The Building

It’s been a long journey from the original Holy Spirit Catholic Church to the Lake Wales Arts Center.

Micheal Crews Gallery - 2018

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 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.

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.