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Florida Southern College Begins Large-Scale Restoration of Wright Campus

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All photos © Wayne E. Koehler

Frank Lloyd Wright classics are a mainstay at Florida Southern College. Twelve geometrical structures stand at this largest single-site collection of his works. Their exteriors dazzle with colored glass, and daylight floods their interiors—although budget restrictions have caused the historic structures to lose their luster.

Now, Florida Southern president Ann Kerr is leading the charge to restore Wright’s designs, and even complete some plans the college couldn’t afford to implement during the school’s original 1939–1958 construction.

“One of the most wonderful aspects of Wright’s work is his use of indigenous materials. Here he used sandstone and coquina shells to create cement blocks to build the facilities, but these porous materials resulted in water damage in all the buildings,” Kerr explains. The bricks have been maligned by a slapdash caulking job to prevent water from seeping into the structures. Modern adaptations, such as air-conditioning and extra bathroom facilities, have been unkindly retrofitted atop building shells.

Restoring the facilities to endure Florida’s harsh weather and introducing amenities without destroying Wright’s aesthetics are two key challenges outlined in the master plan to restore the buildings and landscapes. The Getty Foundation has bestowed the school with a $195,000 Campus Heritage Grant to complete that outline. Kerr has said that the restoration work itself may ultimately cost $50 million.

While government and foundation grants and private gifts will fund work once the scope is determined, the college has already received $1.6 million from the state of Florida to restore Wright’s esplanades as well as $700,000 in public and private funds to restore the Water Dome. The esplanades, a 1.5-mile network of concrete walkways that resemble abstract trees, are cracked with sagging roofs, and the iron supports are rusted. The Water Dome, designed as a centerpiece of the campus in 1948, was originally supposed to shoot water approximately 75 feet into the air to form a hemispherical, 160-foot-diameter dome of water; anecdotal evidence suggests the feature never operated properly for an extended period.

The challenge is balancing Wright’s design with recent building codes and technologies, says Jeff Baker, a preservation architect hired to help restore the two elements. “Wright was so far ahead of his time that he was often ahead of the technologies of the day. Fifty years later, the technologies, materials, and systems are catching up to him.”

For the esplanades, for example, new expansion joints will “mimic Wright’s expansion joints in appearance but will outperform the original materials and assemblies,” while the original surface color will be restored. With the Water Dome, Baker and two companies are using computer modeling and mockups to prepare the jets to flow properly.

Florida Southern is also investing $10 million to hire Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA, to design a new set of buildings that complement Wright’s original designs. Stern has said that the buildings, which include a series of three dormitories that are Y-shape in plan and a humanities building, will honor Wright’s intentions.

Response to the pending overhaul has been overwhelmingly positive, according to a representative of the college. Jose Gelabert-Navia, managing director of the Miami office of Perkins+Will, says complete restoration of Florida Southern is paramount to the history of architecture because “this gives us an idea of what Wright would have envisioned if he had a chance to design a sustainable city. His ideas are worth preserving.”

Jennifer LeClaire