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News Flash: Police Guard Phoenix&#146s Wright House; “Stand Still” Agreement Forestalls a Knock-Down

WrightHouse.jpg
David and Gladys Wright House, 1950-52, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
Photo from the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy’s preservation petition

We are not going to let them demolish that building!

Brendan Mahoney, senior policy advisor to Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, today made this unequivocal declaration to CultureGrrl, regarding the endangered Frank Lloyd Wright house (above) that the NY TimesMichael Kimmelman wrote about today for Page One.

Mahoney told me that the city today negotiated a Stand Still Agreement with the developer—8081 Meridian—who bought the property in June. The agreement forestalls any demoltion of the David Wright House (designed for the architect’s son) until at least Oct. 29. The developer’s demolition permit (the validity of which the city and the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy have strongly contested) was due to expire tomorrow, raising the spectre of a rushed bulldozing.

Mahoney told me that the demolition permit had been wrongly issued by a low-level clerk, who did not realize that city ordinance prohibits the issuance of a such a permit while a property is under consideration for historic-preservation status or landmark designation.

Mahoney told me this about the situation:

Our ordinance requires that once historic preservation proceedings have been initiated [as they were in this case], no demolition permits can be issued without first going to the Office of Historic Preservation and getting permission. The owners bypassed that and got a lowest-level, over-the-counter clerk to issue the permit without realizing what was going on.

As soon as we got wind of that, we notified them [the developer] that it was void….The owners were threatening to demolish by Oct. 4 [the permit's expiration date]….

We’ve had multiple people interested in buying the property. There’s been one that was found through the [Frank Lloyd Wright Building] Conservancy and another that was not. In the last few days, several other people have come forward. So that [a sale to a preservation-minded buyer] may happen. Or, if we get close to the time when they threaten to demolish again, we will have to resolve that dispute by another Stand Still Agreement or have a court decide about the validity of the permit….

The Mayor believes very firmly in historic preservation—that cities that preserve their pasts are some of the most forward-looking cities. And [he believes] that this particular house is of significance not only to Phoenix but to the entire world.

We will do everything in our power to preserve it.

In the meantime, just be sure, the house is under 24-hour police protection.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy (to whose petition
Kimmelman linked, below, without crediting the Conservancy in his article) has been
very actively on this case since last June, notwithstanding Kimmelman’s assertion that the threat of imminent demolition had “suddenly galvanized preservationists, as these crises often belatedly do [emphasis added].

Other journalists were less “belated” than Kimmelman, notably architecture critic Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune, who on June 19 wrote that this concrete structure was “at the heart of a historic preservation battle unfolding in Phoenix.”

Janet Halstead
, the Conservancy’s executive director, told me this by phone today:

When we found out it [the Wright House] was under contract to developers, we immediately asked the city to consider historic landmark status for it and we rushed that to the Planning Commission, which had the power to say we will put this on the agenda and we will consider it.
Unanimously they said they would consider it. That happened in on June 12, before the developer closed on the house, several days later.

As I wrote in my 2003 Wall Street Journal article on the restoration of Wright’s most famous house, Fallingwater:

Several of the other approximately 300 remaining single-family Wright
houses in this country are far more endangered than Fallingwater:
Commissioned by now-octogenarians in desirable areas, their sites, but not
their modest-sized rooms, are attractive to affluent buyers who want to
replace them with megamansions. Since 2000, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building
Conservancy has acquired, repaired and resold these Wrights-at-risk. Its
Web site (www.savewright.org) includes a list of houses on the market.

The conservancy has provided details about the David Wright House on its Wright on the Market
website. The house is Wright’s only residence based on the same spiral
plan
that resulted in the later construction of the Guggenheim Museum.

Here’s
part of the sales pitch for this four-bedroom, four-bath,
2553-square-foot fixer-upper:

The residence is lifted off of the
desert floor in a spiraling design, a ramp-way provides access; all
terminating in the master suite. Such design allowed for systems
placement and concealment as well as to catch a gentle desert breeze.


A
reinforced concrete floor cantilevers the space and the interiors are
of Philippine mahogany. A beautiful home, it gracefully curls on itself,
while maintaining a subtle elevation above the landscape that provides
stunning views of Camelback Mountain, intentionally placed at a height
above the surrounding citrus orchards, now all but gone or built-out
with residences.

Halstead told me that thanks, in part, to her 23-year-old organization’s efforts, no demolition of a Wright residence has occurred since the 1972 (the 1912 Little House in Wayzata, MN). The Carr House, 1916, Grand Beach,
MI, was demolished in 2004, but it had previously been remodeled to the
point
that it was “no longer recognizable as a Wright building,” according to
Halstead.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix City Council is scheduled to decide on Nov. 7 whether to grant landmark status (which would delay demolition by three years) or historic-preservation designation (a one-year delay). Halstead and Mahoney are hopeful that a solution can be crafted well within the requisite time period.

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