Restoration of the Miller Planetarium

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Planetarium from the McKay Archives

Jun 25, 2021

by Kelsey Elmhorst
Student Reporter

With this phase of the Planetarium restoration wrapping this summer, I thought it would be fun to dig into the McKay Archives Digital Collection and find past articles from The Southern, FSC’s newspaper, to find any mention of the Planetarium.

One of the first articles referencing the Planetarium dated back to April 1960. It reported the first official show in the Planetarium. This program was free to the public with only 73 seats available. The article states: “Mr. Gross (assistant to the president of academic affairs), Mr. Reddick, and Mr. Raynor, advised against expecting too much, as this is an experimental period and improvements will be made in general arrangements and Planetarium facilities in the future.”

On October 16th, 1970 an article and titled ‘Stars Come Out Every Sunday’. The article highlighted the new programming which was 28 weeks and open to the public. Admission was $0.50 for adults, $0.25 for children and FSC students were admitted free. In the same article, Planetarium Director, Professor George Robinson said, “The purpose of the programs is to demonstrate the capabilities of the planetarium and to teach a wide variety of areas.” The programs were the beginning of a unique and exceptional experience which included a new sound system, new exhibits as well the $8,000 Spitz projector. The projector was capable of projecting 2,000 stars and showed the night sky in any location on earth at any time in history.

There was definite buzz in the FSC and Lakeland community when the Planetarium opened, and it was neat to look back and see how it was documented. I hope that when the restoration is fully complete, new programming will be as highly anticipated as it was in the past.

Interview With Terry Dennis

Frank Lloyd Wright Architecture

Apr 28, 2021

by Kelsey Elmhorst
Student Reporter

Terry Dennis, who has been the Vice President of Finance and Business Affairs at Florida Southern College for more than 30 years, took some time out of his busy day to talk to me about his involvement with the Planetarium restoration. He is the middleman between the construction team, administration, Dr. Kerr, and the press. His primary responsibility is making sure each party is satisfied and deadlines are being met. Our conversation was eye-opening, and I learned more about the Planetarium as has been the case as I have interviewed all those involved.

First, we talked a little bit about Mr. Dennis’ history with the Frank Lloyd Wright projects at FSC. I’ve always been under the impression that the Water Dome was the first Frank Lloyd Wright project that Dr. Kerr spearheaded when she arrived on our campus. However, it was actually the Esplanades that were first project that was started. A construction team came in and lifted specific Esplanades so that concrete could be poured under them to make them level. This project was completed over the span of a couple of years. The Water Dome did become the first Frank Lloyd Wright project completed under Dr. Kerr’s leadership.

Mr. Dennis was also a part of building the Usonian House in 2013, on the northern side of campus. Following the City of Lakeland standards while still honoring Wright’s vision was a big challenge for those who were involved. Wright had a vision of many Usonian houses built around the perimeter of campus for teachers and staff to live in while working at FSC. This, of course, did not come to fruition, however the one that was built in 2013 gives visitors a great idea of what that would have looked like.

After Mr. Dennis filled me in about the Usonian House, we began our discussion about the Planetarium. Our conversation started with me letting him know that as a student, I have been impacted by the construction in Polk Science since I have a class being taught right underneath the construction. Due to Mr. Dennis’ coordination with the construction team the sounds of construction no longer affect our classes.

Mr. Dennis said the exterior of the Planetarium should be completed by July with a few that will be completed on the interior shortly thereafter. Ideally, students will be able to come explore the Planetarium when restoration is complete. Mr. Dennis told me about how students from the 1960’s and 70’s still come up to him with fond memories of field trips to the Planetarium. In the future, Mr. Dennis hopes current K-12 Polk County Students can have those same memories.

At the end of our interview, I asked Mr. Dennis if he had anything that he wanted me to share in this blog. He spoke highly of the construction crew. Contractors are pretty set in their ways, but this crew has made the appropriate adaptations to their schedule based on our classes. As mentioned in previous blogs, the team is also trying their best to color match the textile blocks. When the Polk Science building was being built in 1958, students did the construction. With not much professional experience, each block had the potential of being slightly different. The construction crew is now having to match the original color of each block, which is difficult to do when they are all slightly different colors.

I learned so much more about the Planetarium during this interview with Mr. Dennis and I can’t wait for the next step of the restoration!

Interview with Andrew Pielage

Frank Lloyd Wright Architecture

Mar 16, 2021

by Kelsey Elmhorst
Student Reporter

Andrew Pielage is a self-taught photographer, from Phoenix, Arizona. He is slowly traveling to each of the 431 existing Wright structures to capture their beauty through his photography. He originally became interested in photography through his love of the outdoors fostered by his parents. This explains why he is so interested in Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture who highlighted the outdoors as the focus of his masterpieces. Before Andrew visits each site, he researches the background of each piece and thinks through his approach. It sometimes takes him hours to get the perfect shot.

Before the holidays, Andrew Pielage and I had an opportunity to chat. Our interview took place in Wright’s famous Usonian House on the northern side of FSC’s campus. He spent a week capturing the beauty of our campus and was particularly excited for this trip because there are 13 of Wright’s structures in one spot. As well as photographing the other twelve structures, he only took pictures of the inside of the Planetarium. Our hope is that he will return to photograph the completed restoration.

Planetarium Dome Construction
Photo provided by Andrew Pielage

As we walked to the Planetarium, Andrew described details of each building I had never noticed. He also studied the works of FLW’s personal photographer who worked closely with Wright to be sure each photograph captured the essence of his works. It was so interesting looking at the campus in this new way. When we reached the Planetarium, Andrew described to me different aspects Wright added to make this truly a special piece. The way the entry door is positioned keeps light from the main room. The floors are deep red with a sparkle accent, which makes it feel like you’re floating in space. The chairs are placed for optimal viewing. In the middle of the room sits the star projector, which is the centerpiece of the building, projecting images of celestial objects onto the dome of the planetarium. Andrew explained that the Planetarium was extremely active in the 70’s with as many visitors as a theater. When the restoration is done our hopes it that our students and visitors will be able to use it as it was intended.

Andrew’s perspective of Wright’s works gave me a new appreciation of the buildings I pass by every day.

A Bird's Eye View

with Mark Watkins of Henkelman Construction

Mar 8, 2021

by Kelsey Elmhorst
Student Reporter

On the same day as my interview with Jeff Baker, I met the contractor Mark Watkins with Henkelman Construction. He gave me a tour of the Planetarium construction site. It was my second time on the site since I’ve started this blog, and this time there was a lot more action and dust everywhere. Each time I interview someone involved in this restoration project; I learn even more that intrigues me.

Watkins has been a part of other projects on campus, like the Carol Jenkins Barnett Center for Early Learning and Health, The Blanton Nursing Building and Annie Pfeiffer Chapel. Watkins has worked on both new and restoration projects at Florida Southern College for quite some time.

Planetarium Dome Construction

With all construction projects, there are challenges that the team must tackle. Since late January, classes have been in session and I have personally experienced the disruption during my class located in the Polk Science Building. They have started to jackhammer on the weekends to minimize the impact they were making on student learning. Terry Dennis, Vice President of Finance & Administration, was adamant that the students’ walkways are not blocked on the southern end of the Planetarium. Now, there are barricades which enable the students to get to class safely.

Planetarium Dome Exterior

The team has also discovered unforeseen roadblocks as construction progresses and have had to think on their feet. One example, the blocks that need to be replaced took longer to remove than anticipated. In order to resolve this, they punched several holes in the blocks that were damaged to weaken them. Then using the jackhammer, they were able to remove them from the wall. Watkins also mentioned an additional challenge has been color matching the blocks based on location, weathering, water damage and age.

Watkins led me up a ladder to the top of the Planetarium. It was beautiful with an amazing view of the campus. He mentioned students used to stargaze from the roof, and I hope students will be able to do that again one day.

Watkins and his team create a weekly update for Dennis and the Division of Historical Resources at the State of Florida. He is honored to work on Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic pieces. His team is doing all they can to restore, keep the original design, and fix the shortcomings of Wright’s buildings. He predicts the project will be done in June.

Interview with Jeff Baker

Frank Lloyd Wright Architecture

Feb 22, 2021

by Kelsey Elmhorst
Student Reporter

Last Friday, I interviewed Jeff Baker from Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker Architect, the consulting preservation specialist for Florida Southern College. We spoke about his role with Florida Southern and how he has led the restoration efforts on campus since 2007. From his childhood home in upstate New York, he was first exposed to Frank Lloyd Wright when he saw a television special about the famous Fallingwater located in Pennsylvania. His pursuit of a career in architecture was because of that defining moment.

Baker explained that FSC created masterplan in 2007 for all the future restoration projects. Dr. Rob Tate met with Baker and asked him if he was interested in working with the school to preserve the iconic pieces on our campus.

Usonian House interior
Usonian House interior

The Water Dome was a dream of Frank Lloyd Wright, but the technology was not available during his lifetime, so a series of connecting koi ponds were put in its place. When Dr. Anne Kerr began her tenure as President, she decided that the restoration of The Water Dome to FLW’s full vision would be the first on the list. The attention received upon its completion confirmed that this was perfect way to begin FSC’s restoration efforts. After the Water Dome, restoration to the Esplanades, Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, the President’s Office Terrace (Emile Watson Building) among others soon followed. The most memorable was the construction from the ground up of The Usonian House in 2013. Wright intended this to be housing for the faculty and although it was designed, it was never constructed. Many visitors to campus have enjoyed visiting this space which houses unique internal design elements, including furniture. The restoration projects are funded by grants that Florida Southern applies for as well as private donors.

In 2020, the Planetarium was next up in the masterplan. Baker was contacted and was once again asked to take the lead. After months of preparation which included securing funding and studying the building’s original blueprints, a complete game plan was in place.

Also, during this process, a mason had to be selected who could successfully match the blocks to FLW’s original design. Baker and his team created 3-D models of different elements that are involved in the process, making these models help the team better understand how everything fits together. Baker mentioned to be on the lookout for when the construction moves to the phase of the curved wall on the southern part of the Planetarium. This will require carefully extracting and replacing the previously mentioned blocks.

Baker soon realized this is a living breathing campus. There is constantly activity and moving pieces on our campus. I asked him what he thought Frank Lloyd Wright would think of our campus if he walked through it today, Baker would assume he would be proud of the efforts put into preserving his work. Baker thinks that Frank Lloyd Wright felt that FSC’s campus was the clear lineage of his legacy and also his greatest work.

Did you know FSC has a Planetarium?

Jan 29, 2021

by Kelsey Elmhorst
Student Reporter

How many people are actually aware that Florida Southern College has a Planetarium? If you have been in Lakeland long enough you might remember the iconic snowman, Dean Holiday, which sat atop the Planetarium peering over Lake Hollingsworth signifying the Christmas Season. But because of the Planetarium’s current condition, it has not been utilized for a number of years. So, what exactly will be done to bring it back to life? The main goal is to repair and restore the damages caused by years of water infiltration and thermal movement both inside and outside of the building. With the restored planetarium students will again be able to utilize this re-imagined space in ways that Wright couldn’t have predicted.

There are many parts to this restoration, but here are a few highlights. Throughout many years of the harsh Florida weather there has been damage to the textile blocks. These will be repaired by cast-stone mixes and techniques successfully employed on the campus. Windows will be cleaned, sealed and lacquered. Like most restorations all switches, outlets, and service panels will be upgraded to current codes. The paint on the walls will be replicated to match the original and the floors will be refinished to Wright’s classic “Cherokee” red. Modernizing the infrastructure is essential in order to meet the high standards of not only beauty and safety, but the practical uses that will be enjoyed for years to come.

There have been numerous requests through the years from the Polk County School District for fields trips to this iconic structure. Currently, when astronomy professor Dr. Ron Pepino receives these requests he must decline. After the restoration is complete, Florida Southern plans on creating a public group called “Friends of Space” which will financially support the instructional space programs that FSC will offer to the public. This educational programming will impact K-12 students in Polk County and the surrounding area not only to the wonders of space, but also the academic excellence and beautiful campus of FSC. What an incredible way to widen the reach of recruiting more of our local high school graduates. Ultimately though, our own students and those who are members of the FSC Astronomy Club will be able to utilize this space for viewings and presentations.

We can only imagine how satisfying it would be for Frank Lloyd Wright to know that his meticulously designed Planetarium was being practically used by students on a daily basis learning about the cosmos.


A New Beginning

The Miller Planetarium Restoration

Jan 15, 2021

by Kelsey Elmhorst
Student Reporter

Florida Southern College is home to the world’s largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, with twelve astonishing and breathtaking structures. Wright named the collection “Child of the Sun” as a description of his designs. During his last visit in 1957, Wright described FSC as “the first uniquely American campus”. Since Wright’s passing, FSC has been gifted the responsibility of preserving his works. However, as time goes on these old buildings need a little assistance braving the Florida weather.

The next restoration project is the Miller Planetarium, which is located at the southern end of campus. FSC’s Planetarium was the only Wright-designed planetarium ever built and was the last building to be completed. Polk Science opened in 1958 and is home to mathematics and science classes. Since its opening, the Planetarium has filled students with awe and wonder, through stargazing and fascinating presentations.

With the challenging Florida weather, the Planetarium is in need of repairs to be restored to its original glory. Once these updates have been made, it will be again open to the campus.

The updates to the building will not only help keep the original design of Frank Lloyd Wright alive, but it will foster curiosity in students as it can be used in more of an educational context. All updates will remain aligned to the designs left behind by Wright. With a grant totaling $500,000, Florida Southern is able to make these much-needed updates.

The project supervisor is the Vice President for Finance and Business Affairs, Terry Dennis.

The College has asked me, Kelsey Elmhorst, to blog during the process of the Planetarium restoration. I am a junior Communications major with two Business minors at Florida Southern. Last year I had the opportunity to study abroad in London, through FSC. While I was traveling, I blogged about my experiences for my family and friends back home. Because of this blog, the FSC Administration asked me to document the restoration, which is expected to be completed Summer 2021. I’m excited to share each step along the way with you!