Frank Lloyd Wright Home Threatened In Arizona

Oct 4, 2012
Originally published on October 4, 2012 5:12 pm



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There's a battle under way in Arizona to stop the demolition of a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The legendary architect lived his later years outside of Phoenix. And in 1952, he designed the Spiraling House for his son.

Now, the architectural community is trying to save it as Peter O'Dowd reports from member station KJZZ.

PETER O'DOWD, BYLINE: Today, the scene at the David and Gladys Wright House is far from midcentury glamorous. A chain-link fence lines its perimeter. The trees are overgrown. The weeds need to be pulled. But Fred Prozzillo says the gray-block exterior in the fading Arizona sunlight is still in harmony with its setting.

FRED PROZZILLO: I think it's ingenious. It has a poetry to it.

O'DOWD: Prozzillo is the director of preservation for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. He says Wright built this home at the same time as the Guggenheim Museum. It's the only residential building Wright designed that uses the same trademark spirals of his New York City masterpiece.

PROZZILLO: You approach the living spaces by this curving ramp that leads you up to the front door, and as you walk up this ramp, incredible views of Camelback Mountain are shown to you, and it's really a magnificent procession up the ramp.

O'DOWD: But that procession is in danger. Earlier this year, a developer purchased the David and Gladys Wright House for just under $2 million, and that developer hasn't been shy about plans to split the lot in half and build two new luxury homes.

STEVE SELLS: I mean, obviously, that's what raised the red flag.

O'DOWD: Steve Sells and his business partner are the new owners. He says word of their plan spread fast.

SELLS: Hey, somebody bought the old Frank Lloyd Wright place. And in order for them to do that, lots split. It looks like they've got to take the house down, and that's exactly correct.

O'DOWD: Sells describes himself as a guy from Idaho who didn't know Frank Lloyd Wright from the Wright Brothers, but he says he listened when people interested in saving the house asked him to put off demolition. The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy and a realtor offered to find a buyer who would preserve the existing structure while Sells developed new homes around it.

SELLS: We were just excited, you know?

O'DOWD: Turns out, that first offer wasn't good enough, and Sells says his trust with outside groups waned. The city of Phoenix revoked his demolition permit and took steps to designate the property as a historical landmark. In doing so, the city called it the most significant work within Phoenix by the most significant architect in American history. Sells says all this should have happened years before.

SELLS: Do I think that that is a landmark historical building? I do. I mean, it's very unique, and this one should be singled out but not at my expense.

O'DOWD: As the international outcry grew, Sells and the city agreed this week to put aside their squabble for about a month. All work will stop while the developer looks for another buyer.


O'DOWD: But all this still leaves people anxiously wondering what's next. Even after the agreement, volunteers are still scheduling vigils outside the property.

JANET TRAYLOR: His slot was...

WILL NOVAK: Ten a.m. today.

TRAYLOR: And he's still here.

NOVAK: Yeah. And I keep coming back. I'm addicted.

O'DOWD: They're ready to sound the alarm at any sign of bulldozers. Clare Aton grew up near here. Her brothers used to daydream about skateboarding down the building's sleek, spiraling ramp.

CLARE ATON: Ultimately, I just feel like it's my home. I feel like this is a heritage that I've been blessed to grow up with. It's a part of me now.

O'DOWD: A realtor involved says new offers to buy the David and Gladys Wright House have already come in with terms, he says, will be favorable to the developer. For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.