Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Award-winning design emerges from the ashes of Silver Springs fire

In December 1934, an advance group of four Seminole men began building a Seminole Village on a three-acre site, east of the swimming beach at Silver Springs. A group of 50 to 60 Seminole men, women, and children camped inside the park in an odd "living history" attraction near the same springs inhabited by Native Americans for hundreds of years (at least) prior. But this time they were on display for tourists visiting Silver Springs where they practiced traditional Seminole crafts and sold them as souvenirs.

The Seminole were apparently still living there early on the morning of June 15, 1955, when a young Seminole girl heard the sounds of a roaring fire and alerted Chief Robert Osceola. The Seminole leader then notified Oliver Allen of the Allen Reptile Institute, but by the time he reached the blaze the damage had been done. "Fire Guts Silver Springs" read the headline of the Orlando Evening Star, and the amount of destruction was estimated at a quarter of million dollars. "We are already making plans for a new building" Bill Ray, head of publicity for the attraction, was quoted as saying almost immediately. Then-owners of the park, W. Carl Ray Sr. and "Shorty" Davidson, quickly identified Sarasota architect Victory Lundy as the man to design the replacement buildings, and they quickly met and agreed on the scope of the project. 

The curved-building Lundy would design gracefully followed the contours of the famed spring basin where glass bottom boats floated above Mammoth Spring, the big reveal at the end of the magical ride over Florida's greatest natural wonder. The promenade fronted a 56,000 sq. ft. building with huge plate-glass windows, a staple of many mid century commercial buildings of what has come to be referred to as "Googie Architecture."  The flooring would be terrazzo, also standard for Florida mid-century architecture, but the entire structure would be air conditioned – then a novelty. 

A gushing newspaper review proclaimed that the new "sleeker structures" were constructed of "Sierra tan bricks" and featured the "abundant use of steel and glass." The new gift shop provided visitors with a "lovely tropical setting" and grounds surrounding the building have been "beautifully landscaped and provide great picture possibilities." The praise was well-deserved as Lundy's designs were recognized with accolades from Progressive Architecture magazine in 1956 and an award of merit by the AIA's national design competition in 1959. 

About the Architect

Victor Lundy from the Library of Congress

Lundy studied architecture at Harvard under the modernist legend and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.  He moved to Florida in 1951 and became part of what is now termed the Sarasota School of Architecture. On the occasion of his 100th birthday last year, world-architects.com posted this:

Lundy was trained in the Beaux Arts tradition at NYU (an education interrupted by WWII, where he earned a Purple Heart, a Victory Medal, and other honors) before venturing to Harvard GSD to learn by the Bauhaus method; such a traditional/modern education in architecture is, needless to say, a rarity. Following his Master of Architecture degree in 1948, a traveling scholarship, and years working for firms in New York City before licensure, he left for Florida and became a “member” of the so-called Sarasota School of Architecture. He designed houses, schools, and religious structures there in the 1950s before moving back to New York at the end of the decade, where he would work until the early 1980s, when he became a partner at HKS in Houston.

From the Library of Congress

from Wikimedia Commons

He created designs for many notable structures during his time in Florida – perhaps none as unforgettable as the breathtaking motel at Warm Mineral Springs.  Architect Magazine said this of the remarkable award-winning plan for the motor inn:

The U-shaped motel has a series of single-loaded rooms, entered from perimeter parking and overlooking a lushly planted courtyard. Above the rooms stand 14-foot-square, precast-concrete hyperbolic-paraboloid roofs that alter­nate in height. As originally constructed according to Lundy’s design, Plexiglas clerestories made the roofs appear to float, especially at night, with their undersides illuminated from within. “Designed to stop traffic,” Lundy said, the inverted roofs evoked the “fountain of youth” of the nearby warm mineral springs.

From Architect Magazine

From Life Magazine

Warm Mineral Springs Motel, 2011

The Lundy Center
Silver Springs has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. I grew up in Gainesville and before Disney World opened, all of our out-of-town guests were treated to a visit to Silver Springs. After I became an adult and moved to Orlando, years would pass between visits, but I experienced the Park in its many phases. My Dad and I almost missed a Johnny Cash concert because we were on the glass bottom boat. My wife and I visited on my birthday when the Park was full of exotic animals and a revolving tower lifted you over the spring. And when I heard stories of how the springs were impaired, I rented a canoe and discovered for myself how poor the water quality had become.

Throughout these changes Victor Lundy's pavilion has endured. When the State purchased the property, ending the roadside attraction era, the building showed its age. I had mixed opinions on my first few visits to Silver Springs State Park – I love the ability to kayak around the headspring but there was a huge void where all the animals and attractions had once been. The gift shop seemed a bit sad and the food offerings were underwhelming.

I visited last month, however,  and was pleased with what I witnessed. The parking lot was full and people were lined up to drop off their kayaks, canoes, and paddle boards. Lundy's building, now called "Lundy Center," had a new restaurant with a diverse menu and fun bar.  I ordered a falafel pita pocket and it was made fresh and very tasty. On this spring day the basin was full of people, paddling and experiencing what was formerly Florida's best attended tourist attraction and is now a much used State Park. 

March 2024

The Lundy Center still has issues – the restrooms were being renovated and based on appearances, they really needed a makeover. Exhibits from Silver Springs's glory days were scattered around in poorly lit areas and could do with better curation. But I could see behind the large plate glass windows, one area of the Lundy Center was being used for a private event, probably a wedding reception. The building now has a whole new life as a venue and as more resources are committed to its restoration, the space should only get better. 

Photographer: Lyn Larson | MAHAL IMAGERY

Just past Lundy's sweeping pavilion an interpretive marker explains the significance of the building's architect and introduces Lundy to a whole new audience who may never have heard of the Sarasota School of Architecture. In an op-ed I recently penned for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, I proposed that the buildings at Warm Mineral Springs, designed by Jack West, another member of the Sarasota School of Architecture, might receive the same treatment. Currently, those structures are in rough shape and demolition is being considered. But one needs only to look to Silver Springs to see the potential for restoration and renewal. 

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