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Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern College: 13 unique and beautiful buildings to see and tour

The most beautiful college campus in the country. What do you picture? Traditional brick and ivy quadrangles; a bit of New England perhaps?

That’s not how Florida Southern College in Lakeland made the top 20 list. 

Its beauty comes from being different — unique, in fact: It has the largest collection of buildings on one site designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Danforth Chapel was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, one of 12 Wright buildings on the campus of Florida Southern College in Lakeland.
The Danforth Chapel was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Florida Southern College in Lakeland has 13 Wright structures on its Lakeland campus. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern College draw fans from around the world, but beyond that group, it’s not a well-known destination.

Even if you don’t know a lot about architecture, however, the lovely Florida Southern College campus makes an interesting stop when you’re near Lakeland.

You can do a simple self-guided walk around the campus or, if you are a Frank Lloyd Wright buff or are curious why he’s such a big deal, you can take one of several guided tours.

Frank Lloyd Wright Florida Southern College campus: The most striking Wright building is the tall Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, whose tower is called “the bicycle rack in the sky.”  (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern College campus: The most striking Wright building is the tall Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, whose tower is called “the bicycle rack in the sky.” (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

How to tour works of Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern College

  • The place to start is the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center, 750 Frank Lloyd Wright Way, where several tours are offered. (There’s also a neat gift shop for Wright fans.)
  • If you want to tour the campus at your own pace, a $5 map and brochure with a walking tour gives essential background.
  • Those who want more information can reserve a spot on the 90-minute guided tour of campus, offered for $35. These tours go inside three open buildings, including the Usonian House.
All of the buildings on the Frank Lloyd Wright Florida Southern College are connected via the Esplanade.(Photo: Bonnie Gross) Frank Lloyd Wright Florida Southern College campus
All of the buildings on the Frank Lloyd Wright Florida Southern College campus are connected via the Esplanade he designed. The college has been ranked one of the most beautiful campuses in Florida in the Princeton Review for two decades. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
  • You can tour only the “new” Frank Lloyd Wright building, the Usonian House, designed in 1939 but not built until 2013, for a $15 ticket. This half-hour house tour starts with the group that will go on to do the full campus tour. The Usonian tour ends there with an interesting half-hour video, so it takes about an hour. Then, if you like, you can walk the campus on your own to see the 12 other buildings.
  • The most ardent fans go on the two-hour guided tour ($50) which takes you inside more buildings. If you’re a real fan, you’ll want a weekday visit when more buildings are open for tours than on weekends.
  • The Behind the Scene Tour ($125) is also available, where a small group goes into some locations not seen on other tours.
  • The visitor center and tours are available seven days a week. (Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day.)
  • Start your trip planning at the college’s website. Reservations are recommended. Call 863-680-4597 or e-mail [email protected] to reserve a tour.
Frank Lloyd Wright Florida Southern College: The concrete block walls of Pfeiffer Chapel have small squares of colored glass embedded to create a beautiful lighting effect from inside or out. (Photo: Bonnie Gross) Frank Lloyd Wright Florida Southern College campus
Frank Lloyd Wright Florida Southern College: The concrete block walls of Pfeiffer Chapel have small squares of colored glass embedded to create a beautiful lighting effect from inside or out. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

13 striking buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern College

The first surprise is that in flat Florida, this campus is on a hill. The campus is built around scenic Lake Hollingsworth. The Wright-designed buildings are 80 feet above the lakeshore.

Along with a couple of architecture buffs from the Netherlands, we took the two-hour guided campus tour led by a retired college administrator several years ago. We returned in 2024 to tour the Usonian House and to do a self-guided walking tour of campus.

The Esplanade at Florida Southern College, Frank Lloyd Wright designed campus.(Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The Esplanade at Florida Southern College, Frank Lloyd Wright designed campus.(Photo: Bonnie Gross)

There are 13 structures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright on campus, including the Water Dome — a huge fountain — and a mile of covered walkways. Built between 1941 and 1958, many buildings are in some stage of restoration.

The most striking building in the Wright-designed campus is the tall Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, whose unusual tower is called “the bicycle rack in the sky.”  My favorite was the smaller Danforth Chapel, with its orange-and-gold stained glass window. The chapel still has its original Wright-designed pews and cushions.

When Frank Lloyd Wright designed the huge water feature at the center of the campus, he envisioned a fountain whose water created a dome. There was no technology at the time that could do that, so it wasn't until years later than high-pressure nozzles were deployed to propel water as high as 45 feet into the air to create the dome he pictured. On the day we visited, though, high winds made it unwise to operate the fountain at that height -- anyone walking even remotely nearby would be soaked. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
When Frank Lloyd Wright designed the huge water feature at the center of the campus, he envisioned a fountain whose water created a dome. There was no technology at the time that could do that, so it wasn’t until years later than high-pressure nozzles were deployed to propel water as high as 45 feet into the air to create the dome he pictured. On the day we visited, though, high winds made it unwise to operate the fountain at that height — anyone walking even remotely nearby would be soaked. To conserve water, the fountain flows on a posted schedule a few hours each day. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

All of the buildings are connected via the Esplanade, the copper-trimmed covered walkway. At first, I found the walkway disconcertingly low – it’s only 6 foot 8 inches high for most of its length. But as I walked the campus, I admired the cantilevered roof lines, the patterns in the bases and especially the areas where Wright cut away roof windows to frame views of the Florida sky.

Our guided tour told the back story on how Wright was enticed to Central Florida (the college president played to Wright’s enormous ego) and how, despite the Great Depression and World War II, a Methodist college with no endowment could afford to build these structures.

The answer, as it turns out, is they put their students to work. Labor for several of the buildings came from students, some of whom got free tuition in exchange. With male students largely gone during World War II, at least one building was built primarily by female students.

The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed campus of Florida Southern College in Lakeland has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975. (Photo: David Blasco)
The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed campus of Florida Southern College in Lakeland has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975. You see both the Esplanade and the Water Dome in the background of this picture. (Photo: David Blasco)

There are magical moments on the tour.

On the in-depth tour, we went into the theater-in-the-round Wright designed. The amazing acoustics make a whisper spoken along the wall audible throughout the room. Meanwhile a person standing in the center of the room hears an echo of his voice that no one else hears. (It is, the guide joked, for professors who like to hear themselves talk.)

Few people say Frank Lloyd Wright designed beautiful or comfortable furniture. These were chairs designed for the library at Florida Southern College. (Photo: Bonnie Gross) Frank Lloyd Wright Florida Southern College campus
Few people say Frank Lloyd Wright designed beautiful or comfortable furniture. These were chairs designed for the library at Florida Southern College. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Similarly, you can’t help but be enchanted by the concrete block walls of Pfeiffer Chapel, in which small squares of colored glass are embedded to create a beautiful lighting effect.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian House has a seemingly grand, wide entrance. But that's actually meant to be a carport, a term Wright coined. (Photo: David Blasco)
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian House has a seemingly grand, wide entrance. But that’s actually meant to be a carport, a term Wright coined. The Usonian House is a separate tour that costs $15 per person. (Photo: David Blasco)

Touring the Usonian House, a “new” building by Frank Lloyd Wright

One building Wright designed for Florida Southern wasn’t built until 2013, and it’s a beauty.

The 1300-square foot Usonian House was designed to be a residence located near the campus for a professor and his or her family. The college ran out of money before building it so the plans sat in storage for 74 years. Finally, the college raised enough funds to build it in 2013.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian House at Florida Southern College in Lakeland has a huge fireplace (on the far right) because Wright believed a house without a hearth wasn't really a home -- even in Florida. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian House at Florida Southern College in Lakeland has a huge fireplace (on the far right) because Wright believed a house without a hearth wasn’t really a home — even in Florida. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

It’s ironic that Wright’s choice to use cypress wood – lots of cypress wood – pushed the cost of building a small residence meant to provide affordable housing into seven figures. (The school won’t divulge the actual cost.) At the time it was designed, cypress wood was an inexpensive local material; now you must build with recovered cypress wood from previous buildings, which is very expensive.

At the time, Wright estimated it would cost $5,000 to build the Usonian House, which is $150,000 today. He often underestimated costs, according to our tour guide, but even if it was twice that, a $300,000 house would fall into the affordable category. The craftsmanship required to build the Usonian House, however, would push costs far beyond affordability today.

One of the most beautiful elements of Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian House at Florida Southern College in Lakeland are the small blocks of colored glass embedded in the concrete blocks -- there are 6,000 pieces of glass, each placed by hand. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
One of the most beautiful elements of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian House at Florida Southern College in Lakeland are the small blocks of colored glass embedded in the concrete blocks — there are 6,000 pieces of glass, each placed by hand. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

I loved touring the Usonian House for several reasons:

  • It’s not a historic building, so you are encouraged to sit in the living and dining room in chairs designed by Wright. (They’re not uncomfortable, which was a surprise.)
  • The cypress wood ceiling, the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows and the Cherokee red concrete floor in the open-plan home create a beautiful space that is a joy to experience in person.
  • I loved hearing anecdotes about the house and Wright. For example, roof leaks were always the Achilles heel of Wright’s designs, and the Usonian House started leaking in its first decade. To be fair, it didn’t leak until a hurricane swept through, and some area houses were far less resilient.
  • It was cool to see that this Usonian House, while designed in 1939, is so clearly the inspiration for so many architectural trends we associate with Mid-Century Modern architecture from decades later. These range from its carport (Wright may have originated the idea and the term) to its open plan – a combined living room/dining room and a kitchen open to that living space.
The Frank Lloyd Wright visitor center at Florida Southern College in Lakeland has a statue of Wright in the plaza where tours gather before leaving. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
The Frank Lloyd Wright visitor center at Florida Southern College in Lakeland has a statue of Wright in the plaza where tours gather. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Are the Wright buildings in their original condition?

Most are not, though in many cases you get a good idea of a building’s original state. Some buildings have been so changed over the years that it is difficult to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision. Touring the library, for example, is an exercise in imagining how it once looked before its open spaces were chopped up to make more usable.

Elsewhere, windows designed for clear glass have been covered with what looks like rice paper to cut down on heat gain from the sun, destroying the light and the view of clouds Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned.

Were the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings at Florida Southern College successful designs?

They are all still being used by the college! Some buildings are examples of Wright ideas that didn’t work out that well over time. He loved flat roofs, for example. But Florida’s thunderous downpours make them impractical in the long run.

One flat-roofed building, the science lab, is made ugly by a roof full of fans and ductwork that is required to replace all the air in the chemistry labs in 45 seconds, the current safety standard.

The most true-to-Wright design, of course, is the newly built Usonian House, even though things like air conditioning had to be added.

From Interstate 4, take exit #32 (US 98 South) The name of the street changes to South Florida Avenue. Stay on South Florida Avenue about a half mile past the downtown area. Turn left on Frank Lloyd Wright Way (formerly McDonald Street) and go six blocks. The Frank Lloyd Wright Tourism and Education Center is on the corner of 750 Frank Lloyd Wright Way and Johnson Avenue.

Other things to do in Lakeland

Lakeland has an appealing traditional downtown with some good restaurants and shops at Main and Kentucky. That intersection is a block from lovely Mirror Lake with its historic Promenade, which makes a pleasant .65 mile walk around the lake. Along the walkway is Hollis Gardens, which has formal flower beds and fountains overlooking Mirror Lake.

There are many lakes in Lakeland, and you should watch for swans on them. They are all descendants of two royal swans bestowed on the city by Queen Elizabeth in 1954.

On the outskirts of Lakeland is a favorite spot for birders from around the state: Circle Bar B Reserve. The large park is just minutes outside of town and features good hiking, appealing picnic facilities, a nature center as well as ideal conditions for attracting birds in the winter.


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Linnea Olson Larson

Tuesday 24th of March 2020

I visited Southern Florida College with my 8 year old daughter after an aborted camping trip (due to flying insects and rain), and a stop at Disney over 30 years ago. I wanted to see the campus because I had years earlier toured a Frank Lloyd Wright Pennsylvania home, Fallingwater built over a stream and was impressed by the design’s sort of simplicity yet modern feel as it connected to nature by jutting out over a flowing river.

Anyway, we stopped at the Southern Florida campus on our way home to Plantation FL and as school was not in session we had free rein to just wander around and enjoy the campus. I wasn’t overly impressed until I entered the chapel, I had never been in a building I liked better for its beauty, it’s soaring up into the sky above evoking a peaceful and serene one could sit in for hours.

I love its name as “the bicycle rack in the sky and, had I lived in the area, I would have gone to church just to enjoy gazing above me. Probably the reason I picked up stained glass as a hobby subsequently.

As my husband and I have just purchased a little Casita camper, it’s now on my to do list for the first stop on our quest to see the country as soon as it is safe to do so. Probably the inspiration for me to subsequently choose to learn stained glass as a as a hobby for awhile.

Inspiring is an understatement for this building, it’s beyond words and gave me a reverence for the architecture's genius. A must see!

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