SAVING THE DAVID AND GLADYS WRIGHT HOUSE
Photo by Scott Jarson
Photo by Scott Jarson
In 2012 the world almost lost a highly personal and unique work of architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright—the David and Gladys Wright House (1950-52). Wright designed the Phoenix, Arizona, house for his son David and David’s wife Gladys. David died in 1997 at the age of 102. Gladys continued to live in the house until her death in 2008 at the age of 104. David’s only son predeceased his father and the property was inherited by three granddaughters. David and Gladys Wright were private people and the house, despite its remarkable design, was not well known or studied.
It was reported that David and Gladys had not considered legal protections desirable during their lifetimes and, when the house was placed into the estate, the heirs could not agree on formal protection. They opted to sell the house in 2009 to a buyer who stated that she planned to restore it and use it as a residence. The Conservancy was tracking the status of the house and was encouraged by these reported plans. But our concern grew after that sale. The house stood vacant for two years without any sign of life during which time the custom-designed carpet based on a circular motif was removed and sold at auction. Bought for $2.8 million in 2009, the house came back on the market in 2012, at an asking price of $2.3 million.
In late May 2012 the Conservancy was notified by a preservation-minded local realtor that the house was under contract. As we tried to learn the identity and plans of the prospective buyer, a bombshell hit.
The conversation was related to Fred Prozzillo, preservation director at Taliesin West, and he informed Jack Quinan, Conservancy board member, who was visiting in Scottsdale. Quinan contacted the Conservancy immediately. It was 6 p.m. on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend when an intensive seven-month effort to save the David and Gladys Wright House began.
My first call that Friday evening was to restoration architect John Thorpe, then-vice president and advocacy committee chairman of the Conservancy. Though it was a holiday weekend Thorpe was able to reach Conservancy president Larry Woodin and board members Susan Jacobs Lockhart and Neil Levine, who together gathered more local intelligence and identified those who would become key local partners. When the Phoenix city offices reopened the Tuesday after the holiday, we learned that indeed a lot split application had been made. This clearly indicated the demolition intention. Our task force quickly determined that we should rush a request to the city for consideration of landmark status. If accepted, this would trigger an automatic hold on any demolition permit until the landmark question was decided. Since the process involved several steps and three recommending bodies, it would buy precious time as we worked to find a solution. It was very important to enlist other organizations, both local and national, to support our request. Time was short before the next meeting of the Phoenix Planning Commission on June 12, a meeting that would occur before the closing on the property, so it was possible that the buyers might abandon the purchase if it was clear there would be substantial opposition to their plan. Several local organizations joined our request, as did the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Society of Architectural Historians.
Debbie and Scott Jarson of AZarchitecture/Jarson & Jarson provided expertise in the local real estate market and access to a wide network of colleagues involved in modern architecture in Phoenix. Jim McPherson, president of the Arizona Preservation Foundation, knew the statewide and local preservation community and grassroots organizations and became a valuable liaison with groups such as Modern Phoenix and related blogs and social media. Grady Gammage, Jr., noted real estate attorney and former chairman of the Phoenix Historic Preservation Commission, agreed to work pro bono and became our guide in the technical process as well as the state and city political factors impacting our mission.
Combined with the impressive background brought by our own Conservancy task force, now joined by David De Long, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, this group constituted a dream team for the preservation task ahead of us. Starting on June 4 the team met weekly or bi-weekly through the summer and into December, coordinating the calls with all U.S. time zones and Paris time (where Levine and Lockhart were residing for several months). The support of Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton was unequivocal from the start. Few preservation challenges are fortunate to have a preservation proponent at the head of government, but Stanton had issued a letter shortly after he came to office, and well before the David Wright House issue emerged, urging the city’s historic preservation commission to take steps to safeguard the mid-century modern legacy of Phoenix. However, the city manager form of government limited his powers and the city council was the decision- maker. The mayor’s special assistant, Brendan Mahoney, was intensively involved and represented the mayor in communicating with all parties to save the house and find an equitable solution.
The Conservancy prefers to work quietly behind the scenes whenever possible. However, in this case the immediate goal of protection from demolition had to be accomplished quickly and publicly. On June 12 the Planning Commission voted unanimously in favor of our petition to consider landmark status. Approximately one week later the deal closed and 80/81 Meridian, the partnership of Steven Sells and John Hoffman, became the new owners. We turned our attention to the buyers, attempting to convince them of the special value of the house and the tragic implications of their demolition plan and offering alternatives that would still provide a respectable return on investment. Several options were considered, including using the Wright House as a guest house for a larger new primary house on the property or even a three-way lot split. Though these approaches might trivialize Wright’s architecture and fracture the site they were preferable to losing the house altogether. Even so, the developers rejected those proposals as not satisfying their profit objectives. Somewhat counterintuitively, a scheme for a much denser development—subdivision into five or six parcels combined with a viewshed easement—became the best development option from a preservation perspective: smaller units would cluster around the Wright House as the centerpiece and focal point. This creative proposal came from Will Bruder, architect of the Phoenix Central Library and award-winning residences. The Jarsons developed economic feasibility numbers illustrating that the innovative cluster approach was likely to be more profitable than the owners’ plan to replace the Wright House with two undistinguished, over-built mansions.
It became clear that Sells and Hoffman were not interested in any alternatives. The only solution would be to find a new preservation-minded buyer or buyers. The owners did leave the door ajar to reselling the property if the Conservancy could bring purchase offers to the table. The balance of summer 2012 was dedicated to identifying prospects that might be interested in buying the entire property to preserve it or to serve as transition owners to allow more time to find a lasting solution.
Meanwhile the landmark process was ongoing. Complicating this scenario was the issue of owner consent. Because of a state law that paved the way for compensation claims for alleged financial losses resulting from state and local government actions, including preservation actions, Phoenix had adopted a practice of requiring owner consent before proceeding with any hearing or recommendation process for historic designation. Initially it was not clear if the landmark consideration process would proceed at all, given the adamant opposition by Sells and Hoffman. At one point Sells was even quoted in the media promising that if the building was landmarked, he would wait out the mandatory three-year demolition delay and then destroy the house. Fortunately, instead of stopping the process in the initial stages, as it would have done for a less important house in the face of owner opposition, the city decided to proceed through the recommendation hearings and deal with the owner consent issue when the matter reached the city council. Undoubtedly, the Conservancy’s involvement, the letters we marshaled from national architecture experts attesting to the importance of the house, the concerns of vocal local citizens, local media coverage and the mayor’s support, helped bolster the city’s decision to allow the matter to work its way through the process. Michelle Dodds, then acting historic preservation director for Phoenix, oversaw preparation of the city staff recommendation, written by her colleague Kevin Weight. It was a strong recommendation for landmark status.
The owners’ public and private comments became more threatening. As a precaution against a stealth and illegal demolition, Modern Phoenix and other grassroots preservationists organized a neighborhood watch on the property.
September 17 was the first meeting of the historic preservation commission, whose positive advisory opinion was a must-win step. Recognizing the importance of the commission’s deliberations, the Conservancy sent me to the meeting to testify and underscore our commitment. There were many eloquent statements made that evening, but the remarks I recall most vividly were from a former resident of Buffalo, New York, now residing in Phoenix. The young man came to the microphone and said he was not used to public speaking but felt compelled to comment. As a teenager in Buffalo he learned about the demolition of the Larkin Building and he vowed if a similar situation arose he would speak out. He said he did not want to be a resident of another city that would allow a second tragic loss of a significant Wright building. The historic preservation commission unanimously recommended landmark designation. Protection from demolition continued–or so we thought.
In late September the city made a startling discovery. A demolition permit had been issued in error by an inexperienced clerk who had handled it as a routine matter without checking for flags on the property. Through a fortunate twist of fate the demolition company called to double check the validity of the permit before beginning the work. Clearly embarrassed by what could have been an error of disastrous proportions, the city acted immediately to rescind the permit, touching off legal wrangling by the owners claiming the permit was valid and announcing additional threats. Our team then requested and obtained police protection for the site.
The Conservancy had contacted many buyer prospects and received a few purchase inquiries; local inquiries were fielded by Scott and Debbie Jarson. However, by late September there was only one that was sincerely interested in preserving both the house and the site. A reluctant buyer, who to this day wishes to remain anonymous, stepped forward because no one else had done so. Three very fair offers were made and all, including the last at $2.1 million—$300,000 over the June purchase price—were immediately rejected with no effort to negotiate. It became more and more obvious that instead of a business proposition the owners’ position resembled a ransom and the prospective buyer dropped out.
Every week the local media reported something connected with the David and Gladys Wright House saga. Blair Kamin, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic at the Chicago Tribune, had published an article back in June after Neil Levine alerted him to the situation. A few architecture journals and blogs chimed in as well, but by summer’s end the team felt that the next national media attention should be strategically timed. Levine contacted Michael Kimmelman at the New York Times and on October 3 the David and Gladys Wright House story made the paper’s front page. Conservancy office phones rang for two days straight and hundreds of articles appeared—in USA Today, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle as well as Le Monde, The Guardian and El País. CBS This Morning featured the threat in a live-shot report and there were radio interviews with Levine on BBC and CBC.
The Times article was a game changer. There were more potential buyer inquiries and petition signer numbers shot up. One very thoughtful inquiry was from Michael Eisner, former Disney CEO, and the Eisner Foundation. After the Conservancy’s preliminary discussions with the Eisner Foundation, Eisner further consulted with Robert A. M. Stern, architect and dean of the Yale School of Architecture, and Levine at Harvard. I contacted the mayor’s office to arrange a visit for Eisner and Foundation officials. After the visit and sensing a potential sale, Sells and Hoffman then agreed to something they had previously rejected–a full building assessment study paid by the city. This was progress. The Conservancy developed alternative use low-neighborhood impact options for the Eisner Foundation, such as an artist/scholar in residence program or a shared university or city guest house for visiting speakers or dignitaries. Discussions progressed but the Eisner Foundation felt it was incumbent on the city to landmark the building first but the city wanted to avoid the owner consent issue by securing a new preservation-minded owner first. It was a classic Catch-22.
Meanwhile, two more recommending commissions had met. The village planning committee of Camelback East, in a very contentious meeting, finally recommended landmark status by a vote of 9-5. On October 9 the planning commission also recommended landmark designation and the stage was set for city council action on November 7. The Conservancy’s task force continued to meet throughout the entire period, assessing each new development, generating other potential buyer ideas, weighing strategies and options, and proposing future actions. It was decided that Woodin and I would attend the city council meeting and urge the city to move to landmark the house. On Halloween we received a surprising call from the mayor’s office; a mystery buyer had stepped forward and the house was under contract for $2,380,000. Although it seemed to be good news that the property would be in new hands, not knowing the identity or the intentions of the new buyer tempered our optimism. We felt our testimony at the city council was still needed and kept our plans to attend. The November 7 city council agenda did not include a vote on landmark status; the property was under contract and the city would wait for the new, presumably preservation-minded owner to give consent before voting. We were, however, permitted to speak to the issue and we urged the city to take action to landmark the house. The council delayed the vote until December. Three days later the deal was dead; the buyer dropped out for unspecified reasons. The team redoubled efforts to reach potential buyers and the group-purchase option was kicked back into high gear. Woodin and I called city council members personally to discuss why the Wright House should be landmarked immediately. The decision could not be delayed indefinitely. If they designated the house as a landmark without of owner consent, the three-year demolition stop period would allow time to find a preservation-minded buyer or other solution while it was protected. If they decided not to landmark it, the house would have no protection and would become a pile of rubble immediately; the first intentional destruction of an intact Wright building in 40 years. We argued that if ever there was a case in which public good should be afforded additional weight in the face of individual property rights, surely this was it. But it was a hard sell in an area of the country steeped in a history of range wars, cattle grazing rights, and special land and property rights issues.
We were running out of time and options but making progress slowly in putting together a group purchase with a plan to transition to a future not-for-profit organization, but we were still short of the cash commitment needed to make an offer. One potential group purchase partner had been communicating with Woodin anonymously through his lawyer. In early December that individual identified himself and informed Woodin that he and his family were willing to take on the project solo. They would buy the property, presumably at the Halloween price accepted earlier, and restore the house and the site. We were elated, but then the other shoe dropped. The offer was rejected. It was hard to fathom the response. The only conclusion one could draw was that this was no longer simply a business proposition for the current owners since they would profit by almost $600,000 for holding a property for seven months. Did they intend to hold out for even more money or
Fortunately rationality won out; Sells and Hoffman changed their minds and accepted the deal the following day. The buyer asked the Conservancy to announce the sale and confidentiality was to be a condition of the sale until the closing and the public announcement. On December 20, a few minutes after the closing, the Conservancy authorized the New York Times to release the information and the preservation community breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The save was a truly collective effort, involving many passionate advocates and culminating in a magnificently generous gesture by an inspired philanthropist. The Phoenix preservation community was motivated and energized by the struggle. One respected blogger appreciated “the high level of respect for preservation that the Conservancy has introduced to Phoenix… historic preservation will never be the same in Phoenix after the heroic battle to save the David Wright House.” And the Conservancy, buoyed and strengthened by this collective win, continues to develop practical approaches to protect Wright properties and help ensure that they are controlled by those who value them.
Posted on May 1, 2014