SHARING HIS PASSION

SHARING HIS PASSION

FOR FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT ARCHITECTURE

BY TAMMY SEREBRIN

Dictionaries describe a Renaissance man as “a person with many talents or areas of knowledge; a person who has wide interests and is expert in several areas.” Dr. Brian Renz definitely fits that definition. A resident of Lakeland for the past 34 years and an ophthalmologist for 29 of them until his retirement 5 years ago, Brian has enjoyed a wide variety of avocations. He earned his private pilot’s license, flying his own airplane for a number of years. As a runner, he has participated in a number of marathons and ultramarthons all over the U.S. Brian golfs several times a week and boats and fishes when he visits his beach home in Sarasota. He has also recently developed an interest in classic cars. Not one to sit still, he does much of his own yard and home maintenance work. He gives back to the community volunteering monthly at Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine (LVIM). He and his wife, Jane, also spend a lot of time in the New York City area where his two grown children, Jessica and Jeff live.

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Brian’s passion is now serving as a docent for the Frank Lloyd Wright walking tours at Florida Southern College. He humorously stated, “My interest in Frank Lloyd Wright architecture is considerably more than casual.” He has combined his interest in travel with his interest in architecture, particularly in Chicago. “I have been interested in Chicago history since I lived there. A couple of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings were near the apartment where I lived. There are goofy people like me chasing all over the United States to see his architecture.” In addition to Chicago, he has traveled to see Wright’s homes and buildings in Arizona, New York, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

A year and a half ago, he and his son Jeffrey, and his wife Irene, who is an architect from Spain, took a docent led tour of the Florida Southern College campus Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. After the tour, Jeff asked his dad, “Why aren’t you doing tours over there? You love this stuff.” Brian commented, “Jeffrey’s encouragement inspired me to do it. I contacted the visitor center director, Mark Ilachac, and filled out an application; followed several more tours around the campus, did a lot of reading and research.” He now works one to two days per week and has led at least 100 tours. There are generally five public tours per day ranging 1 to 2 hours and additional tours booked by private groups. At present, there are seven docents trained and available to lead tours, most of them retirees and students who also work at the Visitor’s Center.

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Although I had taken Brian’s tours several times over the past year, I took another tour for the purposes of this article and to visit the two newest buildings unveiled on November 1, – the Visitor’s Center and the Usonian House. On a crisp beautiful day in December, I joined Brian’s tour with University of Florida History Professor, Howard Louthan, his son, Tony, and two of Dr. Louthan’s students. We started and ended at the Visitor’s Center and the Usonian House on the corner of Johnson Avenue and McDonald Street. What I learned from Brian’s tour on this day was that the newly built Usonian House is one of Wright’s homes originally designed to provide faculty housing and serves as a museum dedicated to Wright and his work on the Florida Southern campus. It is the thirteenth Wright structure to be constructed on the FSC campus, and is Wright’s term for what was his new style of typical American family housing: small affordable dwellings generally constructed of native materials. Only about 60 of these homes have ever been constructed.

He explained how Florida Southern was struggling between 1922 and 1938. The p
resident at the time, Dr. Spivey, reached out to Frank Lloyd Wright, who was considered the world’s most famous architect, with a brief telegram “…desire conference with you concerning plans for a great education temple in Florida.” Intrigued, Wright visited the campus that was mostly citrus groves and agreed to design for the campus saying, “I will build you a campus that will rise from the ground like a child of the sun.”

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Along the rest of the tour Brian pointed out the water dome and explained that it was “first designed in 1948 as part of the original plan and completed in 2007 with funds from the Hollis family.” We went into Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, the first Wrightconstructed building in 1941. Brian explained the architecture of that building in depth as he marveled at all “the trademark elements of Wright’s architecture that went into the building of the chapel and explaining how Wright designed this chapel with no religious symbols so it would be a chapel for all. We walked through the esplanades (covered walkways) where he pointed out that the supports for the esplanades look like palm trees; explaining that “Wright used elements of nature specific to its place when designing for certain locations.” We saw the outside of the original Roux library, the science building and the only Wright designed planetarium in existence. Along the way, he points out the names of generous benefactors whose names are etched in various places or buildings that are named for them praising local families such as various Publix families for their generosity in keeping the buildings renovated and expanding the campus.

Brian’s tours are lively, informative and totally engrossing. He is a fountain of information regarding anything Frank Lloyd Wright. “I enjoy taking people around. There are a lot of myths associated with Wright. If people ask me questions I can’t answer, I am always quick to get on the computer and get back to them.”

General operating hours of the Visitor Center and Gift Shop are daily 9:30 am to 4:30 pm with five public tours each day. More information about the Frank Lloyd Wright tours and tourism and education center can be found online at www.fsc.edu. Reservations for guided tours can be made by calling 863-680-4597. 

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