by Diane Roberts | August 26, 2019

A Home as Wild as the Land

The story behind Spring House, the only residence in Florida designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright

Illustration by Stephen Lomazzo
Illustration by Stephen Lomazzo

Clifton Van Brunt realized the ambition cherished by all Tallahassee’s white debutantes: becoming the May Queen of 1936. The local newspaper breathlessly reported how she was crowned with lilies under the ancient May Oak “in one of the most beautiful festivals ever staged in the Capital City.” Clifton seemed set up to live the privileged life of well-off white folks in the South, but just 20 years later, you wouldn’t find her at the country club: she was too busy demonstrating in favor of civil rights, speaking out against social injustice, and integrating the town’s oldest and poshest Episcopalian church by bringing a black city commission candidate to Sunday services. In 1940, she married George Lewis, a well-bred young man from a prominent Tallahassee family who worked in one of Florida’s oldest banks—a bank his family founded in 1856. George was also an activist, and when he became president of the Lewis State Bank, he loaned money to African Americans when no one else would.   

The Lewises could have raised their children in one of the town’s pretty antebellum mansions (the Lewis family owned several in their time) or built a French provincial or Mediterranean manor in the suburbs. But they didn’t want to be like the people Clifton called “the Tallahassee Fix,” the town worthies whose life’s mission was to protect white supremacy. The Lewises wanted a different life, imbued with a more progressive, more egalitarian, more ecologically aware set of values. They thought their house should reflect their ideas. In 1950, Clifton and George attended a reception in Lakeland in honor of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design of the “Child of the Sun” buildings at Florida Southern College. The Lewises admired Wright, having read his autobiography and his architectural manifestos. Egged on by George, Clifton walked up to the most important architect in America and said, “Mr. Wright, we’re the Lewises from Tallahassee. We have many children and not much money and we want you to do a home for us.”

Wright, 83 years old by then, told them, “find your ground,” by which he meant not some lot on some ordinary residential street with tame shrubbery and clipped lawns, but wilder land, real Florida land. Then, maybe, he could do something for them. A year later, Clifton and George bought 5 acres off a red clay road a few miles north of Tallahassee. There were oaks and magnolias, and an icy little spring down the hill that would give their house its name. Wright used photographs and topographical maps to design the 2,300-square-foot dwelling (he never visited the property), sending Nils Schweizer, one of his Taliesin Fellows, to supervise the construction. In 1954, the Lewises and their four children moved into Spring House, the only private Frank Lloyd Wright house in Florida.

I’ve known the Lewises all my life. They are brave, determined and eccentric, with a love of music, books, painting and sculpture. For them, every human choice—even what your house looks like—should be in the service of doing good. Clifton once said to me, “Mr. Wright said he felt like a noble life needs to have a noble architecture for noble uses.”
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, even into the ‘70s, Spring House became a locus of activism. Clifton launched campaigns to save Tallahassee’s most historic buildings, including the Randall-Lewis House, built in 1835 by George Proctor, a free black man. In the late 1950s, she turned the building into artists’ studios and performance space, hosting the likes of Marcel Marceau, German actress Lilli Palmer and homegrown talents such as painter George Milton and potter William Watson. She also helped found an art gallery and a natural history museum, when she wasn’t out marching with Tallahassee civil rights leader the Rev. C.K. Steele.

Her husband George helped black-owned businesses when no other bank would let them in the door. In 1961, he was appointed chair of the Florida Advisory Committee to the federal Commission on Civil Rights. He and Clifton often helped post bail for anti–Jim Crow activists from Florida A&M University who’d been arrested at lunch counter sit-ins and demonstrations. The Tallahassee Fix didn’t like it. Some snubbed Clifton and George. Some took their money out of the Lewis State Bank. One night someone, maybe a Klansman, called Spring House and said some men were coming to bomb it. Clifton shrugged it off.

Spring House remains, unbombed and intact, in its tangle of green. I was 8 or 9 years old when I first saw it. My mother was dropping something off for Clifton, probably something to do with the LeMoyne Art Foundation—which Clifton helped found and my mother, a potter, joined. I was exhorted 1) to be very polite to Mrs. Lewis and 2) not to touch anything. I thought the house looked like a boat, magically run aground in a North Florida forest, or maybe an ancient temple. It was completely unlike my house or my friends’ houses, with their green shutters, pastel-tiled bathrooms and straight lines. Instead of hard edges, Spring House has curves. Even the kitchen is round. One side of the house is glass, the other is wood and blond Ocala block, a concrete and limestone mix, with lower windows that look like portholes and upper ones that open out like sails.

Clifton Lewis told me later I was right to think of the house as a boat, though the correct Wrightian term is “pod.” She always saw in the house an echo of the red cypress boat her husband George made for her and named The Clifton. “It was so beautiful,” she’d say, eyes sparkling: “George knew how to build curves.” Wright was pretty good at curves, too, and used cypress for Spring House. This iconic (and terrifically durable) Florida tree, also known as bald cypress or swamp cypress, can live for hundreds of years. 

“It’s so open and free. And the house took us out into the woods. Even the lines on the floor take you to the door—it says ‘come on out’!”

The question these days is: can Spring House make a hundred years? George died in 1996; Clifton died in 2014 at the age of 94, an agitator to the end. One of the last times I visited her, she was on an oxygen tank, but determined to talk about the persistence of racism in Florida and our chronic water pollution. There was a huge LGBTQ rainbow flag draped over her bedroom door. Clifton’s dream was that Spring House would become a place for artists and social activists to get together and make the world a better place. That’s going to take a lot of money. The house still looks as though it’s growing from the North Florida soil, not imposed on the land but somehow of the land, as much a part of it as the oaks and magnolias that surround it, serene as a cathedral. But, according to Byrd Lewis Mashburn, George and Clifton’s only daughter, the house suffers from a leaky roof and foundation subsidence. Some of the plate glass has been replaced by plywood. The National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Spring House as one of the nation’s “11 most endangered” sites of 2014.

One hot July morning, Byrd and I sit on the semicircular built-in sofa, an arc answering the glass arc looking east. She now lives at Spring House, and it is not air-conditioned. But with the doors and windows open, there’s a shade-cooled breeze, fresh as well water. Byrd says growing up in Spring House was a child’s dream: “It’s so open and free. And the house took us out into the woods. Even the lines on the floor take you to the door—it says ‘come on out’!”

I look down: the lines in the concrete floor, dyed Wright’s favorite Cherokee Red, indeed draw your eye to the hundred shades of green beyond the glass. The house will not let you ignore Nature. As Wright wrote in The Natural House, “We have no longer an outside and an inside as two separate things. Now the outside may come inside and the inside may and does go outside.” 

During their lives, Clifton and George tried to take care of the house, but their many social and cultural causes spread them pretty thin. Despite their grand lineage, the Lewises were not rich. The bank declined, partly because of the couple’s politics, and was taken over in 1974. Byrd and the rest of the family would like to sell the house to the Spring House Institute, a charitable organization set up to preserve it. Byrd gives tours of her home, and the SHI and its scores of volunteers make repairs and clear the grounds of the invasive plants that threaten Clifton’s garden. Byrd points to the plantings her mother, who usually dressed all in white, put in: gardenias, sago palms, two-winged silverbells, and a white-blooming member of the Tradescantia family—commonly called a wandering Jew—spreading out its delicate leaves. “Mother called that one wandering gentile,” Byrd says.

This past summer, UNESCO named eight Frank Lloyd Wright buildings World Heritage sites, putting them in the same class as the Taj Mahal, Chartres Cathedral and Stonehenge. They’re mostly the famous ones: the Guggenheim Museum, Fallingwater, Taliesin, Hollyhock House. Spring House is not among them. But this global designation underscores Wright’s importance to our artistic patrimony. Byrd hopes Wright’s World Heritage status will bring more attention to Spring House, helping the Institute to raise the $1 million it needs. Until then, she’ll show paying customers the circular fireplaces and sweeping balconies, apply for grants, marshal volunteers. It’s what her parents would have done. After all, Spring House isn’t merely a dwelling, it’s a sculpture, a work of art by one of America’s great artists, imbued with the generous Florida souls of Clifton and George Lewis.