Florida's Hidden Gem

by Kimberly Button

YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW much about Lakeland. Located halfway between Tampa and Orlando, the city tends to get overshadowed by its big city neighbors. But this charming central Florida city is full of stellar, if not little-known, attractions, making it a destination all of its own.

From your first glimpse of Lakeland, you’ll recognize that this city is intent on improving

the quality of life for its residents, not for passersby that will only stay for a few short days. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not a fabulous tourist destination! Visitors will be pampered and treated like one of Lakeland’s own in this family-oriented city that has a surprisingly diverse array of arts and cultural attractions, creating a memorable getaway that’s loaded with fun and blissfully free of large tourist crowds.

The Wright Stuff

Unbeknownst, it seems, to just about everyone outside of Lakeland is the fact that the city is the surprising home to the largest single-site collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in the world.

In 1938, Frank Lloyd Wright came to Lakeland at the request of Dr. Ludd Spivey, president of Florida Southern College. Spivey wanted to create a “great education temple” in Florida, and Wright responded with designs for the “Child of the Sun” collection built on the college’s campus. Twelve of the originally designed structures were built as classroom buildings, chapels or other structures designed for student and faculty use, including a massive water dome and covered walkways. In fact, these buildings are still in use by students at the college today, though for how long, no one knows. The Wright structures have been placed on the World Monument Fund Watch List of the world’s 100 Most Endangered Sites, in large part because of deterioration of building materials due to Florida’s climate and modernization attempts that altered Wright’s original designs.
Guided tours of the Wright buildings are conducted during the week, with self-guided tours available on the weekends. You’ll start your tour in the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center, located appropriately in a Wright-designed building, and glimpse original design plans, Wright-designed furniture pieces and other artifacts from the legendary architect. Then it’s time to wander the small campus, with unobtrusive Wright-designed buildings seemingly rising from the landscape, including the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel where brilliantly colored glass squares are illuminated from the passing sun and the Science Building which houses the only Wright-designed planetarium that was constructed.

111 Lake Hollingworth Drive

High Flying History

While Lakeland is home to the world’s largest collection of Wright architecture, it’s also the surprising home of another world-class collection about a well-known figure in American history – Howard Hughes.

The Howard Hughes Aviation Collection is just one of the displays at The Florida Air Museum, the state’s official aviation museum and education center. Beating out major universities who also competed for the more than 8,000 items in Hughes’ personal collection, the Florida Air Museum’s mission was to ensure that these pieces so closely related to the nation’s aviation history were accessible to the public.

The Hughes Collection is just a small part of the many displays at this user-friendly museum where guests can get up close and personal with more than 50 aircraft spanning the history of flight. With no ropes or barricades blocking your view, you can peek into the cockpit and imagine what it must have been like to fly these unique planes.

“We’re a little unique that way, not having any ropes around the aircraft,” said Ernie Sanborn, Manager of The Florida Air Museum. “We want people to feel as if they’re walking through someone’s hangar.”

Once a year, The Florida Air Museum, which is located in a complex called Sun ‘n Fun, is in the middle of the nation’s second largest air show, known appropriately as Sun ‘n Fun Fly-In, and the area’s small regional airport suddenly becomes the busiest airport in the world during the event. “Aviation people know us a lot better than the people of Lakeland,” jokes Sanborn.

Regardless of when you visit The Florida Air Museum, you’re sure to enjoy a unique encounter with aviation history and aircraft preservation that’s not routinely found around the country anymore.

at Sun ‘n Fun
Lakeland Linder Regional Airport
off Airport Road

Artistic Expressions

More one-of-a-kind masterpieces can be discovered at the Polk Museum of Art, located in downtown Lakeland. This small but mighty museum showcases art throughout the ages in eight galleries and a sculpture garden which feature Pre-Columbian, Asian, African and Modern and Contemporary art.

A fun way to buy an original and affordable piece of art at the Polk Museum of Art is through their Art-o-mat. These unique, old-fashioned cigarette vending machines have been repurposed into art vending machines that sell original pieces of art that are tiny enough to fit in a small vending machine box, from canvases and sculpture to dolls and jewlery. There’s only five Art-o-mats in Florida and it’s great fun to choose an artist, put your coin in the machine and see what comes out.

800 East Palmetto Street

Tue-Sat 10am-5pm & Sun 1-5pm
(Jun-Aug Tue-Sat 10am-4pm)

Retrospect and Restoration: Paintings by Humberto Calzada thru March 26
The Big Picture
 thru March 26
Heavy Metal
 thru April 17
Women's Views
 thru May 22
Annie Leibovitz: Women
 April 2 - June 25
Young Curators: Montessori Selects
 April 22 – August 20
 May 27 - September 4

Starry-Eyed Performances

For a real treat, catch a performance at the Polk Theatre, one of only three atmospheric theaters still left in the state and one of only 25 in the country.

The Polk Theatre was originally opened in 1928 as a vaudeville and movie palace. Walking into the historic theater, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, you’ll feel as if you’re stepping into an Italian Mediterranean village. With a towering façade of beautifully recreated Italian buildings encompassing the stage, the décor is just as fascinating as the show you’ve come to watch. But wait, there’s more. Look up to the ceiling painted a brilliant shade of blue and be captivated by the twinkling stars, aimlessly drifting clouds and sunrise/sunset effects. Sitting in the 1,400 seat Polk Theatre, you know you’ve stepped back in time to a grander era, reaffirmed when an organist starts playing classic favorites on a 1926 Robert Morgan organ before the show begins.

The Polk Theatre features an eclectic mix of performances, from first-run and classic movies to concerts and other special events. “We’re trying to appeal to all ages,” said Dale Anderson, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Polk Theatre. “We want to offer a clean, respectable, good time.” It’s worth planning your visit to Lakeland around a performance that you’d like to see just to be able to experience the grandeur and historical charm of the Polk Theatre.

139 South Florida Avenue

Garden Delights

If you’re staying at The Terrace Hotel, then it’s just a short walk across the street to Hollis Garden, a 1.2 acre formal garden perched on the edge of Lake Mirror. This spectacularly beautiful city-owned garden has 16 distinctive “rooms,” all with a unique landscaping theme. Especially interesting is the Trees of Americana room, showcasing trees that are descendants of trees in historically significant locations.

From a lily pond and butterfly garden, to a secret hidden grotto and a vegetable garden, there’s something for everyone in this tranquil retreat that’s open for free to the public.

Just like its well-loved swans that have become a symbol of the city, Lakeland exudes a grace and charm that makes it distinctively unique. After a visit to Lakeland, you’ll feel like you’ve discovered a hidden treasure, and that’s exactly what this gracious city strives to offer to its welcomed guests.

702 East Orange Street


Festival of the Arts
APRIL 30 – MAY 8

• Special national touring exhibition of ‘Annie Leibovitz: Women’ at the Polk Museum of Art.
• Bok Tower Gardens celebrates Bok in Bloom! Florida Native Plant Celebration,
exhibit of Alice Hansen’s watercolors, ‘Florida Wildlife & Surroundings’
• Special tours of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture at Florida Southern College
and exhibition in FSC’s Melvin Gallery
• ‘Coming of Age in America’ exhibit of works by artists at Lake Wales Arts Center
and Michael Crews Gallery.

April 30: Imperial Symphony Orchestra’s Concert Under the Stars. Bok Tower Gardens. 7:30pm.
April 30: Marilyn Newell Youth Music Festival Competition. Lake Wales Arts Center. 9:30am-4pm.
May 1: Marilyn Newell Youth Music Festival Awards & Concert. Lake Wales Arts Center. 4:30pm.
May 3 or 4: Event to be announced at the Lakeland Center
May 5: Florida Outdoor Sculpture Competition, Cinco de Mayo ‘Central Park Stroll’ celebration.
Downtown Winter Haven.
May 6: Pecha Kucha – social/networking event.
May 6: Bok Tower Gardens celebrates National Public Gardens Day.
May 7: MIDFLORIDA Mayfaire by-the-Lake:
Cultural Festival. Art festival, food, entertainment, kid’s activities. 9am-4pm.
May 7: Mayfaire Saturday Night 5:30-11pm; fireworks 9pm.
May 7: MIDFLORIDA Mayfaire by-the-Lake:
Cultural Festival. Art festival, food, entertainment, kid’s activities. 9am-4pm.
May 8: Mother’s Day Carillon Concerts. Bok Tower Gardens.

from the March-April 2011 issue

Polk Theatre
Polk Museum of Art

Hollis Gardens

Florida Southern College chapel
designed by Frank Lloyd Wright