Saturday, November 3, 2012

May the Circle be Unbroken

Frank Lloyd Wright's round Guggenhiem Museum in New York opened on October 21, 1959, instantly becoming one of the best known works of modern architecture in the United States. Three years later, in 1962, another round work of modern architecture was built in Orlando with much less fanfare. Today the American Federal Savings and Loan Building is known to many Orlandoans as simply "the Round Building." Perhaps downtown's best surviving piece of mid-century modern architecture, the commercial structure is slated for demolition because it is located on the site of the city's new Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Complex.

The building was completed in two stages – the first two stories were completed with wonderful pre-cast concrete screen wrapping the exterior. Designed to accommodate an expansion upward, the building was later enlarged with five additional stories surrounded by nondescript glass windows. When I moved to Orlando it was known as the Coral Gables Federal Building, and it was an icon before the "renaissance" of Orlando's downtown.

The Central Florida Modern group led by Kevin Schweizer, the son of Frank Lloyd Wright protege Nils Schweizer, has been working to preserve the pre-cast screen, also known as a bris soleil, since 2008.  They sponsored a design competition to find ways of re-using the trapezoidal shapes in a new context. This week they held an event at the round building allowing entry to the unique structure one last time. In addition to offering tours, the award winning designs for the panels were announced and the head of the Cosanti Foundation spoke about Archology, Paolo Saleri's philosophy that combines architecture and ecology.

I spoke with the wife of the round building's architect who shared that the design was influenced by her husband's love of all things nautical. She also said he didn't care for the addition of the glass cylinder to his original design, and I have to agree that it never quite looked cohesive. Originally the executives had offices on the second floor overlooking a central lobby where tellers where placed in the center of the room. A large round skylight overhead let in natural light. Details of the original building still intact were wonderful wood paneling, round ashtrays and small round tiles in the bathroom. The circle motif was carried throughout the building.

The winning concept

Image from the Daily City blog

Image of the expansion from the Orange County Regional History Center
I was glad to have the opportunity to see this building up close one last time, and I was impressed with the turn out. While it is disappointing that it will be demolished, I was assured by city employees that at least some of the bris soleil panels will be preserved for re-use. It will be interesting to see how they are utilized. I left with a new appreciation for this Space Age edifice, and a new awareness of the how manmade environments of the future may look. From today's point of view they look just as futuristic as the round building must have looked in 1962.

A skylight originally adorned the ceiling

Looking towards the new Dr. Phillips Center

1 comment:

  1. I wish I could see it one last time. Yet another "old friend" from my youth, gone. Thanks Rick, for the article. Lyn