Sale of Wright House Assures Its Preservation

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
This home in Phoenix that was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright had been threatened by demolition but has now been purchased.
By FERNANDA SANTOS and MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
Published: December 20, 2012
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PHOENIX — A house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright here for his son was sold on Thursday, guaranteeing its preservation after it had been threatened for months with demolition by its owners, who had planned to replace it with new homes.
Related

Buyers of a Wright Home in Phoenix Reconsider a Deal ‘Too Good to Be True’ (October 26, 2012)
Critic’s Notebook: Wright Masterwork Is Seen in a New Light: A Fight for Its Life (October 3, 2012)

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The deal closed after at least one offer to buy the property had fallen through. Its former owners, Steve Sells and John Hoffman, principals at 8081 Meridian, a local development company, bought the property for $1.8 million in June and several times raised the price as the controversy over the potential demolition intensified.

The buyer’s identity has not been revealed; he requested anonymity as part of the transaction. He paid $2.387 million for the house, which Wright built in 1952 for his son and daughter-in-law, David and Gladys, according to Robert Joffe of Russ Lyon Sotheby’s International Realty, who represented the sellers in the transaction.

Its latest asking price was $2.51 million. The owners said they had raised the price to offset the mounting costs of fighting attempts to have the house declared a landmark, which, in Arizona, would delay any demolition for three years.

A victory for preservationists around the country, the sale came about through the intercession of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, a group that works to preserve the architect’s legacy. The sale unfolded in virtual secret; few people beyond the sellers, their agent, the buyer and officials at the conservancy were aware of its details.

The fight to save the house had galvanized preservationists and stirred spirited debates among City Council members over the value of preserving historically relevant structures versus the need to safeguard homeowners’ property rights.

The conservancy and other organizations petitioned the city in June to consider giving the house landmark status, after they learned of the former owners’ plans to split the lot to build the new homes. Three local government bodies approved the landmark designation, but the Council, which has the final say, postponed its vote twice, in part to give the parties more time to strike some type of compromise. There was also uncertainty over how some of its members would vote, given the homeowners’ lack of consent for the landmark process.

“If ever there was a case to balance private property rights versus the public good, to save something historically important to the cultural legacy of the city, this was it,” Larry Woodin, the president of the conservancy, said in an interview.

The latest agreement materialized over the span of two weeks, part of an effort by the conservancy to find a buyer or group of buyers for the property — and after the sellers had rejected prior offers.

Mayor Greg Stanton, who was among the most vocal proponents of landmark designation for the home, called the sale “an early Christmas present for the people of Phoenix and for the world.”

“This is a great piece of architecture, and we’re so proud and honored that it will be preserved for generations to come,” he added.

The house sits in the Arcadia neighborhood, in a lot overlooking Phoenix’s picturesque Camelback Mountains, which can be seen from most of its rooms. Its coiled design is similar to the one Wright used for the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Though little known before this, it is regarded among experts as one of the most significant of Wright’s later works.

Four years ago, Wright’s granddaughters sold the house for $2.8 million to a buyer they thought would keep it and preserve it. In June, though, the house was sold again to 8081 Meridian. An appraisal ordered by the city estimated the home needed about $300,000 worth of restoration work.

A petition started by the conservancy gathered more than 28,000 signatures from supporters around the world, calling for the house to be saved.

In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Joffe said it was “the most fulfilling deal of my 28 years in real estate” because of the significance of the house.

An Arizona-based nonprofit organization being established with help from the conservancy will maintain and operate the house and oversee its restoration. The new owner will also ask the City Council to grant landmark status, said the conservancy’s executive director, Janet Halstead.

The goal is to make the house available for educational purposes on a limited basis — ushering in what Mr. Woodin described as “a new chapter in the life of this important and unique Frank Lloyd Wright building.”

About one in five buildings designed by Wright have been lost to natural disasters, neglect or the pressures of development. Since its incorporation in 1989, the conservancy has helped rescue a number of them.

Included are the Burton J. Westcott House in Springfield, Ohio, which Wright designed in 1906; the Goestsch-Winckler House, built in 1940 as part of an uncompleted cooperative community in Okemos, Mich.; and the Ennis House in Los Angeles, which Wright designed in 1923 and which was extensively damaged during the 1994 Northridge earthquake.