Find Your Ground

By  |  July 9, 2013
Photograph by Alan Spector Photograph by Alan Spector

The house rises up from dark alluvial soil among the magnolias, sweet gums, and renegade ardisia that now grow too close to it, pushing toward the sun. Come upon it at dusk, before the sulfureous lights from the nearby highway mask the early stars, and it looks at once ancient and modern and completely impossible: this is Tallahassee, for God’s sake, where aspirational architecture means white columns and porticos and plaster rosettes, endless air-conditioned iterations of Tara and Twelve Oaks. This house does not celebrate the rectangular; it’s all arcs and hemicycles, one side wood and stone with half-moon windows; one side all glass with prow-shaped balconies cresting an invisible swell. It looks like one of those boat-shaped oratories hermit monks built on sea-whipped Irish cliffs a thousand years ago, secret, lonely and holy, but it’s unmistakably the work of America’s greatest architect, improbably planted in the North Florida woods. 

It’s not a ruin. It’s not even empty, not exactly, though the nonagenarian lady who owns it moved to a “retirement community” several years ago. There are two dusty upright pianos in the open living space of the ground floor and a disintegrating rococo frame big enough for Van Dyck leaning against the sweeping glass wall. The roof leaks, the mortar’s crumbling, and oak tree roots have worked their way under the foundations. It needs a good $250,000 worth of conservation and restoration. But the bones of the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in the state of Florida are still elegant and the cypress wood inside still the color of amber.

Wright never saw the house: he dispatched a young architect, a Taliesin Fellow named Nils Schweizer, to oversee the building in the early 1950s. Nils’s son Kevin, also an architect and a leader in the group trying to save the house, occasionally spends the night in it, kindling a fire on the sun-ray grate his father made. Kevin says, “There’s a spirit to this house, a sense of timelessness, permanence, truth, and beauty.”

The house has seen much truth and beauty. Painters and poets and campaigners for social justice visited here. Acts of conscience and bravery were planned here. The owners of this house fought their own class and caste at no small cost to their financial and social position. White supremacists threatened to blow up the house. But here it still stands, as serene and unlikely as a ghost orchid in a pansy bed.

In 1950, Frank Lloyd Wright traveled to Lakeland for the dedication of one of his “Child of the Sun” buildings at Florida Southern College. At a party in his honor, he found himself looking into the hyacinth-blue eyes of Clifton Van Brunt Lewis. She and her husband, George, a banker, were fans of Wright’s spare aesthetics and progressive politics. “Mr. Wright,” she said, “we’re the Lewises from Tallahassee. We have many children and not much money, and we want you to do a home for us.”

The eighty-three-year-old Wright, who had many children himself (eight), agreed that more children meant much less money—and vice versa. He suggested she start with a piece of property: not in a suburb, not some lot on an ordinary street. He wouldn’t begin to draw until he saw the shape of the land, the flora, the topography, the colors, the light. He told her: “Go out into the country. Find your ground, then get in touch.”

Perhaps he thought that was the last he’d hear of it. He was a star, after all; King George VI bestowed a medal on him in 1941, universities from Princeton to Venice bestowed honorary degrees, women bestowed sexual favors. Perhaps he thought Clifton Lewis would go home and confess at the next cocktail party—Y’all won’t believe what I said to Mister Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect!—and carry on raising her family in her charming Mediterranean-style cottage on one of Tallahassee’s most charming streets. But about a year later, she called him at Taliesin and reminded him who she was.

“Have you found your ground?” he said. She had: five acres on a red clay road five miles north of town with magnolias and oaks and wildflowers. There was a spring as well, cold as a February midnight, falling into a little brook. She had particularly wanted a spring, having spent much of her life drinking from them or cooling off in them during those long, steam-bath Florida summers. Springs, she said, are fountains of life.

In December 1954, Clifton and George Lewis and their four children moved into Spring House. It wasn’t officially finished and never would be. Wright’s plans called for a terrace wall and reflecting pool outside, and a lot of built-in furniture inside, which didn’t get made. “We gave out of money,” Clifton says.

 

The story of Spring House is about how two scions of the Old South—white, privileged, and optimistic—tried to coax, cajole, okay, drag their community into the New South. Architecture was but one of their weapons. According to Clifton, “Mr. Wright said he felt like a noble life needs to have a noble architecture for noble uses.” But the story of Spring House is also about love.

Clifton, her daughter Byrd, and I sit sipping fruit tea from thin Royal Doulton cups. It’s early spring, which means tulip trees in full perfumey bloom. From the fifth-floor windows of their small apartment, they can see the roofs of the mansions where the Lewises and the Van Brunts perched atop Tallahassee society. These days the houses are mostly law offices. Clifton’s son George Edward practices in one a few streets away.

She is 93 now, beautiful, with skin like bone china, and as animated as one can be while attached to an oxygen tank. She’s always worn white—“I just like it”—but in the 1970s, around the time the Lewises lost their bank, she stopped wearing conventional clothes and starting wearing flowing garments that look like a cross between a Carthusian nun’s habit and a pioneer wedding dress. She says they’re more comfortable. Today her dress, designed and sewn by Byrd, has a square neck, pinned with a gold brooch with three little diamonds. “George gave me this on the eve of our wedding.” She touches each diamond. “He said they stand for you, me, and us.

She smiles when she talks about her husband, who died in 1996. “He was just the best-looking thing in town—or anywhere else,” she says.

Clifton Van Brunt was Tallahassee’s May Queen in 1936. In the official photo, she stands flanked by her parasol-toting court, crowned with flowers. George Lewis was well-traveled, well-educated, and well-off, a catch for some nice young woman from a nice family who’d join the Junior League, grow prize camellias, and never challenge the racial, gender, or class hierarchies of Tallahassee. George, however, fell in love with Clifton. He courted her on land and on sea, taking her sailing on the Gulf of Mexico in a boat he built himself. He called it the Clifton. “It was so beautiful,” says Clifton. “George knew how to build curves.”

They were married in 1940; he was 26, she was just 20. Their son George Edward Lewis was born in 1941, followed by William Van Brunt Lewis in 1943, Clifton Byrd Lewis in 1945, and Benjamin Bridges Lewis in 1948. George worked at the family bank while Clifton was officially a housewife. She was not an unqualified success: George once gave her a book for Mother’s Day called “How to Keep House.”

Actually, neither of them worried much about conventional domesticity or impressing the country club. They were into improving the human condition. Most white Southerners in the mid-twentieth century expended their political sensibilities on the care and feeding of Jim Crow and, if they had a little time left over, being scared of Communists. Not Clifton and George Lewis. Clifton was raised by black servants, as were most white children of her class, but she would address any black person as “Mr.” and “Mrs.”—a small but significant rebellion at a time when a fifty-year-old man would be called “boy.” 

George thought world peace could be promoted through international law and a more powerful, more pro-active U.N. He and Clifton were traveling to a World Federalism meeting in Lakeland when they met Frank Lloyd Wright. They’d been excited by his Autobiography: here was someone who, like them, believed in pacifism and globalism and hated both ugliness of spirit and ugliness in the built environment. Clifton says, “Mr. Wright had wonderful ideas about how a house could have a soul, about unity and integrity and simplicity.”

That did it. A Frank Lloyd Wright house would liberate them from confining white Old South boxes while providing a warm family home. George had been raised in the 1840s Lewis House, but didn’t want to live like the members of what Clifton calls “the Tallahassee Fix,” the landowners and haute bourgeoisie whose goal was to maintain the class and race system which had served them so well. Clifton once bought a historic house, built in 1835 by George Proctor, a free black man. She rented it out as artists’ studios and offices for civil rights lawyers, trying to import Greenwich Village values to downtown Tallahassee. There was even a bohemian (by Tallahassee standards) coffee house in the basement where my mother remembers going to drink espresso and listen to poetry. Alas, Clifton’s creative community fell afoul of mounting bills.

In May 1956, Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson, students at Florida A&M University, paid their ten-cent fares on a Tallahassee city bus, then refused to sit in the back. The next few months saw a tense, though largely nonviolent, battle. According to the “Tallahassee Fix,” Clifton and George were on the wrong side. In his capacity as president of the Lewis State Bank, George had been quietly lending money to African Americans for businesses and homes, and providing bail money for jailed activists.

Clifton was more out front, marching with civil rights leader C. K. Steele and committing acts if not quite of civil disobedience, certainly social disobedience. White candidates for public office often visited black churches, so Clifton took a black city commission candidate to hers, St. John’s Episcopal, since 1829 the church of planters and politicians and other considerable white folks. She recalls the atmosphere being a little “icy.”

By the 1960s, the Lewises were notorious. George had been named chairman of the Florida Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Patricia Stephens Due, who as a FAMU student spent forty-nine days in the Leon County lockup for sitting down at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Tallahassee, recalls that Ben, Clifton and George’s youngest son, got beaten up because of his parents’ stance on integration. Once when Clifton was home alone, someone called and told her that men were coming up from Gainesville to bomb Spring House. 

A number of white people pulled their money out of the Lewis State Bank. George was “kicked upstairs,” Clifton says, and made powerless. The bank was taken over in 1974. She has no regrets. She reaches out to pet her and Byrd’s little dog, Sadie, and smiles at me: “I am rich in living and life.”

 

Spring House is built from the essential elements of Florida: limestone, sand, and cypress. There are a few steel rods, but the bottom level and the castle-ish “tower” housing the kitchen on the first floor, and the bathrooms on the second, is Ocala block, a mixture of concrete and the lime rock formed in the warm Eocene seas that covered Florida more than 30 million years ago. The eastern wall is all glass. The framing and beams are all cypress—Clifton says George called it “mean high tide cypress”—which grows both in and out of water and lives for thousands of years. George had built the Clifton out of the same wood.

With that big glass wall, the outside—the trees, the sky—comes inside. The circles and arcs of the house suggest the moon in its phases and the sun and its path across the ecliptic. In 1957, Mike Wallace interviewed Frank Lloyd Wright, saying at one point, “I understand that you attend no church.” Wright replied, “I attend the greatest of all churches. I put a capital N on Nature, and call it my church.”

Sometimes Nature isn’t kind: North Florida’s storms and rain have battered Spring House to the point where the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy put it on its “at risk” list. The Walmart, the motels, the Krispy Kremes and burger places that pop up like pimples around the nearby interstate have thrown the water table out of balance, so that the little spring that gave the house its name only runs intermittently now. But Kevin Schweizer, the Lewises, and a small army of master restorers, old friends, young students, and Wright aficionados aren’t about to let it slip back into the earth from whence it came. They’ve already done a couple of clean-up days to get the house ready for wholesale restoration. They’ve founded a not-for-profit educational institute, and organized a “Friends of Spring House” group to raise funds.

Clifton likes the idea that a new generation will be able to experience the house while working for causes she’s still passionate about: peace, environmental protection, art, music, literature. The stuff of the fully realized life. I put it to her that the house is intensely feminine, with all its curves and whorls. It’s a “she” the same way boats are “she”—the house is boat-shaped, too, I say, kind of like a bigger version of the boat George Lewis built in her honor.

“You know,” she says, “after George died, a friend came over to me and said, ‘Clifton, George was a lover.’ He didn’t just mean my lover, he meant that George loved life, loved the world, loved everybody.”

She looks up, smiling: “That’s the key, don’t you think?”


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Diane Roberts is the author of Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America, among other books. She teaches at Florida State University.