Friday, October 26, 2012

Who Wronged This Wright?

I didn't think it was possible.

Granted, I'm just an amateur student of architecture myself, but I'm still dismayed when somebody says they've never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Fallingwater, the Kaufmann country house at Mill Run, PA
Wright was one of America's greatest architects, and popularizer of the prairie style of housing design that has become ubiquitous across North America's suburbs.  About 500 of his commissions actually got built during both sides of the turn of the 20th Century, but he designed twice that many projects, some of which are just as famous as what got built.

His most renowned commission was Fallingwater at Mill Run, Pennsylvania.  To this day, his exquisite multi-level stone and concrete country house for the Kaufmann family, perched over a real waterfall amongst elegant trees and grand slabs of rocks, is considered one of the best - if not the best - piece of American design in our country's history.

Unfortunately, his talent was only outmatched by his ego, yet considering both of those, and aside from some stunning projects in suburban Los Angeles, the bulk of his work was built in relatively uncelebrated places.  Places like Oak Park, Illinois, one of Chicago's first suburbs.  Wisconsin.  And Arizona.

The House Scholars Forgot and the Family Sold

Ahh, yes, Arizona!  After spending years on the frigid prairie around Spring Green, Wisconsin, Wright relocated his design studio, which he called Taliesin, to the much warmer climes of Scottsdale, in Arizona's desert.  In suburban Phoenix.  Which became his base of operations from the 1930's until his death in 1959.

Despite - or more likely, because of - his famous career, Wright had a miserable family life.  He cheated on his wives countless times, seemed to father children left and right, and made little effort to hide any of it.  Yet one of those poor children, David, received a special gift from his father:  a custom-designed house near Camelback Mountain, surrounded by an orange grove.  David and his wife, Gladys, lived there for decades, with her surviving him and eventually passing away in 2008, at the age of 104.  Their heirs, three granddaughters, sold the house - a unique spiral of concrete and steel - for $2.8 million.

Turns out, the property is no longer surrounded by orange groves, but sprawling mansions and luxury condominiums, all relishing their rarefied air in the shadows of Phoenix's rustic Camelback centerpiece.  The Frank Lloyd Wright original may have been sold for three million based on the pedigree of its designer, but somehow, the house ended up being flipped - for much less money - to a couple of carpetbagging developers from Idaho.

Two guys who'd never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright.  And had no idea a place like Phoenix, Arizona was home to such an architectural treasure.

They bought the place with plans to tear it down, subdivide the lot, and construct two brand-new miniature estates in its place.  Apparently without any research into the history of the property.

Not that a cursory inquiry into the home's provenance would have yielded anything significant.  According to the New York Times, which has been faithfully following this developing story for the world's architecture community, not much is known about this house, even though it was built in 1952.  David and Gladys did not want the elder Wright's notoriety to infect their family's home life, so they never welcomed the type of academic study that has chronicled other Wright designs.  Basically, it had fallen off the radar of many Wright scholars.

But not completely off of everybody's radar!  When word got out that a vintage Wright project had slipped into the hands of indifferent developers, suddenly preservationists were coming out of the woodwork to save the place.

Past Perfect Preservation

The David and Gladys Wright Home in Phoenix, AZ
It's a clever gem of a house, with a circular ramp from the ground up to a second level, under which is tucked a carport.  It's been described as shaped like a desert rattlesnake coiled to strike, but in actuality, its form is far less menacing.  Gracious and warm, with a delightful garden in its center, David and Gladys' home features many of the personal touches Frank Lloyd himself was famous for designing, such as chairs, windows, and other fixtures and furnishings specifically original to this home, and still in remarkably good condition.

For better or worse, however, those Idaho developers only saw money to be made.  A funky old house with a floorplan too odd for conventional buyers, and lots of prime real estate begging to welcome yet more McMansions.  And that red glazed plaque by the front door?  Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic "logo," as it were?  So what?

Blame the developers for only having dollar signs in their eyes if you like, or blame the public school system in Meridian from which they graduated (they were friends from high school), but isn't it also curious that it took some out-of-state developers to light a fire under Arizona's preservationists?  According to the landmark preservation document slapped together in the city's recent efforts to stave off its demolition, the property is described as "the most significant work within the city of Phoenix by the most significant architect in American history."

If that's true, and it probably is, why did it take its imminent demise, four years after the death of its last original owner, before scholars, designers, preservationists, and critics rallied around its cause?

According to the Times, Arizona law is strong on property rights and weak on historic preservation.  Perhaps that reality plays some role in why Arizona's Wright aficionados are having to scramble with a demolition moratorium that will only last three years anyway.  But who dropped the ball when the elderly Mrs. David Wright finally passed?  In 2008?  When plenty of Arizona scholars should have been aware that a prized Wright design could be in peril?

Maybe the family should be blamed, since it doesn't seem as though they cared much about the home's heritage.  If the granddaughters simply needed the money, couldn't a trust have been formed to purchase the property from them and preserve it?  Many heirs sell the family homestead for a variety of reasons, but this wasn't just any old family homestead.  To a certain degree, as the historic preservation landmark request states, this house is a remarkable amenity for Phoenix, which as a relatively new city, boasts precious little historic architecture.

Money Hounds Save White Elephants

Granted, money doesn't flow amongst Phoenix society like it does in Chicago and New York, where historic preservation is a way of life, and plenty of deep-pocketed donors with ready access to cash gladly fund a variety of preservation efforts.  And architects, in general, aren't the most wealthy of professionals.  That $2.8 million is chump change to a New York hedge fund manager, but for an Arizona designer, it's likely several years' salary.

Perhaps this is typical of what happens in "fly-over country," where other deserving architectural gems fail to attract the attention of angel investors willing to fund a piece of American history for posterity's sake.  It's unlikely any other buildings of this home's stature have simply been bulldozed for lack of interest, but should these developers from Idaho be left holding the bag when they try to do it on a previously forgotten Wright house?  If this property wins historic preservation designation for even three years, that's three years that the developers won't be able to recoup any of their investment.  Even if they got a good price for it back when nobody else was watching, and even though they had no clue about its provenance.

To their credit, now that the Idaho developers have been educated on the home's value, they admit tearing it down doesn't make the most sense.

"Does the house deserve landmark status? Yes. This place needs to be preserved,” one of them conceded to the Times. “But when three Wright granddaughters sell it for $2.8 million, for me to carry the cross for Frank Lloyd Wright, that’s not fair.”

And that's true, isn't it?  Why should two developers from Idaho, even though they'd never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright until all this mess blew up in their faces, be stuck with the cost of something the Wright family and Phoenix preservationists either couldn't - or didn't want to - assume themselves?

Frankly, altruism can only go so far.  Sometimes lessons are most strongly learned from loss.  If Wright's family and his present-day admirers can't scrape together the money necessary to purchase this home and preserve it, and since the property was acquired fairly and squarely, why not let the ball bounce where it may?

Even if it's a wrecking ball?


  1. The Wright family doesn't hold the house currently; the Idaho men do. The author of this piece seems to hold the Wright's accountable for not knowing the future, yet he doesn't hold the developer's accountable for not doing their homework into the past. There's a Bruce Springsteen Wrecking Ball Tour traveling the country, and the drummer is Max Weinberg--he might be very interested in saving this house, so maybe someone will see my comment who is connected to him in some way. Ironic, huh? Wrecking Ball Tour. But Max recently gave a talk about Wright and how he loved the Guggenheim (he cousin sneaked him in to see it when it was under construction). DO THE WRIGHT THING! Save this house.

  2. Don't get me wrong - David & Gladys' place looks cool, and I think based on its design alone, it deserves to be saved. Add the FL Wright pedigree, and I think it definitely should be saved. But by law, its owners can do what they want. The Wright family did what it wanted - they sold the place. The developers did what they wanted - they bought the place intending to tear it down. Historic preservationists can't have their cake and eat it too. But I think it speaks volumes that Wright heirs sold the place to pocket the $, knowing it could be destroyed or even extensively renovated. I hope preservationists can raise the cash to buy it from the developers, but it's theirs to tear down if they wish. This is a pivotal moment for civic pride in Phoenix - can the city save this original gem?


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