Overshadowed by the largest and most visited theme park collection in the world, most people do not know that the Orlando area has a great architectural history, just like most American cities of its size.
Besides nomadic Indians, this central part of Florida did not see settlers until after Florida became a state in 1845. Before that, development was primarily along the coasts. Several Spanish plantations were located north of Orlando along the Atlantic coast, around the Daytona area, connected by the Kings Road to bustling St Augustine. Unfortunately, these plantations were all burned to the ground during the second Indian war 1835-1842.
Sugar Mill ruins 1830, State Park, photo credit Myra Cruz
But looking at the whole state, towns along the Georgia border of the state between Pensacola and St Augustine had been established for centuries, since the Spanish laid claim to Florida and started settling it in the 1500’s. As the two original counties of the new US territory were subdivided due to rapid settling around the new state, central Florida was mapped as a “non-county,” an un-important region with little access, left for the Indians to fish, hunt, and dwell. A later subdividing created Orange County, and after Seminole County was carved off, the boundaries became those we know today.
While towns were growing around the forts left after the Indian wars, very few of those buildings from before the 1880’s remain. Most have been replaced in the name of progress. The 1880’s was the decade that saw railroads crisscross the state. From St. Augustine to Tampa towns sprung up around every train stop. Downtown Orlando still has the horse stable where citizens housed their steeds and carriages. Today it is home to a few night clubs and bars. A few blocks away on Church Street folks would ride the train in on the weekends to stay in the hotels, which still have wrought iron balconies opening from the rooms. No longer a hotel, the second-floor iron bridge spanning across what was then a very muddy street during the rainy summers is still there. Travelers would enjoy the colorful taverns around Orlando’s station, a beautiful Richardsonian Depot that has been restored with cut stone details adorning the brick structure and patterned slate roof.
Church Street Station 1889, photo credit Richard Forbes
The old Courthouse in downtown Orlando, now the Orange County Regional History Center, was designed by architect Murry King. The Beaux Arts Neo-classical composition of carved limestone has a heavily rusticated base, colonnaded courtroom level, with an attic story above the bold projecting cornice. He is notable also for receiving the first architect’s license issued by the state in 1915. He died during the construction, never seeing it completed, but his son worked with him and saw it finished. Murry King also designed many homes, as well as several tall brick and stone hotels and banks along Orange Avenue still operating today.
Orange County Courthouse 1927, 2000, photo credit Robert Egleston
In the 1920’s there were 12 architects listed in the Orlando phone book. Among these were Ryan and Roberts, one of 5 all-female owned firms in the nation. Most of their remaining work is in downtown St. Cloud where their library is now the St. Cloud Heritage Museum. It is a modest example of prairie style and still has the original sliding wood panel wall which could close off the north side into a meeting or classroom. Isabel Roberts worked in Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio in Oak Park for almost 10 years before relocating to St Cloud with her mom, and meeting Ida Annah Ryan the first woman to receive a master's in architecture in the US. They had a successful practice for a decade up to the recession which hit Florida especially hard.
Veterans Memorial Library 1922, photo credit Robert Holland
Another architect who was prolific here in the 1930’s and 40’s, James Gamble Rogers II (JGRII), designed around 200 estates, as well as commercial and institutional buildings for the wealthy in Winter Park, just north of Orlando. Casa Feliz, one of his best, was saved from the wrecking ball and moved two blocks to the edge of the city golf course, where concerts and weddings continue to grace this restored museum house. The house was designed to look aged. Wings were purposefully juxtaposed in different styles to look like additions of different eras, brick walls laid to look like arches had been filled in with brick, broken colonnades which give the impression that an upper story had collapsed and was removed, and a 6” sag in the main ridge, a JGRII signature feature in many of the homes he designed.
Casa Feliz 1921, photo credit Robert Egleston
In the 1930’s Frank Lloyd Wright (FLW) found a kindred client in Florida and began creating buildings for the only college campus he ever designed. Florida Southern College (FSC) in Lakeland boasts 13 FLW buildings including department buildings for science and industrial arts, administration, library, and chapels. During WWII to attract students, the college offered free education to students who help pour concrete blocks and work construction in the morning and go to classes in the afternoon. Of course, during the war most of these were women. A whole college built by the sweat of their labor.
E.T. Roux Library 1945, photo credit FSC
The Annie Phifer Chapel is one of his little-known masterpieces. The belltower is composed of two 40 ft tall concrete walls tied together at each end by giant concrete bow ties that carry the bells. This hangs over a skylight that spans across the nave below it, without any visible sign of the cantilevered support. The signature “textile blocks” of the campus buildings are radiant here with their colored glass inserts sparkling in the sunlight embracing the congregation in inspiration.
Annie Pfeiffer Chapel 1941, photo credit FSC
Military training for WWII brought extensive growth to the region. Many of the soldiers returned after the war to settle here, where they had enjoyed the beaches and mild climate. Nils M. Schweizer came to Florida as a protégé of FLW, to supervise his last buildings at FSC, but stayed after Wright died and they were completed. Eventually the office he opened here had over 75 employees and he is remembered here lovingly as the “Dean” of Florida architects. A generation of architects passed through his studio. The federal courthouse completed in 1975 is a good example of his civic style. Elegantly faceted precast concrete features are framed by heavy angled piers at the four corners which stop short of the top story they are meant to support. The recent circulation addition by DLR Group is deftly composed to honor the original building.
Federal Courthouse Annex 1975, 2013, photo credit DLR Group
Today Orlando’s downtown is sprouting high-rise apartment towers at an amazing rate, filling the space between the bank towers of the 80’s that followed Disney here. My favorite is the Bank America Tower (Now the City National Bank tower) with its spired glass roof peaks. Morris Architects stunning banking hall and an open pavilion frame a courtyard off the street complete with outdoor dining. The offices in the upper peaks, with amazing views of the city in every direction, are like greenhouses for accounting, and in high demand.
Bank America tower 1988, photo credit Robert Egleston
The centerpiece of Orlando’s downtown is its performing Arts Center, the DR. Phillips by Barton Myers. It includes the 2,800 seat Disney Theater, the 300 seat Pugh Community theater and the 1,700 seat Steinmetz multiform music hall which was added 8 years later to complete the original design. Each of the frosted glass panels of the exterior 4 story curtain wall are internally lit and glow warmly at night. A large 300 seat banquet room spans the drive and creates a proscenium for an outdoor stage on the lawn out front. A hovering 85-foot cantilevered silver steel canopy undulates as it stretches over the street below.
Dr. Phillips PAC 2014, 2022, photo credit Robert Egleston
When Michael Eisner was CEO of DISNEY, he commissioned buildings here by many world renown architects including Phillip Johnson, Michael Graves, Aldo Rossi, Robert Venturi, Charles Moore, Arata Isozaki, Welton Becket, Gwathmey Siegel, Arquitectonica, Jaquelin Robertson, Robert Stern. These can be seen outside the parks, around Walt Disney World, and the adjacent New Urbanist town of Celebration.
The Orlando Foundation for Architecture is helping many visitors find these gems and more with lectures, tours, and documentaries. You can learn more about some of the local buildings and architects at the OFApedia tab on the Orlando Foundation for Architecture website:
And the available ARCHITECTURE GUIDE TO CENTRAL FLORIDA with essays, maps, addresses and full color photos of 300 buildings throughout 6 counties is for sale on our website: