About us

The Lake Wales Arts Council is an organization led by community volunteers.

Our mission is to build a community where art and culture thrive, enriching the lives of people. Our vision is to create a vibrant cultural arts destination.

Our volunteers serve in a variety of capacities: creating decorations for our Make It Magical holiday event and Fourth of July bike parade; serving as hosts and hostesses at various events;  recruiting artists for special events; and organizing events such as our annual Arts Festival and exhibitions that bring excitement to the Lake Wales community.

Our History

In 1972, five men and women who wanted art to not only survive but thrive in Lake Wales joined forces to incorporate the Lake Wales Arts Council.

It was the mission of the late Michael Crews, an attorney; Mary Combs and Marilyn Newell, community volunteers and arts patrons; Marie Kirch and Milford Myhre, carillonneur at Bok Tower Gardens, to provide a central organization for the sponsorship and encouragement of cultural and educational activities in the area. In its early years, the Council used the Lake Wales High School auditorium and sponsored one concert annually. Groups included the Florida Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Mummers and the Texas Boy Choir.

Also in 1972, Music at Pinewood, an annual chamber music series, was co-sponsored with Bok Tower Gardens. In-school programs were offered for the first time, using local artists and visiting performers.

In 1975, the Arts Council assumed the responsibility for the annual Lake Wales Sidewalk Art Show, which has grown into the Citizens Bank & Trust Lake Wales Arts Festival. Twenty artists exhibited to a crowd of 3,000.

In 1979, the Arts Council merged with the local Community Concert Association to provide a major artist series of two to three concerts per year, using the high school auditorium and various churches for concert venues. Artists included the Dallas Brass, National Opera Company, Atlanta Chamber Players, Austin on Tap, Eugene Istomin, the Imperial Symphony Orchestra, Dance Alive, American Balalaika Company, Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Chamber Brass and The Alexander String Quartet among many others. Community volunteers ran all activities.

In 1989, the Arts Council joined with local preservationists to save the former Holy Spirit Catholic Church, which had outgrown its congregation. When the church became available for sale, Mrs. Frances Dollelan Updike, a parishioner, and Ann W. Norton, local artist and educator, spearheaded a group who vowed to raise the money to purchase and transform the mission-style church, which was built in 1927. They purchased the building with funds from the community and the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. Renovations began to convert the church to an arts center with a performance hall in the old sanctuary and an art gallery and arts library in the lower level. A storage space was converted into an office for the first part-time executive director for the Arts Council.

In January 1991, the renovated Lake Wales Arts Center opened to the public with a black-tie gala, followed by a weeklong arts festival. A few months earlier the Arts Center had been named to the National Register of Historic Places. The executive director position became full time. In addition to performances in Updike Hall and Exhibitions in the Michael Crews Gallery, other programs were added, including  ArtsCamp!, a music and art summer camp for children ages 6 – 12.

In 1992, the Lake Wales Art Show moved to the shores of Lake Wailes and continues to grow. The student division of the Lake Wales Art Show has grown to include more than 600 pieces of art with every school in the area participating.

In 1996, the First Annual Children’s Interactive Exhibit: Let’s Go to Egypt took place, and it drew more than 1,000 children participants.

In 1998, a capital campaign focused on the repair and restoration of the historic structure; the building of a new gallery and education wing and on increasing the endowment fund.

In 1999, a $194,000 Cultural Facilities Grant and a $33,000 Historic Preservation Grant were awarded. A total of $1.4-million was raised for the restoration and new wing. In the spring of 2000, restoration of the historic structure began and was completed by the fall. In March 2001, construction began on the new Michael Crews Education Wing and Gallery. The new gallery opened on November 2, 2001.

The Lake Wales Arts Council continues to meet its mission to promote, encourage and celebrate the arts for the enhancement of community life.

The building

It’s been a long journey from the original Holy Spirit Catholic Church to the Polk State College Lake Wales Arts Center. Although the Lake Wales Arts Council no longer owns the building, we are proud of our long association with this beautiful structure, and we look forward to a long and successful partnership with Polk State College, which now owns the building.

For more than 60 years, this handsome edifice served the needs of the Holy Spirit Catholic Church.  When that congregation became so large that it needed a new home, this lovely mission-style building became inadequate for their needs.  With the help of devoted citizens and community leaders, the Lake Wales Arts Council acquired the building and arranged for a State Historic Preservation grant to begin the restoration into adaptive use as a center for the visual and performing arts. Special attention was given to keeping the original fabric and “feeling” while still making it accessible.  Since the acquisition, the building has become a center for lively and varied arts experiences and yet retains its place as a local architectural statement, majestically commanding the skyline.

We hope that visitors will enjoy the special beauty of this unforgettable building and will share our joy in the fact that it is still in use, a living part of the fabric of the community.

It’s a masterpiece! Renovations at the Polk State Lake Wales Arts Center are better than ever. An unexpected roofing repair has made the building stronger than ever before in its more than 80-year history.

Artfully reborn

In late 2011, the College and the Lake Wales Arts Council announced an innovative collaboration that involved the College accepting title to the Lake Wales Arts Center. In exchange, the college agreed to renovate and maintain the facility, built in 1927 as the Holy Spirit Catholic Church.

Those renovations, meant to enhance the building’s structural integrity and functionality without altering the historic character, began last summer and were finished in February, 2013.


The College centered its focus repairing the rotunda of the building’s sanctuary, a project that proved more involved than originally anticipated.

Initially, the college expected to simply replace roofing tiles on the rotunda. As the project got under way, however, it became clear that the roof needed new structural supports as well.

“After further investigation, we found that the structure had the possibility of collapsing,” revealed Robbie Manikis, planning and construction project engineer for Polk State Winter Haven. Manikis said when the building was originally built, its rotunda was supported by wooden beams.

“Over time, the wood deteriorated from the weight of the roof. You could visually see that the roof was sagging,” Manikis added. A new steel structural support system to reinforce the rotunda of the building’s sanctuary was installed in mid-February, and new roofing tiles were installed immediately afterward.

“The building should stand nice and tall for decades to come,” Manikis predicted.

Among the work that has been completed:

  • Two classrooms have received cosmetic upgrades, including new flooring and paint, and modern instructional technology.
  • Restrooms have been remodeled to meet code requirements and have received upgraded finishes.
  • A student seating area has been created in the lobby of the building.
  • The exterior of the building has been repainted and a grassy courtyard space has been finished with pavers and outdoor seating.
  • A waterproofing barrier has been installed around the exterior of the basement.
  • Stained-glass windows have been rebuilt and protected behind a layer of hurricane-rated glass.
  • All broken sidewalks and handrails have been repaired.
  • Upgraded signage and landscaping has been installed.

In addition to the Polk State Lake Wales Arts Center, Polk State offers classes in downtown Lake Wales at the Polk State JD Alexander Center, as well as at campuses and centers in Lakeland and Winter Haven.

Architectural heritage

By the early 1920s architects throughout Florida had designed Spanish-style villas, missions and haciendas to serve the exuberance of the unexpected real estate “boom.” Addison Mizner successfully convinced wealthy Northerners that they had the makings of a new Riviera in Palm Beach and Boca Raton.  Exclusive neighborhoods from Jacksonville to Winter Park to Sarasota imitated the new Mediterranean style based on centuries of architectural evolutions dating from ancient Rome.

Borrowing from Roman, Byzantine and Renaissance details, the so-called “mission style” of the Lake Wales Arts Center has its truest roots in the Spanish Colonial architecture of the 18th century found throughout the Americas.  Arches and tiled roofs on stucco walls are the common features of this provincial style.  By the late 19th century, “mission” buildings carried at least some flourishes adopted by every Western culture since the High Renaissance.  Even a casual study of the Arts Center confirms an amicable and obvious kinship among the architectural styles composing this design.

Little is remembered locally of the personalities of the builders themselves.  The architect was Peter Cornelius Samwell of Winter Park where much Renaissance or Mediterranean styling appeared in public and residential building.  The landscape architect and decorator was A. E. de Leon, while R. W. Burrows Construction Company erected the Holy Spirit Catholic Church in 1927.

The first record of Mass being celebrated in the vicinity of Lake Wales was in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Kirch of Starr Lake in 1915.  Not until 1926 was there a plan for a mission church to be built in Lake Wales.  By this time, Florida’s land boom with its strong economy had prompted some very large donations to the building fund.  Fortunately for succeeding generations, the determined Catholic families persevered through the devastating Depression, thereby bequeathing this architectural jewel of the Ridge.

Although the Holy Spirit Catholic Church was a mission for much of its life, the church grew steadily for the next 60 years.  By 1988, the congregation had far outgrown the limited capacity of the beloved old building and a new Holy Spirit Catholic Church was built on 9th Street.  By imitating the style of the older structure, the architects created an excellent example ofmodern Spanish Mission architecture.

When the building became available for sale, Mrs. Frances Donnellon Updike spearheaded a group of individuals who vowed to raise the money to purchase it and transform it into the new home of the Lake Wales Arts Council.

The architecture

The former church is perhaps best studied first from the south entrance on SR 60 E.  Here one gains awareness of the sturdy simplicity of the mission style. True to form, the somber stucco walls carry little or no scriptural ornament. Then one notices the rhythmic grace of the modified bell-shaped gable topped by a simple Latin cross.  The two lower gables are scrolled in different forms to contribute depth and harmony.  Small windows and niches in correct scale add to the impression of a much larger and older edifice.

Turning the corner while walking west, you gain the view that recalls the Renaissance antecedents which suggest the building’s design is far more complicated than first imagined.  Here are seen the components that derive from Constantinople to Rome and only much later farther West.  A second entrance duplicates the south front with no sense of boring repetition whatsoever.  The warm colored clay tiles on the sloping roof confirm the ageless satisfaction from using natural materials.  Yet underneath the roofline is a decorative and dimensional scalloped border imitating the early Medici villas in Renaissance Italy.

The greatest visual satisfaction comes, however, from the asymmetry of the structures rising from the pitched tile roof itself.  First, the slender tower-like chimney with its arched ventings under an unexpected roof.  Here is the whimsical license enjoyed by architects of this period, since this narrow “tower” serves no functional purpose.  Next to capture our imagination is the masterful octagonal dome featuring sixteen clerestory windows and topped, surely unexpectedly, by an octagonal cupola which is topped itself by another assertively simple Latin cross.  Remember, in truest mission-style form, one might expect at best a simple curved dome of a half-sphere sitting directly on the roof.  In contrast, the great and massive Cathedral of Mexico City has a very similar octagonal dome with only eight windows and topped as well with an unexpected cupola.  Once again, the uncommon detailing adds a sense of size as well as importance, contributing a fool-the-eye success.

Finally, the great tower on the building’s east side provides a singular and dominant strength to the overall plan.  One can easily imagine long-silenced echoes from the sonorous tolling of an ancient bell cast in some forgotten village in southern Spain.  This stately tower reaches toward the inspirations of all those seeking joy and beauty within this timeless sanctuary.

The south façade provides the doorway to best view the interior’s modified Basilican form which certainly derived from Roman and Byzantine architecture dating from the Fourth Century. The Roman Catholic Church devised a cruciform version which this building loosely imitates.  From this narthex entrance one looks to the north end which now offers a performing stage.

The fluid sequence of the arched side aisles reminds us again of the influences from Roman, Byzantine and even Moorish architecture. The simple squared pillars are made more classical by their flat Corinthian capitals forming pilasters.  The inside walls feature the extraordinary relief sculptures of the Stations of the Cross, just as they might have been set into thick, ancient walls.

Throughout the interior the simulated stonework provides additional classicism along with color and texture to the overall interior design.  The simple niches become Renaissance statements with their elaborate plaster branches sprouting from behind deeply scrolled brackets.

The rafter-and-beam framing of the high pitched ceiling also recalls centuries-old building techniques with esthetic success. Combinations of local woods including pine and cypress were darkly stained to simulate the antique.

The additional height provided by the dome’s airy inside is an admirable feature which must have required highly skilled drafting.  The original hidden lighting system in the dome was certainly sophisticated for its time and appears as a modern feature today.  One decorative note comes from a newspaper account reporting that originally the dome’s inside was painted blue with applied stars giving “at night an entrancing effect.”

That same news reporter was inspired to write following the building’s dedication in 1927, “One might easily believe that this interesting structure had, with its time stained walls and ancient tower, slipped in from some bye-gone day and settled down for centuries to come in its new modern surroundings.  One must leisurely study the building on its four sides to discover its subtle charm and complete harmony.”  The Highlander, 12/16/27.

 Original history of the building by Mr. Grady McClendon.

Michael Crews Education Wing

The community response to the Art Center’s quality programs in just ten years overwhelmed the capacity of the historic structure built for the needs of a 1927 church congregation.

A Capital Campaign called You Gotta Have Art, chaired by Robin Gibson, was formed in 1999 to raise funds for repairs and restoration to the existing structure and to add additional classroom and gallery space needed to allow the Arts Center to expand its programs of art and music to the community and surrounding area.

Lake Waleans who had known Mike Crews and his love for arts, suggested that the new building be named in his honor and memory.  The Lake Wales Arts Council unanimously agreed. Michael Crews, Mary Combs, Marilyn Newell, Marie Kirch, and Milford Myhre were the signers of the original Lake Wales Arts Council Charter.

Michael Crews was President of the Community Concert Association and was instrumental in merging that organization and the Lake Wales Arts Council.  In the past, Mrs. Mary G. Combs, president of the AAUW, and other interested citizens, tried to purchase a closed movie theater for a performance and arts venue.  When this effort failed, these same people formed the Lake Wales Arts Council to promote the arts in Lake Wales. Mrs. Combs became the first President of the Arts Council and planned community concerts for many years.

When the property of the Holy Spirit Catholic Church became available in 1988, Frances D. Updike, a parishioner, and Ann W. Norton, artist and educator, co-chaired a movement to purchase the building as an arts center.  Mrs. Updike prevailed upon D. Patrick Cain to serve as campaign chairman.  Mr. Lawrence Beery, Jr. was president of the Arts Council at this time. In the fundraising effort, Michael Crews proved invaluable in helping raise the needed funds.  For years prior to this, he also served as the pro bono attorney for the Arts Council Board.

Crews also was the founder of the Lake Wales Chorale and spent much of his short life involved in the arts in Lake Wales.  His dedication to and love of the arts helped the art scene in Lake Wales to change and continue to grow and flourish.  It was only fitting to honor his memory by naming the new addition the Michael Crews Education Wing.