throughout his career. He always insisted on indigenous building materials. Here he specified the buildings would be constructed of concrete blocks made of local sand. The blocks were textured in a way that suggested his great Mayan-inspired homes of Los Angeles in the 1920s. Strong horizontal lines dominate the campus, reinforced by the esplanades that cross and crisscross. The design is anything but institutional. The architect described it as “delightfully informal” and insisted that a special classroom be set aside to teach flower arranging.

The building of the campus became a saga that lasted until both men died (Wright in 1959 and Spivey in 1962). The process of constructing the campus has been the subject of at least one book, the excellent Frank Lloyd Wright’s Florida Southern College by Dale Allen Gyure. One building—perhaps the most interesting—wasn’t completed until 2013. Over the years, all sorts of things went wrong. The Depression caused fundraising to crater, then World War II created supply and labor issues. Students were required to pitch in with the actual construction—sometimes in exchange for academic credit—and the manpower shortage during the war years meant that several of the buildings had female construction crews.

To their credit, neither man ever faltered, although at times their close relationship was strained by arguments about money. Wright wrote continuously, begging, then demanding payment for services, with Spivey replying with one excuse after another. Then, in 1942, it looked like an angel had appeared.

Her name was Eleanor Searle Whitney. A doctor’s daughter from a small town in Ohio, she attended Florida Southern for one year studying music, then moved to New York to find fame and fortune. She did exactly that when she became the third wife of Cornelius “Sonny” Vanderbilt Whitney. Sonny’s lineage was impressive; he was not only a Vanderbilt but a descendant of Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin, as well. He was a newsworthy fellow, and not just as one of the wealthiest men in the country. He was cofounder of Pan American Airways and Under Secretary of Commerce under President Harry S. Truman. His race horses were famous and so was his polo playing.

One can picture Ludd Spivey’s eyes lighting up with dollar signs when he heard that Sonny’s wife might become a patron. The news couldn’t have come at a better time. Things were so bad the students were paying tuition with chickens. Fortunately, the new Mrs. Whitney had the fondest memories of her college days and talks began about an art and music building. It was going to be magnificent, and by far the largest building on campus. As she had been a performer before her marriage, Eleanor had insights into how theaters worked and indicated she would give advice and suggestions.

It’s hard to say who was Wright’s worst client, but Eleanor Whitney is a possibility. She was not unkind; in fact, she was sweet and thoughtful and ended up a beloved philanthropist in Houston, where she lived with her second husband, a Texas oilman. But she and Wright clashed on issue after issue. He wanted a round stage, she wanted a regular proscenium. Wright felt actors should be right in the middle of the audience. She was appalled by the idea. Then, when she discovered he had made no provision for footlights, she started going over the drawings very carefully indeed, even sending them to friends in the theater to solicit their opinion. Among the recipients: Hollywood producer Mike Todd, Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband.

Wright was frustrated and trapped. Eleanor kept sending him notes, and it soon became clear that there were two conflicting points of view. Wright wanted a smaller, more flexible theater. Eleanor wanted—as Wright put it caustically—“an opera house” that could host Broadway shows. Spivey frantically tried to mediate the fight and Wright did his damnedest to make their potential patron happy. After a year of arguing, Mrs. Whitney gave birth to her first child and the project died.

Spivey tried again several years later. This time he proposed an even larger project, a sort of arts center named after Sonny’s mother, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the New York City’s Whitney Museum and a noted artist herself. The building Wright designed is much more monumental than anything on campus, a beautiful arrangement of shapes and curves along a strong horizontal line. But once again, Spivey couldn’t close the deal. While the Whitneys remained friends of the school (Sonny even served on the board), their financial support never happened.

A tour of Florida Southern today is an illuminating if mixed delight. The campus has many idiosyncrasies. The famous esplanades are surprisingly low. You wonder how the basketball players can walk under them. Sandbags block the doors of the Ordway building. “For the hurricane?” you ask the student guide. “No. For the everyday rain.” Many of the celebrated—and quite beautiful—concrete blocks are disintegrating. Wright’s attempts to let in the sun were so successful that the windows and skylights had to be glazed over because the rooms got so hot that you couldn’t stay in them more than 20 minutes. And the poor Polk County Science building. This is where the chemistry labs are located, and the ventilation was so bad that the students kept passing out from the fumes. Hence the extremely ugly and huge metal appurtenance put on the roof by order of the department of health.

Frank Lloyd Wright circa 1940.

The campus’ signature building, the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, is a little disappointing. The architect was the master of the horizontal, but he was never his best with verticals, and the chapel is a confusing assemblage of glass and stone. Perhaps to atone for this, Wright built a second chapel right next door, and it is much more successful: a little gem that seats just 75, with a bold stained-glass window. Wright was famous for his stained glass; this was his last piece.

Other moments of beauty can be found at every turn. The administration building is small in scale but has perfect proportions and a delightful little pool of water. Many of the concrete blocks used all over the campus are set with pieces of colored glass, so the walls light up as if sparkling with tiny jewels. The famous water dome, a large circular fountain, was designed to shoot spires of water to create a dome like the despised St. Peter’s—but a dome of liquid rather than stone. Unfortunately, it uses so much water—Florida’s most important natural resource—that it is rarely turned on and never for more than a moment or two. On graduation day the students are allowed to jump in and splash around, something that would cost them a $10,000 fine on any other day.

Perhaps the most interesting building is the one you would least expect. To provide faculty housing, Wright designed a version of his famous Usonian house, a small home for the average American family. There were plans to build 20 of them, but with more important things to do, it never happened. Not until 2013, that is, when one was constructed from Wright’s original plans as part of the visitors’ center.

Walking into it is a revelation. After all the decaying concrete and grandiose Emersonian ideas, we find ourselves in a home designed by a master architect, and the effect is magical. A wall of windows brings nature inside, and the interior—all wood—is calming and cozy. The living area is an early example of an open-concept plan, with a fireplace, dining area, and several seating areas. Built-ins are everywhere, and shelves run along walls, displaying Wright’s genius for composition.

Wright never quite found his Florida Form. But he tried his best, and the campus is finally getting the notice it deserves. It now occupies a place on various lists of “most beautiful college campuses” in the country, and for students of architecture it’s an invaluable catalog raisonne of Wright’s styles and ideas. And I have a feeling I’m not the only aging boomer for whom it will reawaken memories of Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless chasing each other with snub-nosed ray guns down the endless esplanades, fighting for control of the universe.

Robert Plunket writes frequently about Florida history and architecture. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic and Barrons. His novel My Search for Warren Harding will be reissued by New Directions Publishing this year.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.