A Wright-Designed Tokyo School Faces Difficult Crossroad

Rare building's future appears uncertain due to land values and increasing restoration costs

TO preserve his building or to preserve a school's financial asset.... What would Frank Lloyd Wright think of today's brouhaha over his "Hall for Tomorrow" located here? The importance of this building, which was designed as the home for Jiyugakuen or "School of the Free Spirit," is now being weighed against the value of the property on which it sits, estimated at upwards of $100 million in Tokyo's still stratospheric real-estate market.

Today, luxury hotels and neon-capped office buildings loom in the distance, but in 1921 the site was surrounded by fields and farms. At that time, Wright, who was in Japan working on the design of the Imperial Hotel, was introduced by his assistant Arata Endo to Mr. and Mrs. Yoshikazu Hani, the publishers of a magazine called Fujin no Tomo or "Women's Friend," devoted to improving the housewife's lot in life.

Mrs. Hani, Japan's first female news reporter, was deeply troubled by her daughter's public-school education based on rote memorization. The Hanis were firm believers in the value of the "thinking mind" and dreamed of a school where students would have the freedom to develop as "self-reliant members of society." In the words of Raku Endo, Arata Endo's architect son, "Wright loved her idea. Mrs. Hani's approach was very similar to his aunts' idea for the Hillside Home School in Wisconsin."

On April 15, 1921, with one classroom barely complete, the school Wright designed opened its doors to 26 girls. "Madame Hani's large group of pupils - pretty sloe-eyed ebony-haired young girls - made a picture I shall never forget," wrote Wright of the opening festivities. Instead of being confined to textbooks, the students at this unusual school learned their lessons from the world around them. The miracle of life was taught by raising green beans and chickens. Math skills were honed balancing the scho ol's budget, and home economics by preparing hot lunches for fellow students and teachers.

The overnight success of Jiyugakuen surprised even the Hanis. And shortly after the completion of the "Hall for Tomorrow," or Myonichikan, plans were drawn up to move the school to a 25-acre campus in suburban Tokyo. Since Wright had left Japan in 1922, the design of the new facility was left in the hands of his disciple Endo. To this day the Minamisawa campus continues to be enlarged under the aegis of Endo's son Raku, a graduate of Jiyugakuen and a former student of Wright's at Taliesin.

The Myonichikan remains largely as Wright and Endo planned. In contrast to the stylistic constraints and the strict hierarchy imposed on school buildings in Japan at the time, the Myonichikan was created "in the same spirit implied by the name of the school - a free spirit," wrote the architects. The U-shaped building, which is now used primarily for alumni activities, consists of three separate pieces: two single-story classroom wings flanking a double-height assembly hall and dining room. The spacious lawn in the center is one of the few patches of greenery left in this densely populated neighborhood.

To enter the school's tranquil precinct is to step back in time. Though the sounds of children singing and laughing are long gone, pint-sized tables and chairs designed by Endo are poised in the dining hall as if ready to accommodate hordes of hungry sixth graders, and the expansive fireplace in the assembly hall - even without logs and kindling - still fills the room with a warm glow.

But sadly, the Myonichikan is in a state of serious disrepair: its foundations are literally rotting out from underneath it, causing walls to splay and roofs to leak and rendering some rooms unsafe for occupancy.

Whether and how to preserve the Myonichikan is the subject of an emotional debate among the school, its alumni, architects, and others. Some are more concerned about Wright's legacy, others about the institution's welfare.

Because Jiyugakuen lacks an endowment the likes of many American private schools and must rely on tuition to cover its costs, the millions of dollars needed to restore the Myonichikan must be raised. Yet philanthropic sources may not be the answer.

"Since there are no tax incentives in Japan for building preservation, rich people are more interested in buying art," laments Gyo Hani, the founders' nephew and current principal of Jiyugakuen.

Another option is government assistance. If, like the Yamamura House (the only other Wright building left in Japan), the Myonichikan were designated an Important Cultural Property by the Japanese Government's Agency for Cultural Affairs, it could be restored with the national and local governments footing some 85 percent of the bill. And Satoshi Miyazawa, the government official in charge of evaluating Japan's historic buildings, has concluded that the Myonichikan may be worthy of preservation.

But there is a catch. In return for this status, the school must relinquish much of its control over the property. To ensure the integrity of Wright's design, the agency would need to approve all modifications to the property. And the school would lose the option of ever realizing the property's full value because any subsequent owner would also be obligated to preserve the building.

Some feel that the school can have its cake and eat it too. "If I had my druthers," says Bruce Pfeiffer, director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives, "I would like to see the school taken down and rebuilt at the Minamisawa campus where they have a lot of space."

But to alumna Nobuko Kajitani, a textile conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, "It's not simply a matter of moving the building. We the graduates feel that this is not about saving the building but about trying to save the legacy of Jiyugakuen."

Indeed, the school administration, whose primary concern is the running of Jiyugakuen, faces a dilemma. In response, the school has established a committee of 10 alumni to sort through the options. According to Tomohiko Ikari, the chairman of the committee, "There is no intention at Jiyugakuen to sell the building or the property." And yet there is also the desire to retain the option of selling the property at market value should a dire need arise.

While the Myonichikan may not be Wright's most impressive work, its uncertain future has drawn attention from both sides of the Pacific.

"I am sure that Japan still laments the destruction of the Imperial Hotel," says Mr. Pfeiffer in reference to Wright's masterpiece which met the wrecking ball in 1968. But, as Ms. Kajitani suggests, the meaning of the Myonichikan goes beyond its architectural value.

"The building is an important link between the US and Japan," says Yuko Hani, the founders' granddaughter, "in 20 to 30 years we will be gone, but buildings can stay forever."

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