J. Bruce Spencer : A Modernist Architect in 1960s Lakeland, Florida.
In 2014 we bought an interesting modern house in Lakeland, Florida designed by local architect James Bruce Spencer. During the course of restoring the 1958 house, I got in touch with the architect himself. Later that summer, Bruce and wife Jeanene (see photo below) visited us, shared their experience of living there and told how he was the 'modern' designer for a well established local architect named A. Wynn Howell.
Howell is known for designing the University Lutheran Church in Gainesville, the Lake Placid Tower, and other modern buildings in Central Florida.
Images of the University Lutheran Church from Florida Architect March, 1962.
Spencer worked in Lakeland for about 10 years focusing on residential projects before moving to Miami to work on more commercial designs. The Spencers retired to Raleigh, North Carolina, where they still live. Here is an overview of his modernist projects around Florida, especially those that made it into print.
Spencer Residence, 1958 2959 Oxford Ave, Lakeland, FL
The simple modernist house for Spencer and his young family stands out from the other houses on the street with its flat roof, front facade of stacked Ocala block and a band of windows running just below the roofline.
Completely private from the street, the floor plan is essentially two rectangular volumes - one for living and one for sleeping/working separated by a central courtyard screened on both ends and open to the sky above. The perimeter of the rooms looking into the courtyard are lined with cypress-framed french doors with plate glass. Spencer would use these in many subsequent designs.
The living room is centered around a superb Ocala block fireplace and a 12' long built in sofa. The block pattern is made by alternating the groove of the jamb blocks to superb effect.
Some years after the Spencers moved in, the courtyard was enclosed with a large skylight allowing natural light to continue to enter the living spaces. Sliding glass doors on both ends were added by the second owners. The house was featured in the Tampa Tribune in an article written by George Knight (Nov 12, 1961).
The owners after us hired Spencer to design a carport and an addition to the north side of the home which enlarged the kitchen and added another bathroom as shown in Spencer's sketch below. For a more detailed post on the house, click here.
Carport and addition sketch by J. Bruce Spencer, 2017
Lakeland Garden Club, 1958. (802 E Orange St Lakeland, FL)
Now a residence/catering business, this large Wrightian pavillion-style building has some superb details including cantilevered trellises and some lamps.
Chiles Residence, approx 1960. 91 Lake Morton Drive, Lakeland, FL.
Designed for the mother of then Governor, Lawton Chiles Jr., who was heavily involved in the Garden Club. This house has since been converted into offices and is currently occupied by Stahl Herdon Insurance. It overlooks Lake Morton to the west and features a skylight running the width of the main room, ribbon windows around the perimeter, a unique carved door and a six-car carport.
Baker Residence, 1960. 2614 Newport Ave, Lakeland, FL.
Modest house with open carport and skylight running the length of the main volume.
Polk County Centennial House, 1961. 119 Stevenson Rd., Winter Haven, FL.
(Image from Google Streetview)
The Polk County Centennial House Competition, run by the Polk Country Builders Association and The Architect's Association of Polk County, was won by Spencer in 1961. The competition invited designs for a three bedroom, two bathroom house with double carport costing no more than $19,000 and being no bigger than 1300 sqft. Spencer's design shows echoes of his own home, seen in the incorporation of a breezeway and vaulted roof profile. Spencer makes the Mansard roof more modern by using glass to give the pitched sections a floating effect. Redwood louvers between these windows draw hot air out of the house at either end. It was featured in the August 1961 issue of Florida Architect.
It was also featured in the October 1st 1961 edition of the Tampa Tribune and included the following photos:
J.E. Spencer Residence 1962. 1107 Seminole Ave, Altamonte Springs, FL.
Designed for Spencer's parents, this modest retirement home of 792 interior sqft was built on a wooded lot near Altamonte Springs. It utilized concrete block walls and 3x8 beams 24" on center. It was featured in the Tampa Tribune on April 7th, 1963. It has since been altered almost beyond recognition with a pitched roof added. Clerestory windows visible at the back of the carport are the only distinguishing features.
Sherrod Campbell III Residence, 1963, 1204 Rolling Woods Lane, Lakeland FL.
This stepped L shaped house creates a large private back yard on an otherwise public lot. It was featured in the Tampa Tribune on Jan 5th 1964 in an article titled 'Organic House'.
The porte cochere entry leads to a slightly sunken living room with masonry fireplace originally accented with a decorative wood hood, since removed. The bedroom wing was extended and the carport converted into a dining room.
Spencer revisiting the house in 2005. (Photo by Ernst Peters/Rick Runion)
Nosun Residence, 1963. 5175 Terry Lane, Lakeland, FL.
Two story lakefront residence of Ocala block with screening across both levels on the Scott lake side. It was built from Ocala block and incorporated vertical wood panelling to accent the recessed volumes. It was featured in the Tampa Tribune on 13 October, 1963. Possibly coming to market this year as photos have been uploaded to Realtor.com
McKechnie Residence, 1963. 697 Balmoral Rd. Winter Park, FL.
Overlooking Lake Berry, this three level home features a two-way fireplace, an eight foot high weathered-copper front door and an ample pool deck. It was featured in the Tampa Tribune on 21st July, 1963.
(Image from Google Streetview)
Clarke and Daughtery Medical Office, 1963. 130 Pablo St. Lakeland, FL (demolished)
Featured in the Tampa Tribune, June 2nd 1963, this medical office was fondly remembered by many Lakeland residents. An exercise in organic architecture, it included soothing interior waterfalls created by running water directly onto glass that enclosed interior gardens, and thoughtful natural lighting that had a calming effect on both patients and staff working there.
United Methodist Temple, 1963. 2700 S Florida Ave, Lakeland, FL.
A 550 seat sanctuary structure with laminated arches and a skylight running down the center.
Kortshot Residence, 1963. 5108 St. Charles Place, Tampa, FL.
Spencer's only Tampa commission, this single-story home looks south onto East Lake and features a very open floorplan, as requested by the Kortshots. Stacked Ocala block, carport and a porch that runs the length of the lakeside ensures access to the outdoors and cooling breezes. This house was featured in both the Tampa Tribune (April 14, 1963) and the Tampa Bay Times (September 13, 1963).
Lakeside Baptist Church buildings, 1964. 1720 New Jersey Rd., Lakeland FL.
Spencer designed four buildings for a new church on New Jersey Rd. They now sit behind a larger new church. They are visible form the aerial view as four flat roof interconnected spaces.
Milford Residence 1964. 315 Atlantic St., Melbourne Beach, FL.
This two storey ocean-front house was the second house designed for the Milfords. Mr. Milford was the general manager of Space Technology Laboratories and according to the architect, deliberately understated their financial situation as they did not trust architects to stay under budget. The first house was Spencer's first independent commission after leaving Wynn Howell.
After the Milfords split (apparently switching partners with another married couple!) Spencer was hired repeatedly to remodel, add to and connect the houses in the 1980s and this house is now unrecognizable from the original design (apart from the seafront side where the windows and deck are still similar). When a pitched roof of the remodeled house blocked the seaview of the neighbor on the lot behind the house, they simply bought that house and had Spencer remodel it into an office and guesthouse. This unified compound now exists as 'The Azure Estate' and the house to the north.
First Presbyterian Church, 1964. 5510 19th St, Zephyrhills, FL.
Main structure has since been added on to several times and modified.
Lakeland Police/Fire Station remodel, 1965. Massachusetts Ave, Lakeland, FL. (destroyed).
This design was proposed as a cost saving alternative to building a completely new firestation, repurposing an existing police station and incorporating it into the fire station. The project became contentious when cost overruns exceeded the estimates and more funds were required to finish the building causing delays.
Gateway Medical Arts Center, 1965. 1355 Orange Ave, Winter Park, FL.
Spencer considers this large professional building his most successful design and has continued to revisit it on trips to Florida. He was also consulted by the building's current owner to advise on sensitive restoration and adaptation.
The building features many delightful architectural elements including brilliantly simple but beautiful blockwork, hanging wood screens, dentil roof treatment and a skylight corridor flanked by a series of reflecting pools. Surrounded by bland newer buildings, this structure is a testament to Spencer's deft execution of his design skills. The original rendering and description below was featured in the Orlando Sentinel on July 25th 1965.
Smith Residence, 1966. 2209 Nevada Ave. Lakeland, FL.
An expansive 3000 sqft Ocala block residence that unravels across a superb lot just south of Lake Hollingsworth, this house featured many 'Spencer-isms' including the floating mansard, imposing fireplace and expressive blockwork. It even featured a unique concrete bench by the fireplace. It was featured in the Tampa Tribune on Jan 28th 1967 in an article titled 'House with a Sense of Humor'.
Long Residence, 1967. 2215 Nevada Rd, Lakeland, FL.
One lot south of the Smith Residence, this contemporary home has an interesting quartered plan organized around a central kitchen and staircase. Currently on the market for $650,000.