Tour the Frank Lloyd Wright Campus in Lakeland

Child of the Sun – Frank Lloyd Wright Campus, Florida Southern College | Lakeland

The trip to Lakeland for regular visits with my Grandpa may only be an hour drive, but even an hour can become monotonous. Adding nifty spots, vittles, and pastimes can add value to the trip. Casually aware of a connection to Frank Lloyd Wright, I investigated and learned that he designed the FSC campus; I immediately planned a visit to coincide with our next trip into town.

Not that there’s anything more valuable than the quality time spent by a boy and his Grandpa. Still, this li’l slugger was hunting for something new to do in Lakeland. We found it and enjoyed a self-guided tour of the campus wherein we marveled at the singular and bold architecture of one of America’s most iconic architects.


Catch the Mist, Catch the myth

I’ve already written about my appreciation for Circle B Bar Reserve. Besides that, all I really know of Lakeland is its namesake bodies of water (38 are named), that Publix Grocery Stores started in neighboring Winter Haven, and that it is home to the shopping center from Edward Scissorhands. Other than those thrilling details, the entire region is a dull haze of mystery to me.

Streets signs throughout town mention Frank Lloyd Wright. Intrigued, I looked into the Wright / Lakeland connection. The interwebs told me that the Florida Southern College the world’s largest single-site collection of Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings. Titled Child of the Sun, the Wright-designed campus of 13 buildings was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2012.

I am only superficially aware of Wright’s style and design philosophy and familiar with only his most famous works. I’ve been inside the Guggenheim, but sadly, I‘ve never visited Fallingwater despite having lived only hours from the site for almost twenty years. That aside, his style has always appealed to me and I’m keen to see and learn more.

The college offers several guided tours starting at $20, but a self-guided tour map is available for $5.00 at the Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center gift shop. At less than the price of a pint of Guinness, it seemed silly not to choose the self-guided option for our first visit.

Catch the Mystery

Truth be told, I did very little research into Wright or the campus other than the where, the when, and the how much. Hey, I don’t need to know what was on Botticelli’s mind to know naked ladies look nice standing on massive seashells.

As do fully clothed old men on plinths…in pools of melted—OMG. FLW was a T2000. His farsighted vision makes so much sense now.

This was to be trial run. The goal was frugal, fast, and fulfilling. Something that could be enjoyed when short on time and money but that was worth seeing; like a layover trip

“I’ve got one hour and five bucks, what will that get me?”

“Well, it will get you a map and a walk around the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright designed structures in the World.”


FSC Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center and GEICO Gift Shop
840 Johnson Avenue
Lakeland, FL 33801
Telephone: (863) 680-4597
Hours: Sunday to Saturday – 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

catch the Drift

I punched the coordinates for the Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center into the pocket computer and made our way into Polk County. We found parking along a residential street within view of the newly constructed Usonian house. It was a striking building and even if you were ostensibly unaware of Wright’s architecture, you’d likely recognize the style.

We approached the gift shop, a charming bungalow which we later learned to be an original Sears Roebuck kit house. It was unrelated to Wright but did graze Wright’s conceptual flanks via the modular kit concept and arts and crafts style.

Inside, we were greeted enthusiastically by the staff. A young woman rang us up for a self-guided tour map at $5 and gave us a brief overview with a recommendation on where to start and a general path. We then thanked her and the rest of the exuberant staff, glossed over the shop wares and set off.

Map in hand, I commenced snapping pics and we crossed the street to the campus proper and the first Wright building.

The Space He Invades
The Roux Library

Actually, the library could be seen from the gift shop but honestly, from the street, I did not recognize it as a Wright design. I’m more familiar with his Prairie School designs (though the Guggenheim does not share that aesthetic) and I had similar features in mind when approaching the campus.

This tour would be my formal introduction to Frank Lloyd Wright’s urban planning ethos. Even so, his core concepts found in more familiar works were present: organic, mass, bands of windows, concrete textile blocks, slab roofs, projecting eaves, balconies, plate glass—all words I picked up while skating over the internet. I have a vague idea of what’s going on.

The Esplanades

A key feature of the Child of the Sun campus is the Esplanades. These covered pathways incorporated Wright’s concepts into a 1.5 mile covered, terraced, meandering path. They shaded pedestrians from the scorching Florida sun in geometric style and are the rug that ties the whole room together.

Euclidean voids and collaborative shrubbery permit the sunrays to enter at various angles consequently mixing abstract light and shadow that interrupts the rigid lines. Copper accents trim the stacked slabs in triangular keys of turquoise and brown. To my mind, there is a hint of art-deco woven into Wright’s organic designs.

I felt like I was on set of Star Wars or Logans’ Run. There was a definite sense of the futuristic or otherworldly, at least from a twentieth-century aspect. I expected to meet people in flowing robes of earth tones wearing weighty metallic medallions around every irregular corner.

Around one of these corners, as I was photographing an alcove fountain, we were greeted by a staff member. She wore a contemporary pantsuit, no medallions. And she offered some fantastic information and advice for enjoying the tour of the Wright buildings. We were impressed to meet someone so spirited by their place of employment and were very grateful for her outgoing help to we strangers roaming the campus.

The Water Dome

Water Dome Operation Hours
Sunday – Monday
9:45 a.m – 11:30 a.m
12:30 p.m. – 2:00 p.m.
2:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.
4:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.

A centerpiece of the campus is the Waterdome—the eye in the cycloptic face of the Child of the Sun. Wright’s intended feature of the massive circular fountain relied upon a water pump technology not then up to the task of realizing the desired result. He never had the opportunity to see the fountain actually operate as he conceived it. Neither did we.

The college eventually replaced the pumps with modern devices capable of fulfilling the vision, but they seemed to be on a low-energy setting during our presence (2:25 p.m – 2:45 p.m.). Either that or our imagination was grander than Wright’s vision. It was less “dome” and more “ring of arching water jets.” The experience was only slightly disappointing. The landscape was impressive and the fountain was attractive as it was.

There go those preconceived notions thwarting my fun, again.

Thad Buckner Building

The Buckner Building was the original E.T. Roux Library. Hmm. Maybe I was wrong about the other Roux Library. It might not be a Wright design after all.

It wasn’t. It was designed by Wright’s protege Nils Schweizer. But the Thad Buckner Building is all Wright.

The Annie Pfeiffer Chapel

Pfeiffer Chapel is to my view, the most Wrightian of the campus structures. While the water dome may be the centerpiece, the Pfeiffer Chapel is the crowning jewel. Seeming more temple to the architect’s vision than chapel, it contains the basic elements with which this most cursory fan of the architect is familiar: organic harmony, low, sprawling, slabs, bands of windows, projecting roofs, balconies, mass, interlocking textile blocks, terraces, geometric, Cherokee red, etc.

I could go on naming things I know very little about. Suffice it to say, the chapel is stunning. Its design and position mid-slope of the hill above Lake Hollingsworth gives singular visual enjoyment from practically every position around it. Consequently, no two places on campus give the same image, no matter the distance between. A step to the right reveals a new shadow, a step to the left reveals a new highlight; the silhouette morphs against the azure sky. I thought it both beautiful and ugly at the same time.

It is said Wright named the campus for his vision of the new constructions that would appear to “grow out of the ground and into the light, a child of the sun.” Though I cannot find online an original quote of Wright making this statement in any context. I feel the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel reflects this image more than any of the other buildings.

Inside the chapel strikes me as institutional. Like a military barracks or an old Catholic bingo hall. The acoustics are grand and we tested them by my orating nonsense while Christa moved about the empty pews. There was a distinct odor of moldering concrete. Florida weather isn’t great for early twentieth century concrete recipes. Though Wright considered energy when designing his structures, he may have underestimated Florida’s climate.

The William H. Danforth Chapel

Just next door was the Danforth Chapel. This structure was, to me, both more Prairie-like in the wood fitments and as a Chapel more traditional in general appearance. There was even a small pipe organ. Outside, depending on your aspect, the structure had an almost futuristic appeal, The projecting roof peaked like the Flying Nun’s habit [ask your parents…Your parent’s parents]. It went well with the Logan’s Ru—Er, Guardians of the Galaxy Xandar-like aesthetic of the Esplanade.

Polk County Science Building

Earlier, our friendly liaison informed us that the Polk County Science Building featured the only planetarium ever designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. At her suggestion, I looked across the campus to see it stretching toward the lake. It existed in my view as the white head of a concrete and ductwork caterpillar.

The Ordway Building

The last stage was a walk across the campus to see the Ordway Building, the last limb of the Child of the Sun. By this time it was kind of just more of the same: mass, slabs, bands of windows, balconies…Do I smell burgers?

The Friction of the Day

The sun and humidity had us sweating sopping wet through our clothes (wish I had that Guinness now) so we decided to call it a day. Hungry from having delayed lunch, we thought we’d saunter back to a food kiosk in the campus mall.

The smell of grilled meats was filling the air and we both agreed we could eat a hot dog and sip a cold soda. At the window, we ordered our dogs and drinks from the friendly attendant, but when I pulled a twenty from my pocket, she apologized and informed us that “today,” they were only accepting points or meal cards. Our tough luck. Oh, well. Back to the car.

I Yelped and found a deli where we headed to cool off and refuel. The banh mi was tasty and the salad was delicious with a lip-smacking strawberry vinaigrette. Christa’s melt looked as good as she said it was. Clearly, enjoyed our food and would happily return to Black & Brew.

The Energy We Trade

Next, we headed to G-pa’s and had a nice visit. When I called from the campus he informed me that a fault from their solar panel installations knocked out half of their circuits. At the moment, he warned, they were sweltering with no air conditioning. “No worries,” I said. We were already drenched for the occasion.

I drained half a gallon of Wawa iced tea as we sat chatting on the couch in the relatively cool concrete rancher (cool considering it was 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity outside). It then crossed my mind that this very structure owes its design in part to Frank Lloyd Wright. His Usonian house design was a precursor to the ranch-style architecture. His concepts involved low height, concrete block construction, single-stories, and basement-less slab foundations.

Wright’s vision for the use of concrete as a thermal mass combined with short, wide, under-eave windows led indirectly to the typical Florida tract home. And now that the air conditioner was off, but we were not sweating buckets (even with doors and windows closed) I had to give a silent thanks to the man for his contribution to my comfort.

A Mean, Mean Ride

Ah, the return trip. We certainly got more out of our drive to Lakeland this day. Now for the hour drive back.

The trip home has always been the downside to any travels I make. The travel out is fun and adventurous, the travel back is dull and monotonous. It’s my personal dilemma: I love to travel, but I hate the trip home.

There’s probably something there psychologically, but any professional analysis would likely result in my becoming the next Johnny Appleseed and I don’t have the right head-shape for a saucepan. So I’ll not be seeking a specialist any time soon.

I jumped on I-4 for as rapid a return possible. We chatted along the way about various parts of the day and were discussing DNA when I realized I yammered my way past my exit. Our hour-long drive home just got extended. I took the next exit and risked getting lost on the unknown path.

No worries, we made it home fine and without much loss of time. But I did discover another spot for vittles: Hungry Henry’s BBQ. It looked like a perfect vittles shack, though I already had my fave. I’ll give it a try the next time I go to Hillsborough County Park. Stay tuned for a review, someday.

Skies Are Wide

Lakeland certainly has more to offer than just Circle B Bar Reserve and restaurants. The Frank Lloyd Wright buildings of Child of the Sun were impressive and made for an enjoyable outdoor stroll. I certainly recommend a trip; bring water and comfortable shoes. Maybe skip the really hot days.

The college recently completed construction of a Usonian house, designed by Wright as on-campus faculty housing, which acts as a museum and offers tours for $7. We’ll return for that on another pass-through. That self-guided tour really whetted my appetite for more Wright.

This was an enlightening experience. As I said, my only real conception of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work was Fallingwater and the Guggenheim. To see other actual structures in practical use settings and with differing but related design aesthetics was an enjoyable lesson. 

I had not known of his interest and attempts at community and urban design planning. While I’m not a fan of central planning per se, I am interested in the design concepts and philosophies. Whether his artistic and aesthetic whims clouded practical reasoning is debatable but there is certainly no argument that he was a singular visionary.

What was also interesting to me was the way the buildings have reacted to the elements. Concrete recipes have evolved over the years since Child of the Sun was constructed. Modern formulas have been designed that withstand the forces of nature, the effects of which are starkly apparent on the campus.

Moisture and freezing have caused cracks, crumbling, and popping all over the buildings and esplanade. Restorations are ongoing, but I imagine it’s a race against time with limited funds against an exponential decay. It’s a commitment for which I commend the College staff.

Always Hopeful Yet Discontent

The trip to Lakeland is a long drive. But our hunt for nifty spots, vittles, and pastimes resulted in a treasure that made the trip more valuable.  And now I have more to research in order to sate my newfound curiosity, such as Wright’s Usonia ideas.

The campus was beautiful and we enjoyed our stroll among the artistic dwellings which do indeed seem to emerge from the soil in harmony with the natural surroundings. I look forward to a return visit and a tour of the Usonian house. And maybe we’ll fuel our stroll with more gizzards and some pound cake from a nearby tasty shack.

The self-guided tour was worth the monetary, temporal, and physical expenses. It was cheap, but it was hot and we sweated and hungered. We appreciated the art of architecture and landscaping. We burned some calories. We ate tasty food. We visited G-pa. We took the long way home. It was anything but monotonous.


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