Wright house. Wrong place?
For numerous reasons, including location, some of Frank Lloyd Wright's houses are at risk of demolition.
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The demolition of the Carr residence stung especially because it ended a run of nearly three decades without the loss of a Wright building. Although more than 100 of Wright's buildings fell in his lifetime and in the decade and a half after his death, none were known to have been lost since 1974, as both interest in historical preservation and Wright's reputation have risen. In the meantime, millions of dollars were lavished on prominent Wright buildings to restore the architect's original design.Skip to next paragraph
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And yet the variety and sheer abundance of Wright's work poses a challenge for preservationists. He designed houses in scores of communities across the country, working for clients ranging from wealthy businessmen to middle-class professionals.
Experts say most of his houses are in good hands today. The Robie house in Chicago, for example, was almost torn down in 1941 and 1957, but today is undergoing an $8 million restoration. The American Institute of Architects has declared it one of the most important buildings in America.
In contrast, the Wynant House in Gary, Ind., a more modest two-story house built in 1916-1917, has teetered on the brink of ruin for more than a decade. A graduate student named Christopher Meyers discovered it 10 years ago in a decaying urban neighborhood not far from the city's famed steel mills. The house is one of Wright's early attempts at affordable housing. But like many houses in Gary, it had been abandoned. A fire had collapsed the second floor into the basement, a hole in the roof let in the rain, and the whole structure was leaning.
Since then Mr. Meyers and others have fought to save the house. They say it represents an early realization of Wright's conviction that even middle-class families ought to be able to live in beautifully designed houses.
"I really believe it's an important tier of Frank Lloyd Wright's work that's been underrecognized," says Meyers.
But the fact that the house is in Gary has frightened off most buyers, and no one has been willing to spend the sums needed to save it, much less to restore it.
Several owners have tried but failed, including a nonprofit organization from Olympia, Wash., that hoped to rent it out to tourists.
"One of the challenges with preservation is how buildings have fared over time," says Sidney Robinson, a professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It is usually the case that more modest ones have been altered or changed or let go. So they have become vulnerable. They aren't what they once were. That makes preservation doubly difficult."
The opposite problem has endangered even more Wright houses. In wealthier neighborhoods, rising property values and the current demand for larger and larger houses can imperil Wright's more economical designs. Not only do many feel cramped by today's standards, they often lack amenities that modern families expect, such as multiple bathrooms, walk-in closets, and large bedrooms. For most homeowners, no amount of architectural loveliness can compensate for serious practical shortcomings.
"Architecture has this other element," says James O'Gorman, an architectural historian. "It's not just something that enhances life, it serves life. And buildings can run out of usefulness."
On its website, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy lists the Wright houses that are for sale, trying to match them with preservation-minded buyers.
The conservancy also works with lawyers, restoration architects, Wright scholars, and an informal network of Wright enthusiasts to keep track of Wright buildings.
Increasingly, it must contend with savvy owners who try to make deals away from public scrutiny.