The Annie Pfeiffer Chapel at Florida Southern College is proof that blessings can also be burdens.
In its June edition, Southern Living magazine includes the building in its list of “The South’s Most Beautiful Chapels,” describing it as a “striking construction.” The Lakeland landmark shares space in the magazine with such buildings as the Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, Duke University Chapel in Durham, North Carolina, and the Ida Cason Callaway Memorial Chapel in Pine Mountain, Georgia.
Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, completed in 1941, was the first of a dozen structures at Florida Southern designed by the celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It is the largest collection in the world of Wright-designed structures at a single site.
“Florida Southern College is honored to have the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, a structure of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, included in the latest issue of Southern Living,” FSC spokeswoman Rebecca Paul said by email. “The Annie Pfeiffer Chapel is an architectural gem and we are thrilled to share it with the readers of Southern Living.”
While the chapel and the other Wright-designed buildings are a source of pride for Florida Southern, they also present an ongoing and expensive maintenance challenge for the college.
A visit by a Ledger reporter this week found indications of decay in the 77-year-old building. A chunk of ceiling veneer was missing near one of the skylights. A puddle of water sat on a stairway landing, apparently from rainwater that entered through a leak.
A small fern plant was growing at the edge of a wall just below a skylight.
On Friday, Paul said the interior of Annie Pfeiffer Chapel had been closed to the public because of the effects from recent heavy rains.
Jeffrey Baker, a New York-based architect who led a previous restoration of the chapel, said maintenance of the chapel and other Wright buildings is particularly challenging.
“Even though it’s a masterpiece, it presents its own challenges in the sense that the quality control wasn’t there,” Baker said, “and so it has inherent problems that are very difficult to solve, although we are in the process of solving them.”
Florida Southern recently received a matching $50,000 grant from the Florida Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources for restoration of Annie Pfeiffer Chapel. Baker said he expects to oversee the project, which involves replacing the lower section of skylights.
“Historically, they have always been a problem in the building,” Baker said. “Those skylights are a source of constant water infiltration. It’s impossible to repair those areas without lifting those skylights out.”
Baker, a partner with Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker Architects, oversaw a major restoration of the chapel a few years ago after Florida Southern received a $350,000 state grant. That work was completed in 2015.
Previous government grants and donations have allowed the college to repair other Wright-designed campus structures. The World Monuments Fund in 2007 placed the FSC campus on its list of the 100 Most Endangered Sites.
Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, named for a benefactor of the college, displays elements of Wright’s distinctive style of building design. Its strongly horizontal exterior features smooth surface blocks intersecting at sharp angles, offset by overlapping segments and cantilevered roofs. The chapel, which holds about 500, rests on a base of interlocking, textured blocks inset with squares of colored glass.
The soaring center tower of the chapel contains repeating geometric elements, including patterns of triangles, topped by a web of metal in right-angle segments painted Cherokee red.
The interior of the chapel continues the motif of repeated geometric figures set into the pale walls. Accents of red appear in metal beams and the grids of windows, as well as the surfaces of chairs.
FSC President Ludd Spivey commissioned Wright to design buildings for the campus in the 1930s. The school eventually built 12 of the 18 structures Wright intended.
Annie Pfeiffer Chapel sustained major damage from a hurricane two years after its completion and had to be rebuilt.
Baker said the combination of Wright’s idiosyncratic approach and the project’s financial limitations — construction began as the Great Depression was just ending — contributed to the chapel’s fragility. He noted that Wright used “unskilled” student labor on the building.
“What’s unique about the building is it’s essentially a hand-made building — even though Wright had intended this building to be an example of what future machine-made buildings could look like — because he was essentially creating this from the ground up,” Baker said. “It was like creating the first Model T.”
Construction efforts included pouring sand and concrete into wooden molds to form the “textile blocks” that created geometric grids on the lower sections of the chapel.
“The college is a national historic landmark, and there just aren’t that many of those around,” Baker said. “It needs a lot of help, obviously, but it’s really wonderful they’ve been recognized at the state and federal level. ... Most people don’t realize how important this building is.”
Baker is involved with restorations to the Academical Village, the core section of the University of Virginia designed by Thomas Jefferson. He said that university and Florida Southern face similar challenges in maintaining historically important structures.
Florida Southern regularly draws recognition for its campus. The college also was honored as most beautiful campus in the nation for two straight years by The Princeton Review and has been listed among the 10 campuses with the best architecture by Architectural Digest.
David Rifkind, an associate professor of architecture at Florida International University, said Annie Pfeiffer Chapel deserves adulation.
Rifkind wrote about 50 entries for the Florida section of SAH Archipedia, an online guide produced by the Society of Architectural Historians. His contribution includes an entry on Florida Southern College.
Rifkind said the collection of Wright’s designs on the campus is fascinating because the architect closely collaborated with Spivey to undertake the project during World War II.
“Florida Southern College is great because you’ve got this extraordinary ensemble,” Rifkind said. “It’s not just the individual buildings but the way he takes that beautiful, gently sloping site and organizes the buildings and walkways around it in a really elegant way.”
Rifkind said he recently stopped in Lakeland while escorting a group of Ethiopian architects from Miami to Gainesville so they could examine the Wright designs at Florida Southern. He said the chapel is the pinnacle of the Lakeland collection.
“The chapel is simply the most elaborate of the buildings on that campus,” Rifkind said. “There are some really beautiful moments in that chapel. It’s an enclosed space — you go from brilliant sunshine outside and go inside where it’s somewhat protected, but the building still opens to sky in a way that offers this very ecclesiastical light.”
See images and photo archives of the Chapel here.