Updating design, materials to meet codes and standards
Florida’s new ‘Child of the Sun’
By Karen Kovach
In Lakeland, Fla., halfway between Orlando and Tampa, construction is fully underway on Florida Southern College’s Usonian house, the first addition to the college’s Child of the Sun collection of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structures in more than 50 years.
While Wright designs such as Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum are known as icons of American architecture, the Child of the Sun collection is the largest single-site Wright installation in the world. Yet, it has received far less attention. That is changing with the Usonian house project, along with recent College recognition by The Princeton Review, which named Florida Southern College the nation’s Most Beautiful Campus, and Architectural Digest Magazine, which named the college one of the nation’s Ten College Campuses with the Best Architecture.
Wright designed a total of 18 buildings and other structures for Florida Southern College, of which 12 were built between 1938 and 1959. Landmarks among the 12 structures completed are the 160-foot-diameter Water Dome, the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, the 1.5 miles of covered esplanades, and the Danforth Chapel. The last structure built, completed in 1958, was the Polk County Science Building, housing the world’s only Wright-designed planetarium. His relationship with the college represents the longest commission in his career.
This collection is considered by many as the most architecturally authentic and important American college campus, contrasting with the less original, and often borrowed, Romanesque, Neo Gothic and Greek Revival styles of many major American universities.
Meeting codes and standardsSince building codes and hurricane survivability ordinances have changed significantly since the 1940s and 1950s, accommodations have had to be made for the new construction project. However, all of these codes and ordinances were met with the specific intent of not impacting the design or structural system. Additionally, minor adjustments needed to be made to the original design to allow for handicap access as well.
The signature concrete “textile block” assembly on the Usonian house is more than halfway completed, with 47 different varieties of blocks being used to assemble the interior and exterior walls. The original textile blocks were hand built on site by students using Wright-designed molds. Those original mold designs have been recreated by a 79-year-old artisan in Brookfield, Mass.
In 2007, the Child of the Sun collection was added to World Monument Fund’s list of 100 most endangered sites in the world, primarily due to textile blocks severely decaying over time. The concrete formula has been revised from the previous sandstone and coquina shells mixture that proved so unstable in the Florida climate, to one more suitable for esthetics, durability and moldability. For the new blocks, builders experimented with more than 50 mixes, creating hundreds of samples, before arriving at the final composition.
“The mix will replicate the original appearance, without replicating the original failures,” says Jeff Baker, architect with Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker Architects LLP. “Our blocks are nearly twice as dense and strong as the original blocks, which means that they will not erode in the same fashion as the originals.”
Deterioration issues surrounding the original grout tube and steel reinforcement methods also are being addressed.
Florida Southern College expects the new Usonian house to be completed sometime this year. The building will serve as the college’s Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center, named after alumnus and former trustee, Robert R. Sharp, and his wife, Peggy.
Originally published in Masonry magazine.
About the Author
Karen Kovach is the co-founder and Principal of Third Wing Business Strategies LLC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 853-802-1330.