Wright house. Wrong place?
For numerous reasons, including location, some of Frank Lloyd Wright's houses are at risk of demolition.
This week a four-bedroom prairie-style house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1915 is scheduled to be auctioned off in Chicago. The owner of the building, called the Emil Bach house after its original owner, is putting it up for auction after failing to attract a buyer with an asking price of $1.9 million. The bidding starts at $750,000.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"We've had a lot of interest," says John DeMato, a senior broker at Inland Real Estate Auctions Inc., the company running the auction.
Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than a Frank Lloyd Wright house on the auction block is that the house survives to be sold at all. The Bach house occupies prime real estate only a block from Lake Michigan in a neighborhood where developers have been grabbing up property to build high-rise apartments and condominiums.
But a historical preservation easement more than two decades old forbids whoever owns the home to demolish or even to change it without permission of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. This protection, experts say, has probably saved it from destruction.
"There's no question in my mind that this building would have been torn down if it wasn't for the landmark easement," says Ronald Scherubel, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in Chicago. "Developers would love to get their hands on a building like this and put up another condominium or apartment building."
Between 1886 and his death in 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright, the most venerated and, to many people, the greatest American architect, designed more than 500 buildings, most of them houses. About 80 percent of them survive.
Yet, despite a widespread recognition of their cultural value, relatively few of them enjoy the protection that the Bach house has. Indeed, as many as a quarter of Wright's houses may be at risk, says John Payne, a former president of the Wright Building Conservancy and the owner of a Wright house in Glen Ridge, N.J.
"It's a very serious situation," says Mr. Payne. "They're at risk for a whole variety of reasons, not just bad faith. You've got houses poorly adapted to modern needs. You've got houses in changing neighborhoods. They're too fancy for a neighborhood that was once a fancy neighborhood but no longer is."
A half-century after his death, Wright's popularity remains high. His efforts to create a democratic and distinctively American style of architecture continue to excite the imagination of Americans.
Tourists descend on Wright houses as on European cathedrals. Publishers issue field guides to his buildings that come complete with maps and GPS coordinates. Wright's designs can be found on mouse pads, needlework kits, and refrigerator magnets.
Still, the vulnerability of some of his houses became evident last November when the owner of an obscure Wright-designed summer house in Grand Beach, Mich., tore down the house to clear the lakeside lot for a newer and larger house. The Carr summer residence, as it was called, was dilapidated, termite-infested, and uninhabited. And yet to many Wright enthusiasts, tearing down even a minor Wright house seemed almost sacrilegious.
"You wouldn't throw out a Picasso painting just because it wasn't one of his greatest works," says Mr. Scherubel. "So from the perspective of Frank Lloyd Wright houses, even a small cottage is important because it's part of an entire body of work of a great artist."