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Florida Southern Plans to Add a Usonian House to Its Wright Collection

Usonian House

Florida Southern College plans to build a house that Frank Lloyd Wright designed in 1938 as the first of a series of homes for faculty members. (Florida Southern College image)

In 1938, not long after he began work on a master plan for Florida Southern College’s campus, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright sketched a series of small homes for faculty members. Wright and Ludd M. Spivey, Florida Southern’s president, hoped to build as many as 20 houses, but money for them never materialized. The house plans ended up gathering dust while the college built a library, two chapels, administrative offices, a series of academic buildings, and a huge fountain to Wright’s striking designs. In fact, the college has the largest single collection of Wright buildings anywhere.

Now Florida Southern, located in Lakeland, is finally gearing up to build one of the Wright houses. According to M. Jeffrey Baker, a partner in Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker Architects who has been helping the college restore its other Wright buildings, the house will be a flat-roofed, two-bedroom home with walls made of the same custom-cast blocks that Wright used throughout the campus. A cantilevered carport will mark the entrance, and floor-to-ceiling glass windows will open to the outdoors from the living room and the bedrooms. “You can open this house up like a pavilion,” Mr. Baker says, to take advantage of the patio and good weather.

The 1,700-square-foot house is among Wright’s “Usonian” designs, which he hoped would make good modern homes affordable to middle-class families. No one will live in this house, however. Instead, it will be the first stop for tourists visiting the campus. They’ll be able to watch a short film about Wright’s work at Florida Southern, pick up campus maps, and browse in a gift shop before crossing the street to see Wright’s other buildings.

Mr. Baker says that working with an unbuilt Wright design is “something I’ve always wanted to do.” But there will be a number of challenges.

For one thing, building codes have changed significantly since Wright’s day. Accommodating his plan and materials to modern energy and hurricane-survival rules, Mr. Baker says, will require some creativity. Also, the system Wright used to tie his cast blocks together in other campus buildings has proved troublesome—iron bars inside the blocks hold them together, but moisture has seeped in and made the bars rust, which in turn has cracked the blocks.

“It’s a balancing act to make sure we don’t touch Wright’s design and make sure that even the structural system is respected,” Mr. Baker says. He thinks that substituting stainless steel for the iron will help, as will improving the recipe for the concrete in the blocks. For the original buildings, students mixed the concrete and filled molds right at the construction sites—the college still has all the molds—but Mr. Baker says blocks for the house will be made elsewhere.

Even though the house will not be lived in, its layout will adhere to Wright’s intentions, says Mr. Baker, who hopes to be able to put a bed in one of the bedrooms so visitors can see exactly what the house would look like as a home. The house will be built alongside an existing 1920s Sears-catalogue bungalow, and as part of the $2-million project the bungalow will be renovated to house offices and handicapped-access bathrooms for the visitor center. The college is still raising money to pay for the site, the bungalow, and construction, but a groundbreaking ceremony took place March 20.

Mr. Baker says that Florida Southern has been in close contact with the Wright archives at Taliesin West, Wright’s Arizona home and architecture school, and that he has been consulting with Antony Putnam, a former Wright apprentice. “It’s kind of exciting,” Mr. Baker says, “to be able to work with these people who worked with Wright.”

Block

Many of the Wright buildings on the college’s campus were constructed with blocks like this one, seen with its mold in the campus museum. (Chronicle photograph)

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