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David and Gladys Wright House to Become Part of Taliesin School

The David and Gladys Wright House (1950-52) in Phoenix will be donated for use by the School of Architecture at Taliesin, owner Zach Rawling and leaders of the School announced today.

An official statement reads: “The School will take over planning for the preservation of the house and citrus groves immediately, with future restoration acts to be undertaken by the faculty and students of the School. Used as a learning center for graduate architectural students and for philanthropy, academic lectures and community gatherings, the School will realize Wright’s vision for the house as a place of community, celebration, inspiration, education, collective experimentation and active exploration into organic architecture and place-making.”

The pledge of the house to the school is contingent on raising an estimated $7 million endowment by the end of 2020, according to the statement.

The Arizona Republic has a detailed article along with a video interview with Rawling and School of Architecture dean Aaron Betsky.

In 2012, when the house faced serious threats of demolition, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy became deeply involved in a multi-year effort to ensure the preservation of the house alongside many committed local activists and organizations, thousands worldwide who signed our petition to save the house, and journalists such as the New York Times‘ Michael Kimmelman and the Chicago Tribune‘s Blair Kamin, who helped put a national spotlight on the David and Gladys Wright House. Janet Halstead, then executive director of the Conservancy, detailed that dramatic—but ultimately successful—fight to save the house that ended with Rawling’s acquisition in a 2014 article for SaveWright magazine:

Read: Case Study: Saving the David and Gladys Wright House

After the purchase of the house by Rawling in December 2012, the Conservancy offered any technical assistance that the new owner thought would be helpful and continued to urge that the city approve the landmark status for the property since all the requirements and recommendations had been met and all that was needed was City Council approval. In 2012 the City Council had been faced with the possibility of voting to landmark the house despite the withholding of owner consent. With the ownership change and the new owner’s stated desired to preserve the house, it was assumed that owner consent would be provided in 2013 and the landmark protection could proceed, however it soon became apparent that Rawling planned to request special permits in conjunction with the provision of owner consent so that certain property use approvals would be tied to owner consent for the landmark zoning. That started a multi-year series of continuances of this agenda item in the city council due to the owner’s requests that consideration be delayed.

In 2013 the property began some cosmetic maintenance, held some special events and started a tour program. In 2014 the owner generously allowed Conservancy conference attendees to visit the property during its annual conference. Rawling’s acquisition of additional surrounding properties and demolition of adjacent structures and plans for the use of the property created divisions within the neighborhood and throughout the city. A greatly expanded property with plans for a visitor center below grade and use as an event venue with an outdoor music facility became a controversial issue in Phoenix, complete with newspaper editorials, PR strategists, yard signs, legal counsel on both sides and television news coverage. The Conservancy followed the controversy and kept in touch with the city’s historic preservation office but refrained from public comment, feeling that as long as the house was preserved and not trivialized by the surroundings, the matter was a local issue.

In 2015 the owner requested that the city withdraw the 2012 landmark application that the Conservancy had initiated when the house faced immediate demolition; instead he proposed a new application that included additional lots that had been merged with the original parcel. The new application had to start at the beginning of the process and receive the recommendation of three review bodies before reaching the City Council for decision. If the 2012 application were withdrawn before the owner’s proposed new 2015 application had completed the multi-month process, the house could be at risk if for some reason the 2015 application was not recommended or was dropped.

The Conservancy urged the city to keep the 2012 application for protection of the 2.45 acre site pending. In October 2015 the City Council followed the city staff recommendation to keep the 2012 application active while the owner pursued his new application.

Prior to the meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission in November 2015 the Conservancy reviewed the new application and the city historic preservation staff report in response. The Conservancy supported the city staff view that the larger 5.99-acre proposal should not be approved by the HPC because it did not follow the city’s own requirements to ensure that boundaries of protected sites coincide with documented historic boundaries and because the inclusion of additional non-historic resources could create a false sense of history; the latter would contravene the Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines. A case could be made for a smaller enlargement to a 3.67-acre site, which the city staff recommended and the Conservancy supported in a formal letter. However the HPC voted to recommend the 5.99-acre application despite the inconsistency with the city ordinance. Now the 2015 application would need to gain the additional recommendations of the Camelback East Village Planning Committee and the Planning Commission—two hurdles that the 2012 application had already passed.

During 2016 Rawling did not take the additional steps to gain the remaining recommendations for the 2015 application in order for it to go forward. The Conservancy task force dedicated exclusively to this house continued to meet throughout 2014-2016, when there was new information and to generate possible approaches to suggest in the event that the entire process was stalled due to lack of funds or the owner’s inability to continue. The Conservancy also continued its efforts to help the community reach a good outcome for the house and offered a technical assistance consultation to Arizona State University and later provided informational resources to the Arizona Community Foundation when both organizations were considering accepting the offer of donation of the property.

In December 2016 the City Council was again requested by the owner to withdraw the 2012 application. The Conservancy declined to join the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in supporting withdrawal and stated in its letter to the City Council:

The Conservancy’s consistent objective has been to ensure that the house is protected. Therefore we continue to urge the Council to take action to provide this Landmark designation as soon as possible. If it is not possible to approve the 2012 application at this time, we urge that the 2012 application continue as pending until such time that an appropriate replacement application is presented to City Council.

The Conservancy stated that retaining the 2012 application would be the most secure path in the event that unforeseen circumstances did not allow the 2015 landmark application to proceed. On Dec 7, 2016 the Council voted to withdraw the 2012 application. Technically the 2015 application is still pending, so that provides protection from demolition while that application is active. The timetable for the 2015 application to complete the process is uncertain. If the 2015 application is withdrawn, the house has no protection.

The Conservancy looks forward to this new development for the house that spurred so many to action.

Rawling told the Arizona Republic he thinks the plan is “in all ways better” than his original intention to open the house as a museum; instead it will host architecture students from around the world, he said. Betsky described the future of the house as a “living laboratory” that helps the School of Architecture at Taliesin engage with the community.

Posted on June 8, 2017

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