One of the oldest colleges in the state is also one of the most architecturally important campuses in the world.
Originally known as the South Florida Institute, Florida Southern College (FSC) says in its literature that it’s the “oldest private comprehensive college in Florida”. Established in 1883, the small college has an enrollment of about 3000 students as of 2020. Currently located near downtown Lakeland, it’s been there since 1922, however the campus moved several times around central Florida in its first 40 years.
Most college campuses aren’t tourist attractions. Yes, they often have a museum or historic monuments, but typically the campus itself doesn’t draw visitors outside of those directly interested in the college. FSC is a remarkable exception.
Ludd Myrl Spivey (1886-1962) was president of FSC from 1925 to 1957. It was under his presidency that FSC would become a nationally-recognized college. Spivey had the dream of making the small, rural campus world-famous. He would do that by working with the most famous architect of the time, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Spivey was born in Eclectic, Alabama. He graduated from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D., and would be the head of FSC for more than a quarter of a century. Spivey would also go on to found the art school that later became the Ringling College of Art and Design.
Spivey invited Wright to the college in 1938. Wright toured the campus, which at the time was a collection of red brick buildings and a fair amount of orange trees. Wright recollected that during the tour he envisioned his buildings “rising out of the ground, and into the light, a child of the sun.” Spivey secured the funding and by the next year, Wright’s Child of the Sun campus was being built. Wright would go on to design twelve buildings that were built for the college, making it the largest collection of Wright buildings in the world. Interestingly, even among fans of Wright’s work, the FSC collection isn’t that well known.
The buildings, while all being part of his extensive overall plan, are actually quite different, especially since they serve different functions. They include administrative offices, a library, classrooms, chapels, common rooms and even a theater.
Wright used both materials he had previously used as well as ones that were experimental for the project. Several of the buildings are large, nearly equal in size to some of the commercial buildings he had designed previously. Wright was a founder of the organic architecture movement and FSC is an important example of that. The buildings fit into the natural environment and appear to grow out of the sandy soil. Covered walkways, known as esplanades, are low to the ground (taller students argue they too low). Connecting the buildings to each other, they both give the impression of connecting buildings as well as allowing the buildings to be the primary focus.
The project took 20 years to complete, with Wright dying shortly before the final building – the Polk County Science Building – was opened. Another of his most important works – the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was also completed that year.
In 2012, the Florida Southern College Historic District was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Tours of the campus are available. In fact, there are usually several different tours offered, including a basic one hour tour, a more in-depth two hour tour, a behind-the-scenes tour and a campus by night tour. Tours are led out of the Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center. The Sharp Center provides a home for a permanent display of photographs, furniture, and drawings depicting Wright’s relationship with the college. They also have a nice gift shop. The Sharp Center is located across the street from the main campus.
Obviously, a tour of Wright’s architecture isn’t for everyone, but FSC is as beautiful a campus as any and the stories behind the buildings are interesting. It’s a highly important part of Florida tourism history.