Wakulla Springs Lodge
The Artistry of Wakulla Springs Lodge
© Madeleine Hirsiger-Carr, Ph.D.
Friends of Wakulla Springs State Park Historian
When the Wakulla Springs lodge opened in September 1937 it was perhaps the most elegant building south of Tallahassee and a stop on the Scenic Coastal Highway connecting Tallahassee with Pensacola.
The Jacksonville-based architectural firm of Saxelby and Marsh had designed many Mediterranean-style mansions beginning in the first Florida land boom in the 1920s. Epping Forest, located on the St. Johns River, for instance, was home to Ed Ball’s sister and her husband, Jessie Ball-DuPont and Alfred DuPont, who died in 1935. The Ball siblings were extremely close and continued business deals until both died of old age.
Ed Ball’s private lodge was designed by the same firm out of Jacksonville. During the 1930s African-Americans living in the vicinity of the spring farmed or taught school in one-room schools adjacent to their churches. Soon, oarsmen who had guided visitors across the clear, deep spring, told Bethel and Shadeville residents of jobs at this new lodge. Workers were given food provided by local cooks on the Wakulla Springs grounds and they were part of making this marvel in the swamps take shape beside the huge freshwater Wakulla spring.
Wakulla Springs Lodge was constructed by artisans who built everything needed for the lodge on site. Blacksmiths, millwrights, masons, stone cutters, painters and artists all found employment building the lodge during the Great Depression.
Without these jobs, racial segregation separated white and black cultures. Black children attended a small one-room school in Bethel or the Shadeville High School. White children went to school in their own small school houses or to Wakulla High School. The only close encounters the black and white people had with one another would have been at work.
With the jobs that were available at Wakulla Springs the modern age appeared in full force to all of Wakulla’s rural people, regardless of ethnicity or background.
Boilers generated electricity. A pump pushed water into an elevated storage tank. Windows, doors and other wood trim were made right there on site. Pink and gray marble bathrooms with indoor plumbing appeared at a time when outhouses were the norm. Guests stepped through brass doors onto an elevator that took them to their rooms on the second floor. All this activity transformed local concepts of what a prosperous future could look like.
Painted Ceiling Tops off the Grand Lobby
In the face of a country’s lingering Depression in the mid 1930s and a looming war in Europe the decorated ceiling at Wakulla Springs Lodge is an outstanding emblem of the spirit of that decade. The ceiling icons represent a people who wanted to contribute their care, joy of life and inspiration through art.
Several observers have stressed the beauty of the eclectic ceiling decorations at Wakulla Springs lodge. What is striking about such an attribution is that the individual images that are painted on the ceiling are barely discernible save for four bird paintings, four paintings of Spanish galleons, a few land and seascapes, and two portraits of unknown women.
After 60 years, the ceiling — with financial help from the State of Florida, Division of Historical Resources and the Historic Preservation Board — was professionally conserved and cleaned.
So when you visit Wakulla Springs Lodge and take the famous river tour, or walk on the Sally Ward and Millie Frances nature trails, don’t forget to look up at the ceiling when you return to dine or stay overnight. Once you get an overall feeling for the ceiling — one of Florida’s folkart jewels — you’ll agree that whether you are dining in the Ed Ball room or staying in one of the historic 27 guest accommodations at the hotel, the ceiling adds another pleasant aspect to this National Historic and Archaeological District.
A new history book with full color pictures of the lodge ceiling has been published.
“Art and Marble in a Florida Swamp: A New Deal for Wakulla”
By Madeleine Hirsiger-Carr
Photography: Richard Brunck, David Moynahan, Bob Thompson
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Please visit the Wakulla Springs Lodge website for more information or for lodging, restaurant, catering, and events.