The Price is Wright

Why some owners are having trouble selling their Frank Lloyd Wright houses

The W.S. Carr House was torn down on Nov. 9, 2004.

Credit: Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy

In Grand Beach, Mich., about an hour outside Chicago, a developer recently wanted to build a four-bedroom house on a piece of land overlooking Lake Michigan. Standing in the way, however, was a rickety summer cottage that had occupied that location since 1916. An all-too-familiar story was played out, and the cottage was razed last November.

What's surprising about this particular demolition, however, is that the cottage was the W.S. Carr House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Not since 1973, when the Arthur Munkwitz apartments in Milwaukee came down as part of a road widening, had one of Wright's structures been destroyed.

Wright's avant-garde dwellings are today more often considered collector's items than places in which to live. And their owners are finding it increasingly difficult to attract buyers who want to preserve them because, paradoxically, Wright's structures are still eminently functional.

"Wright designed for the times," says Ron Scherubel, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, which facilitates between eight and 10 sales of Wright-designed houses each year. "The kitchen was a workspace, the bedroom a place to sleep." But functionality isn't enough these days. Many people want big new houses, and the typical Wright residence will not satisfy them.

In Cincinnati, one of Wright's 100 Usonian houses was sold at auction in 2003 for $400,000.

Credit: Miriam Gosling

Aware of the intimate scale of the houses he created, the architect, according to Scherubel, "would encourage his clients to go out and buy a nice wooded lot." That space, integral to the design of many Wright houses, is appealing to developers today, given the growing scarcity of land in and around cities.

"Now, 30, 40, 50 years after Wright designed his houses," Scherubel says, "the threat of teardown is very significant because those lots are so desirable."

Some homebuyers simply cannot come to terms with Wright's modernist aesthetic. "Most Americans, like those brought up in a faith, don't want to deviate from their parents' traditional homes," says Don Schaberg, a retired building supply plant owner in Okemos, Mich., who began trying last year to sell the house Wright built for him and his wife in 1958. He's hoping to get about $1.6 million for it.

The 1915 Emil Bach House in Chicago sold at auction earlier this year.

Credit: Inland Real Estate Auctions

Location, too, has much to do with success in selling a Wright residence. A pristine house in Oak Park, Ill. (near downtown Chicago), for example, will command a higher price-and sell with greater ease-than a house in the same condition in rural Wisconsin listed at a lower price. Arlene Moran, who owns the Wright-designed Eric Pratt House in Galesburg, Mich., 170 miles from Chicago, hopes to get about $375,000 from its sale. She paid $137,000 for it in 1992 and has put $180,000 into it since. And yet, there's been little serious interest in the place in two years. Moran believes the commute to Chicago or Detroit is too long and the house itself too far from Lake Michigan to make for a suitable vacation home.

"If all Frank Lloyd Wright houses were around Chicago and New York City," Scherubel says, "I think they'd all be bought up in a matter of months."

Given those difficulties, some Wright enthusiasts have had to get creative. Two owners, in Cincinnati and Chicago, have elected to sell their houses at auction. And a Johnstown, Pa., band instructor recently paid $100,000 to disassemble a Wright house in Illinois that was slated for demolition, ship it back to Pennsylvania, and rebuild it there.

Most owners of Wright-designed houses are aware of the special responsibility that comes with living in such an environment. When it comes to selling, finding a similarly minded buyer is just as important as meeting an asking price. "My fear," Moran says, "is that whoever buys my house is going to be renting it out. Have you ever known a renter to take care of a place as if it was his own?"

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