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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"People know it's in their interest, if they want to tear down a Wright house, that they do it as quietly as they can," says John Thorpe, a member of the conservancy and a preservation architect who has worked on many Wright houses.Skip to next paragraph
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Even before the Carr cottage was demolished, there were several close calls. The Glasner house in Glencoe, a wealthy Chicago suburb, was nearly demolished two years ago to make room for a larger house. The owner at the time called it a "million-dollar house in a $5 million neighborhood." But preservationists rallied, and after a long search, found a wealthy buyer who was willing to save the house.
Sometimes it seems almost impossible to give away a Wright house. Seven years ago the Historical Landmarks Foundation of Indiana advertised the Wynant house for just $55,000. Hundreds of people called, but almost everyone wanted to move the house out of Gary, which the foundation forbade.
Sometimes, though, moving a Wright house is the only way to save it. Last year the Wright Building Conservancy acquired a small house in Lisle, Ill., that stood in the way of a developer's ambitions. The conservancy gave it to a high school teacher and Wright fan who trucked it home to Johnstown, Pa., where it sits today, awaiting reassembly.
Preservationists say the biggest challenge is making sure Wright houses are maintained well enough that demolition never becomes an attractive option. They also try to encourage owners to stay true to Wright's design.
When Mr. Thorpe the architect began working on Wright houses in the early 1970s, "Previous owners always didn't know what they had or value it," he says. Today most people not only know what they have but are willing to pay to maintain and refurbish it. "On one house I'm on my third owner," he says. "Each one has done a little more than the previous owner did."
Maintaining a Wright house can seem a full-time occupation - and cost far more than occasional trips to Home Depot.
Two years ago Linda Chambers bought a Wright house in Okemos, Mich., that had been saved from foreclosure and probable destruction. It was in bad shape. The electrical and plumbing systems were antiquated, the roof leaked, and the boiler didn't work. Ms. Chambers, an artist who works in glass, has been working on the house ever since. She asked experts beforehand to estimate the cost of repairs and modernization, but says the actual cost has turned out to be "about three times" the estimates. And she's not done yet.
Any buildings 50 or more years old are going to need attention. But Wright also experimented with new materials and methods, sometimes stretching their limits. His low-pitched roofs are famously leaky. The wide overhangs of his prairie-style houses can droop. Wright embedded hot-water pipes in concrete floors to heat his later houses. Today, these pipes rust and are impossible to replace without recourse to a jackhammer.
The reality is that few victories in historical preservation are permanent. Preservationists concede that despite the sometimes heroic efforts of homeowners and Wright fans to protect his houses, change, decay, and even loss are probably inevitable.
"There's a constant turnover," says Payne, the owner of a Wright house in New Jersey. "That is the real preservation hurdle for us. It's not like rescuing a painting by Leonardo and getting it safely into a museum and it's taken care of. As long as these houses are occupied by families in dynamic neighborhoods that are changing, even if you have a home in the best possible ownership today, there's no saying that it's going to be that way in 20 or 30 years."