Wright’s “Ship in the Woods”

© Mark Hertzberg (2022)

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Tallahassee, Florida is well off the beaten track in the World of Frank Lloyd Wright. It is 1151 miles southeast of Taliesin, 971 miles from Oak Park. And it is 270 miles from the Wright-designed campus at Florida Southern College where Clifton and George Lewis attended a World Federalist Conference in 1950. Florida Southern is the largest collection of Wright buildings at a single site, and Wright was on campus that day, too, for the opening of his new administration building.

LR Lewis Spring House 135.jpgThe Lewises met Wright at a reception, and, says their daughter Byrd Lewis Mashburn, asked him to design a house for their family of six. “We have a lot of children and not much money.” Wright agreed, and told them to “find your ground, not on a lot.” By 1952 they found a five acre parcel on the outskirts of Tallahassee, with a natural spring that flowed to Lake Jackson. The spring is what makes the house known more popularly as the Spring House, rather than the Clifton and George Lewis House. The house was built in just nine months in 1954.

LR Lewis Spring House 125.jpgMashburn has fond memories of growing up in the house

“It was a noisy, light filled, family fun, zoo! We were a loud and rambunctious bunch; when we got too rowdy, our dad would say, ‘No rough-housing, no monkey business!’ He was the oldest of eight children, five boys and three girls. He had already lived with a lot of rough-housing and monkey business.”

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“I moved away from Spring House when I was 20 and retuned to help my parents at the end of 1994. Our father died in 1996 and I continued to live with Mother until she could no longer live here in 2006. My brothers Ben and Van and a niece lived here together and separately until mid-2010. It took us a couple of years to empty the house of all family belongings and prepare for what we have been doing since the beginning of 2013, events and tours to raise funds for Spring House Institute, the 501(c)(3) tax exempt non-profit corporation which is doing this preservation project, to acquire, restore, complete, maintain and manage Lewis Spring House as the learning institute our parents dreamed for our home. Our mother died in 2014 and I moved back in the house in 2017. We continue to work towards those goals.”

The house has alternately been described as hemicycle and pod-shaped. This photo has wide angle distortion because I could only back up so far in the woods to show it all. This is now the master bedroom balcony, formerly the boys’ bedroom:

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The nautical theme of the house, from the prow-shape to porthole-like windows is not accidental.

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Lewis Spring House

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Mashburn explains: “Mother and I were both named for her mother, Clifton, and our dad named the sailboat he designed and built for our family after Mother…The “Clifton” was a huge, all year, part of our lives. It was 21’ long, 8’ wide and weighed 2 tons, constructed out of tidewater red cypress…

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“…They would pack the car the night before and wake us up in the dark to make the trip to Spring Creek where he kept the Clifton in fresh water to keep the barnacles from growing back so fast. He didn’t want to scrape and repaint the boat more often than he had to, and gave each of my brothers, George Edward, Van and Ben, a turn doing that with friends. He’d get them started. It was my turn when the boat was struck by lightning and needed a repair that my father wasn’t able to leave work to do himself…My parents gave me the Clifton in 1977 and I planned to build a square screen house around it and have it as the bedroom. It would have been wonderful. It is beyond repair but still holds us all in our hearts. 

“I believe that when our parents told Mr. Wright how much the Clifton was part of our lives all year, that is what inspired the design of our home. When I told William Storrer that, he heartily agreed with me. He said, ‘Absolutely! That is exactly the kind of thing Frank Lloyd Wright looked for, something the family treasured to somehow incorporate into the design of the family’s home.’ And look what he [Wright] gave us! A ship in the woods!”

Spring House is admittedly in rough shape. That is why the family formed a 501(c)(3) to raise money for the extensive repairs needed. And that is why visitors make a $50 tax-deductible donation on-line before paying $25 a person to schedule a tour of the house. It is money that goes to a worthwhile cause. Mashburn was not reticent to let me photograph the house in full detail, problems and all. I am interspersing my photos with her memories about growing up in Spring House.

LR Lewis Spring House 017.jpgThe living room, master bedroom balcony, and dining room face the woods.

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“The house was full of sound when we were home. It has amazing acoustics! Everyone in our family is deaf more or less and I really believe part of it is always trying so hard not to hear that we eventually couldn’t. At some point pretty early on, our parents bought a hifi stereo with an FM/AM radio and there was lots of music. In the beginning it was primarily classical music and some opera…We had a baby grand piano and a copy of the Great American Song Book, and we’d sing songs together. Van could play many of the songs.

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“We had room at the built-in dining table Mr. Wright designed for us, to all have our meals together, then get ready for school (we all did our homework on that table) or head out to the woods or play with our animals: a black dachshund named Princess Margaret Rose, my cat named Snicklefritz, my goat, Goatie, and 10 acres to explore. Van [one of her brothers] fed squirrels corn in a large bowl on the terrace wall were it ends, and had an incubator in the basement where he hatched out baby ducks for the pond. Our dad made homebrew and scuppernong wine in the basement. Years later, different boys I had gone to school with told me they had had the privilege of having some of our dad’s brew with him when we were in college.” 

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“…when weather called for it, our dad ALWAYS built a big roaring fire (to keep the furnace from kicking on as long as he could) so the house was full of those wonderful burning oak smells mixed in with aromas of the bacon and coffee in the kitchen.”

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“And he had a smoker on the half-pod concrete point out of the east double-glass doors. Winter was duck hunting season and my dad and brothers would hunt down the road at Lake Jackson (early Native American name was Okeeheepkee, our road’s name; it means disappearing waters!) so he would smoke or grill ducks, and later mullet out there. In and out of the right hand door he’d go, and those delicious smells would mix and mingle with the other things cooking and the firewood burning. A little breeze might come or go with him so occasionally smoke would blow out of the fireplace; some of what’s on the chimney hood. If as rarely happened, too much smoke was blown into the living room, one of us children would go outside to the porthole windows and open one or two until it dissipated inside.”

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LR Lewis Spring House 083.jpgThe balcony outside the master bedroom overlooks the living room and then continues outside, facing the woods.

“There was a croaker sack rope swing across the stream and a huge dead oak to cross over to the swing. We’d climb our dad’s 12’ step ladder (used to wash the windows with) and one of us would carry the rope over to the person on the ladder and we’d jump off and sail out over the stream! We’d yell as loud s as we could, “Ahh-ya-bah-yaaaaa!!! And when we’d swing back to the ladder another of us would jump on with us, in the other direction. There was enough water in the stream to drop and land on our behinds, one at a time. My brothers swam in the pond; I don’t remember doing that but I did used to sit in the pool of cold clear spring water below the 5’ waterfall before our dad had the dam built so we’d have the pond. The pond was always full until sometime after an unpermitted storm water pond was built next to our south property line and didn’t perk. It was built above pipe clay, or Fuller’s Earth, and changed the way the underground water worked. We hope to restore our spring so we have water all year again, instead of five or six months when the ground water level is high enough to fill up the pond.”

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The shape of the house is echoed in the curved lines in the living room floor:LR Lewis Spring House 121.jpg

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The kitchen is curved and diminutive. It is on the first floor of the round tower by the front door. The two bathrooms are on the second floor of the tower. These steel beams will support the roof between the front door and the washhouse (the small structure to the right of the stairs in the photo above) when funds are raised to rebuild the roof.

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LR Lewis Spring House 075.jpgThe photo above was taken looking up from the kitchen.

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The living room balcony is also the upstairs hallway:

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The master bedroom, formerly the boys’ bedroom:

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A wood screen overlooking the living room balcony can be opened and closed:

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Wright wanted one large bathroom, but the bank that was going to make the loan for the house specified two bathrooms for a home with six occupants:

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Clifton and George Lewis were civic minded and active in the local civil rights movement. Their accomplishments were recognized by the county board. Their footprints are among those permanently etched in a downtown sidewalk on the city’s Downtown Heritage Trail, along with those of 50 other civil rights “foot soldiers.” A bus boycott, like the famous one in Montgomery, Alabama, forced the desegregation of city buses:

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You can help support the restoration of Spring House with a donation:

https://www.preservespringhouse.org

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9 thoughts on “Wright’s “Ship in the Woods”

    • Hello, Georgia, please do come for a visit and support this preservation project of the only private residence designed by Frank Lloyd Wright built in Florida!!

  1. Thank you so much, wrightdeshi! Spring House Institute needs any interested parties that believe Frank Lloyd Wright’s work is important to please become a FOSH and renew every year. We don’t pester anyone with emails or constant posts and hope you appreciate that and remember this historic preservation project by visiting the website, preservespringhouse.org.

  2. Byrd! You’ve done wonders for the house! It looks marvelous. Is it too late to keep my pledge?
    I’ll write. — Nan

    • Thank you so much, Nan, it’s great to hear you say so! It’s not too late to help us and funds are much needed, COVID has been a set back as for everyone, so we look forward to hearing from you!

  3. Nice Wright up Mr. Mark. Just returned from celebrating a 50th bday celebration down in tallahassee. Never forget to pay Spring house w/ visit. Volunteered a bit of time helping Byrd to wash windows vacuum rugs and adjust a few door latches like one does to keep all hands on deck. Imagine what it would be like to see a reflection pond mirroring indirect light thru out spring house.

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