- Melissa Wyllie
A House Can Have A Soul
The Florida Trust for Historic Preservation promotes the
preservation of the architectural, historical and archaeological heritage of Florida. At its heart, we exist to remember and protect the buildings and places which stand as a record to our shared history.
In Tallahassee, there is a turn off to a small road almost hidden in the bustle of North Monroe Street. It’s four lanes of asphalt and speeding cars across from a Waffle House and a Baymont Inn, but sixty years ago it was the middle of nowhere.
If you follow that street down a small hill and around a corner, offset from the street so it is barely visible if you aren’t looking, you will find an architectural masterpiece – the only private home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in the state of Florida.
The Spring House is an accomplishment in its own right. Today, architectural students and engineers that visit the property don’t understand how the upstairs is suspended over the living room downstairs. The house is constructed of graceful curves and glass walls. The design is part of Wright’s hemicycle style of concentric and intersecting circles – the last creative phase in Wright’s career.
In the 1979 nomination for the National Register of Historic Places, then Florida Historic Preservation Officer J. Rodney Little said, “The plan of the main bloc is composed of intersecting circles resembling a boat.”
And that’s what visitors see as they pull into the grounds of Spring House, a boat floating amid a lush 10-acre property filled with native plants, ferns, pines, magnolias and live oaks.
Known for its architectural significance, the Spring House is also a remarkable Florida story.
Byrd Lewis Mashburn grew up in the Spring House. Her parents were Clifton and George Lewis. She is the only person who has called each of the three bedrooms in the house her own, and knows the unique traits of each– which has the most light, which one a dove flew through a window. Today, she is also the president of the Spring House Institute, a non-profit organization seeking to purchase and restore the building to Wright’s original plan and ultimately create a teaching institute and public uses.
The house is filled with original details and irreplaceable building materials, like huge custom-made glass walls, “Ocala” limestone/concrete block with deeply raked horizontal joints, tidewater red cypress, green Formica counters in a circular kitchen (Formica was new at the time) and a round table custom made to fit in the living area beside a curved fireplace.
Mr. and Mrs. Lewis were ardent admirers of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. And in the early 1950s they had grown out of their house in the Los Robles neighborhood in Tallahassee. There were four children, and the yard in their current house was small. The Lewis’ needed space – both inside and outside of their home.
Mrs. Lewis read a magazine story her mother-in-law shared with her from Better Homes & Gardens with the title “A House Can Have a Soul.” She agreed, and knew that is what she wanted for her own home.
After World War II, the Lewises joined a group who wanted to do everything in their power to prevent another world war. In 1950 Mr. and Mrs. Lewis attended one of the organization’s meetings at Florida Southern College.
Florida Southern in Lakeland is on the National Register of Historic Places itself, as home of the largest single-site collection of Wright architecture in the world.
Because of this connection, it turns out Mr. Wright was at the College for an event during the same time – and the Lewises managed to meet him and Mrs. Lewis asked if he would design a new home for their family in Tallahassee. Amazingly, he said yes, and worked with the family over the next five years to make the unique Spring House a reality. The family lived in the house when construction finished in 1954 until the spring of 2010.
A coincidental meeting in a small town in central Florida created an irreplaceable treasure for Florida, and an interesting note in the career of what many people consider one of the greatest modern architects.
Today, the Spring House Institute is working to preserve the architecture, the story and the land the building sits on.
“I care about the land as much as I do about the house,” Ms. Mashburn said. “The house draws you outside. The wood going through the glass to the balcony draws you outside. You feel outside even when you are inside.”
The Spring House appeared on the "Florida Trust list of most endangered places in 2015" list of most endangered places in America in 2014. Today, it needs our help. Please visit the website to learn more about giving, and tours.
Do you have a Florida story you would like to share? Please email me, or share it with us on Twitter at @FloridaTrustHP and hashtag: #MyFlorida.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Melissa Wyllie is the Executive Director of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation.