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Frank Lloyd Wright Designs A Chapel for Florida

Annie Pfeiffer Chapel Exterior, image courtesy of FSU

Florida Southern College in Lakeland is Frank Lloyd Wright’s one college campus with nearly a dozen Wright designed buildings and elements, constructed over a 20 year relationship with the school and its president during that time. With this commission Wright displays his ideas for a Florida architectural style, and a democratic environment where science and religion co-exist without historical [collegiate gothic] stylistic references and without bi-lateral campus symmetry. The centerpiece of his vision for this campus and his treatise is the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel. While the seminar buildings were finished before the chapel, the chapel was the first of the campus buildings Wright designed.

Ludd Spivy was hired as the president of Florida Southern College in 1925, he accepted that position during some tough years financially. Having inherited a campus of two colonial buildings by successful Orlando education architect Frederick Trimble, he had managed to raise enough funds to construct a men’s dormitory, heating plant, athletic field and gymnasium during his first decade at the post.

Exterior with adjacent Danforth Chapel, image courtesy of FSU

While traveling around the state trying to raise funds to build a central campus building for the Stanley Jones Foundation, he met some criticism of the incongruity of a historical style for a progressive theology. Jones was a Methodist who felt science and religion had to be reconciled, and preached internationally to that end. So while Spivy was not very familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright when suggestions were made to contact him, Wright would prove to be exactly the visionary Spivy desired to create a campus for a new age.

Spivy contacted Wright by telegram in April of 1938 “Desire conference with you concerning plans for great education temple in Florida”. The two men met in Taliesin 10 days later. Frank Lloyd Wright was nearing 71 years of age, and experiencing a renaissance in his late career. In the preceding years Wright received much press coverage on ‘Falling Water’ house 1935, Johnson Wax Headquarters 1936 and ‘Wingspread’ house 1937, among others. While Wright visited the next month, it wasn’t until late in the fall before Spivy received any preliminary plans. And the first building now changed from the Jones Foundation multipurpose building, to a chapel for the campus.

The chapel was one of the 3 main central features of Wright’s campus plan, along with the library and water dome. The campus plan contained 30 degree, 60 degree and 90 degree axes in a free form departure from established campus planning. Covered concrete sidewalks Wright called “Esplanades” would extend along these axes. The chapel and library located at the intersection of these axes, echoed these angles in their forms.

Spivy would be frustrated at the long wait he endured to receive the final plans. Wright insisted that the overall campus plan needed to be established before the chapel, so that it would be integrated into the whole. Immediately after Wright’s visit, Spivy had persuaded wealthy philanthropist Annie M. Pfeiffer of New York City to donate $50,000 toward construction at the college and soon thereafter convinced her to commit the funds to the chapel, to be named in her honor.

Side balconies with trellis and copper eave trim, image courtesy of Bill Stimson

While the chapel retained the spiritual nature of a traditional church, it was conceived as a modern alternative to the neo-gothic prevalence of the time. The plan of the building is a rotated square, or a diamond, overlaid on a rectangle. The ends of the rectangle project to either side of the sanctuary. The initial diamond, in the center, is stretched into a hexagon with points projecting out the front and back of the chapel. At the 4 corners where the hexagon meets the rectangle, Wright located large 6 by 6 foot columns which support the mezzanine, the roof and the superstructure of the bell tower above. Next to these columns Wright located the entry doors and the stairs.

There are no traditional windows in the enclosing walls, so the congregation would focus their eyes skyward through the skylight extending down the center of the auditorium. This skylight steps near the front and back to draw one’s attention to the large concrete bowtie forms hanging above. The supporting structure is not revealed. Instead where you would expect columns there are 4 large skylights extending over to the corners of the building, hiding another ingenious marvel of the engineering for which Wright has come to be known. The original sketch showed a stack of 5 bowties at each end of the tower at a proposed height of 85 feet, in the final building a stack of 3 is still imposing. An unusual achievement, this bell tower is an integral part of the interior experience, open through the middle to the sky.

Choir loft/pipe organ screen, image courtesy of Bill Stimson

In the center of the plan, Wright located the pulpit with none of the nearly 1,000 seating more than 50 feet away. With a concrete block base the pulpit is constructed of overlapped cypress planks. The massive pulpit emphasized the importance of the sermon to the Methodist service. Large planters on each side introduced FLW’s idea of spirituality in the garden of Florida. Chancel seating was located behind the pulpit which thrust into the congregation like the prow of a ship. There were individual seats, not long continuous pews, made in the shops of the college. Above this stage Wright designed a 90 foot long concrete block sculpted screen perforated with hexagons that resonate the chapel’s plan.

To construct the chapel on his meager budget, Spivy devised a program by which students could reduce their tuition, if they worked on the campus building effort. Students worked 3 days a week, and attended classes 3 days a week. Students mixed and poured concrete foundations and cast concrete blocks. Wright had originated his textile block technique in his California houses in the 1920’s. The blocks contained grooves behind the blocks allowing for a net of steel rods horizontally and vertically to be inserted and the grooves filled with cement grout.

Wright desired to include local soil in the mix of the concrete, a romantic notion to link the building more completely to the landscape. Attempts to make the blocks by combining local sand from the orange groves of the campus, with cement, only crumbled probably from accumulated fertilizers. Wright wanted a flesh colored block, similar to the ground of the area. Commercial pigments proved no better. After waiting through 8 months of experimentation, an approved color and structural strength was perfected. The blocks were made of two types of mixes. The flesh colored mix was laid into the mold first where it would be visible in the finished block, while the middle was a grey cement that would not show. Work crews were making blocks for 5 hours a day, turning out 125 blocks, but hoping for 2,000 per week. 30,000 blocks would be needed for the chapel. Many of these rejected color blocks can be seen in the Hawkins Seminar building’s front façade today, these 3 seminar buildings were finished in 1940 while the college still waited for the chapel’s completion.

In January 1940 the chapel’s walls were only constructed to 12 feet. The chapel was finished in the spring of 1941. By the time the chapel was finished, one of the covered esplanades extended from the recently completed Seminar buildings to the chapel entrance.

Auditorium Interior, image courtesy of FSC

The dedication was attended by representatives of more than 60 colleges and universities. Annie M. Pfeiffer, the chapel’s main donor, presented keys to the chairman of the college board of trustees, while 4 bishops of the Methodist church and other dignitaries observed. Though Spivy pleaded, Wright did not attend, he did however send a letter to be read at the ceremony:

“I am sure [the chapel] does not lack charm or distinction. When flowers are in the boxes and climbing the metal trellises, and the round bronze bells are ringing above them Florida will have found an expression in building of her proper name. I hope and believe the chapel strikes , with new clarity, the chord between Florida character and beauty and the life of your many boys and girls – as they have it day by day with you down there…There will be many, still, who “disbelieve” and long for accustomed religious forms. But they, at least, will have a glimpse of the world to come in this little window we have set there on the campus of Florida Southern College to look out upon that world.”

Looking up into Bell Tower, image courtesy of FSU

The chapel balances horizontal and vertical elements in an elegant whole. Three horizontal layers rise from the ground, first textile blocks pierced by their multitude of colored glass insets wrap the main floor, second a smooth plastered band followed again by textile blocks surrounding the mezzanine seating with balconies and hovering trellises projecting to each side of the upper seating. In contrast, the bell tower rises vertically above that. While hard to perceive, the tower is two large walls rising to a height of 65 feet, running above the skylights from the front to the back of the auditorium. These walls are held apart by 3 stacked concrete bowties at each end, housing bells whose tones are amplified by reverberating between these walls. Rising between these walls from the skylight below are iron trellis, crowning the structure with intricate fretwork cresting and flower boxes so vines can embellish the structure with the garden image Wright associated so much with Florida.

Stairs to Balcony Seating, image courtesy of Bill Stimson

Exterior with Esplanades, image courtesy of FSU


FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT’S FLORIDA SOUTHERN COLLEGE, Dale Allen Gyure, 2010, University Press of Florida, 237 pgs

FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT DRAWINGS, Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, 1996 edition, Abradale Press/Harry N. Abrams Inc., Publishers, 303 pgs.

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