"Beauty is the Fruit of Our Labors": FSC Dedicates Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center

Nov 5, 2013

by Cary McMullen | Publications Editor
Usonian Visitors

Students, faculty, and residents of Lakeland tour the Usonian house after its dedication on Nov. 1.

Photo: Dr. Anne Kerr

FSC President Anne Kerr 

Photo: Jeff Baker

Wright scholar Jeff Baker of Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker (above) and the fountain he designed in the style of Wright (below).

Photo: Jeff Baker's fountain

LAKELAND (Nov. 5, 2013) – In a landmark event in architectural history, Florida Southern College opened the Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center, adding the 13th Frank Lloyd Wright structure to its campus. A Wright-designed Usonian house—the first of its kind to be built—is the centerpiece of the Sharp Center, which will serve to welcome an expected 100,000 annual visitors to campus.

The Sharp Center was formally dedicated over two days, with a special ceremony for the FSC Board of Trustees and community dignitaries on Oct. 31 and a public ceremony on Nov. 1. FSC President Anne Kerr declared that with the opening of the Usonian house, “excellence in education and innovation in American architecture” have come together.

The Sharp Center will serve as the welcome center for visitors to FSC’s famous Wright-designed west campus, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. FSC Trustee Dr. Robert Sharp and his wife, Peggy, gave the naming gift for the center. In remarks at the Oct. 31 ceremony, he said his family “couldn’t be happier.”

“It is a true landmark for our campus. When I think about the wonderful opportunities this center will offer to the City of Lakeland and Florida Southern, I think we are going to see 120,000 visitors here,” he said.

The Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center sits on a city block on the north side of the campus. In addition to the Usonian house, the center includes the Ruthven Plaza, the GEICO Gift Shop—housed in a refurbished craftsman-style home—a specially commissioned bronze statue of Wright, and a fountain designed in the style of Wright.

The 1,700-square-foot Usonian house is the first Frank Lloyd Wright design to be built on the original site for the original client in almost 60 years. It was designed in 1939 as a simple, low-cost home with a distinctly American character, and it was intended for faculty housing, although it was never built. The striking one-story building has many signature Wright features—cantilevered wooden beams, interlocking “textile” blocks inset with nearly 6,000 squares of colored glass, and expanses of floor-to-ceiling glass doors that make the beauty of nature an element of the home.

Under the direction of restoration architect and Wright scholar Jeff Baker of Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker of Albany, N.Y., Wright’s Usonian design was updated with modern features and building techniques, but it is otherwise faithful to Wright’s architectural plan, making the Sharp Center a new window into Wright’s genius.

In his remarks at the Oct. 31 ceremony, Baker called himself “the luckiest man alive” and eloquently praised the leadership of the College, especially President Kerr, for having the vision and determination to complete the Usonian house.

“Any act of building is an act of faith, in the future, in ourselves, and in our ability to shape the future. Your faith is in the future of mankind, that in spite of our shortcomings there will be a better future,” he said. “All of you here have resurrected something that was thought dead. But great ideas never die, and you have made certain this one will live for a new day. It was brought about by the greatest visionary to hold the presidency of Florida Southern since Dr. Ludd Spivey, Dr. Anne Kerr. … This miracle was wrought by Dr. Kerr, the miracle-maker.”

The Sharp Center features reproductions of furniture that Wright designed for use in the Usonian homes and a screening room for a 20-minute documentary film commissioned by the College about Wright’s architecture at FSC. The film includes rarely seen footage of former FSC President Ludd Spivey recounting how he first contacted Wright. Trained staff and volunteers are on duty at the center to conduct tours and provide visitors with information about the Child of the Sun campus.

The center also includes a remarkable and rare photograph of Wright by the internationally acclaimed portrait photographer, Yousuf Karsh. The photograph was donated by Karsh’s widow, Estrellita Karsh, after she was contacted by FSC Trustee Robert Puterbaugh through an intermediary.

Puterbaugh presented the photograph at a reception prior to the Oct. 31 dedication ceremony. He said when Mrs. Karsh learned about the Usonian house, she offered to the College the photograph of Wright, which was on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Also unveiled at the dedication ceremonies was the statue of Wright, which was created by nationally renowned sculptors Don Haugen and Teena Stern. FSC Trustee Dr. Sarah McKay organized the effort to commission the sculpture, and she thanked the private donors who had contributed to it.

Plans for the construction of the Usonian house as a tourism center began more than three years ago. Dr. Kerr thanked city, county, and state officials present, including Rep. Seth McKeel, for their efforts to complete the necessary funding to build the center.

Both Dr. Kerr and Baker also acknowledged the work of Rodda Construction Inc., of Lakeland, the primary contractor for the project, and the artisans who had painstakingly made the molds for the textile blocks, the glass insets, and the custom cabinetry and furniture.

“It has been a long road, longer than anyone predicted, but we have arrived,” Baker said. “Beauty is the fruit of our labors.”