The Miller Planetarium, the final building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern College, is undergoing a massive restoration. Closed for more than six years because of damages, the building is being revamped to once again be available to students and the general public.

The building was completed in 1954, just a few years before Wright’s death. Over the years, it has grown worn and cracked by water and heat damage. The current restoration involves the exterior, though those involved hope for a future interior renovation.

The work includes:

  • Replacing the roof and surrounding areas of the dome
  • Replacing the roof of lower terraces
  • Removing and replacing stucco in upper portions of the building
  • Restoring or renovating windows and doors
  • Replacing a number of cracked blocks around the outer shell of the building and around terrace on the west side.

Project architect Jeff Baker has studied Frank Lloyd Wright since the age of 14 and has been working on Florida Southern College structures for more than 10 years, as well as on a number of Wright’s houses.

Southeast view

The team has the original working drawings, which are simplified construction documents by today’s standards, though they do contain a number of details, Baker said.

“We’re seeing the building as being constructed, in the upper parts of the building, as constructed in different ways than any of us expected,” Baker said. “So we have to pivot a few times during the course of the work.”

Among the surprises were the discovery that the upper regions were veneer, steel, and an open cavity before the plaster, rather than the typical two layers of textile block, Baker said.

“Actually it’s not a bad thing because, especially behind the stucco work; we’re now able to insulate those areas, (which) had never been insulated before, so that’s actually a really big bonus for us,” Baker said. “So to gain some energy efficiency was a real big deal. The challenge of working on these Frank Lloyd Wright buildings is generally what you see is what you get. You get a concrete floor, a concrete roof, and concrete block walls and it’s really difficult to, you know, sort of integrate either building systems or insulation or anything of that nature. It’s a very elemental architecture.”

West Side of Miller Planetarium | Grace Newton photo

Most of the subcontractors working on the project are local other than the mason, said Mark Watkin of Henkelman Construction of Lakeland, contractor for the project. They hired an independent firm to do the roofing and a specialized mason to work on the textile block, as well as a few other specialists.

The textile blocks were developed by Wright as a way to “empower the individual,” Baker said. Wright created a number of buildings using the block process, and with Florida Southern College, he was essentially able to build a village using the system, with students involved in the original building process. Unfortunately, in execution, some of the blocks were soft, resulting in a strong building with shortcomings over time, Baker said.

The new blocks are built slightly differently, resulting in more robust pieces, Baker said. The team has used new technologies, including 3D printing, to make molds for the blocks. 

“The state Historic Preservation Office requires that we send them a block to inspect and we set blocks up against the building to be able to prove to them that they in fact match the original blocks, at least in appearance,” Baker said.

The funding for the project comes from a few sources. The college won grants from the Florida Division of Historical Resources and the National Park Service. 

FSC also received a donation from local philanthropist Gregory Fancelli. This is the first time he has been actively involved with a Frank Lloyd Wright project.

Fancelli said that he is a big fan of the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture on the Florida Southern campus and is proposing that the college apply to have the campus considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He said he was not aware of the planetarium’s state until about two years ago.

“I choose my projects on uniqueness, architecture relevance and based on what new use I feel I can give to a building,” Fancelli said. “The planetarium meets all the aforementioned aspects that motivate me to undertake a project, on top of the fact that its readapted use can benefit the public and future generations. It will be a space that can be enjoyed and admired as a product of a very specific time, designed by one of the most renowned architects of all time.”

The grants require the project to be finished by June, but the team hopes to be out by mid-April. Currently, the roof is completed, as is the removal of certain textile block. 

“We’re currently installing the new textile block where the others were removed,” Watkins said. “We’ve probably got two weeks left on the building and six weeks total.”

Terry Dennis, FSC’s vice president of for finance and administration and the project supervisor, acknowledged that one of the major supports for the restoration is the school’s use of the buildings.

“We use these buildings for really exactly what Mr. Wright designed them for,” Dennis said. “And there are few spaces where you can go and find an academically built and designed building still being used for the purposes that, you know, he put it in place for.”

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