Waterdome To Reign Once Again At Florida Southern

Waterdome
LAKELAND -

It's been a long time since a new Frank Lloyd Wright building has risen from the campus of Florida Southern College. Now, a renaissance of sorts is taking place with a structure called the 'Waterdome.' The expanse of pool and fountain has been sealed in concrete for most of its existence. The concrete is slowly being peeled away.

SOUND: Jackhammers.

Jackhammers are the latest chapter in a saga that dated from when the man arguably called America's greatest architect set his sights on a Lakeland hillside.

Tommy Young watched as a backhoe with a jackhammer clawed at the concrete. Young is the school's liaison with the contractor.

YOUNG: This is not the original Frank Lloyd Wright design. And that's what we're trying to render now. We're getting rid of this particular design and coming back with the original Frank Lloyd Wright design. He didn't get around to this particular project here. This was done after he left, and it was done unlike his plan.

The Waterdome had an earlier incarnation. It was completed in 1948 as a 360-degree pond of water pumped from an artesian well. The water was shot out of jets rising from the middle and side. Wright saw this as the 'organic focal point' of the campus. He envisioned streams running through campus downhill to nearby Lake Hollingsworth.

The streams never were built, and the jets never worked quite as planned. Eventually, the pond was covered over when the new E.T. Roux Library was erected.

Young says Wright's vision sometimes outpaced the engineering ability of his era.

REPORTER: Do you think he was ahead of his time, the technology just wasn't there to produce this at this time? YOUNG: As a contractor, I would say his technology really doesn't lend itself too much with Florida. We spend a lot of time repairing the roofs on the buildings, and that sort of thing. His structures bring 25,000, 30,000 people a year to this campus to see it, so we're really glad to have it. But it is a maintenance problem to maintain the buildings.

Wright's buildings - most of which were built for cold Northern or dry Western climates - weren't particularly suited for Florida's torrential summer rains.

Young's construction site has a commanding view of Wright's signature design on campus, the soaring Annie Pfeiffer Chapel. The raised point on the roof - nicknamed 'God's Bicycle Rack' - rises over what is actually a depression in the roof. So rain collects in the lowest point, a pane of glass directly over the choir loft.

And the stones - many of which were made by students from local materials - were not waterproof.

Louise Eastwood was a student here when Wright's creations were rising from the ground. Back then, students were given a break on tuition if they helped with the construction. And she says laboring under the hot Florida sun didn't do much for their appreciation of the architecture.

EASTWOOD: It's funny, because there was so much resistance to this. And now people are coming in, 'it's beautiful, it's beautiful.' And it is. It's not architecture anymore. It's a work of art.

Eastwood currently gives tours of his works to a much more appreciative audience. Her thoughts on seeing a new Wright structure arise for the first time in half a century?

EASTWOOD: I don't know. It seems to me that it's a nice idea, but that plaza itself was nice, too. Why break it up? REPORTER: Even if it's a Frank Lloyd Wright design? EASTWOOD: I wouldn't say too much against it. Because people do like to know what's original. They really do. So we'll see....

This ambivalence to the master's works can be found across the campus. Psychology professor Richard Burnette loves the view of Wright's buildings from his office, but when the heavens open up each summer, he has to get out his umbrella - indoors.

BURNETTE: Comes right on top of it. I've got the computer right under it. It comes off that ledge - you can see where it comes down right there. And it runs right down the wall, and it's got this kind of warped a bit. And I put my umbrella under it.

Still, he says it's worth it to work in a Wright building.

BURNETTE: To be right here, and see it every day... And to be part of it and to realize, this guy's a genius! And people are always talking about it, 'Frank Lloyd Wright.' I say shoot, I don't want to brag about it, but I've got an office right in the middle of a Frank Lloyd Wright building.

The restoration of the Waterdome is being paid for by a gift of $350,000 from an anonymous donor, with a matching state grant. And another $1.5 million state grant has been approved to renovate Wright's esplanades, the low-slung walkways that are another of the architect's hallmarks.

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