There aren’t really many occasions in architecture for breaking news alerts—it’s hard for a building to sneak up on people—but this is pretty close: a hitherto little-known Frank Lloyd Wright house was narrowly saved from demolition on Oct. 4. Its future is in doubt. But perhaps the real newsflash is: There are Frank Lloyd Wright houses that nobody knows about? How does that happen?
The house, in a neighborhood of Phoenix known as Arcadia, was originally designed by Wright for the architect’s son, David. This may go some way towards explaining the obscurity. David and his wife Gladys, who passed away in 2008, would have been fully aware of the perils of living in an architecturally significant home: namely, FLWpilgrims. Students and fans of architecture go to great lengths to see actual buildings; after all there’s only so much you can learn from photographs and plans.
Wright’s more famous home, Fallingwater, in Pennsylvania receives hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. Phillip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Conn. got so many visitors when it was still a private home that sightseers sometimes had their tires let down by way of discouragement. (Nowadays it’s open to the public. )
So Wright’s son can be forgiven for not widely publishing the existence or address of his residence, especially since Taliesin West, another Wright building is only a few miles away. Who wants their home to become part of a tour?
But the fact that this was Wright’s house for his son makes it particularly worth saving, and not just for nostalgic reasons. Since it’s probable that the architectural fees Wright charged for his services were minimal and the client had several other reasons to not argue with his architect, Wright pere would likley have had a pretty free rein on the home and could use it as a kind of model/laboratory for ideas he was noodling.
And indeed that’s what the house seems to be. Much of the home comprises a circular spiraling ramp that would be echoed in Wright’s New York City Guggenheim museum, which was completed seven years later. This is also an early instance of Wright’s use of concrete blocks rather than wood or stone, his preferred materials.
The current owner, Steve Sells, who with John Hoffman is co-principal of 8081 Meridian, the developer that applied to raze the house, could not have been expected to know this. He told the Arizona Republic that he was unfamiliar with Wright’s work until this year. Reports are that 8081 Meridian bought it for $1.8 million. (That a Frank Lloyd Wright house can be had for the price of a three-bedroom apartment in Manhattan is also something of a newsflash). Several people have offered to buy the house, including, reportedly, at least one Hollywood Celebrity (best guess: Brad Pitt)—he says he needs at least $2.2 million to cover his legal fees. That mean seem cheap to some, but a warning to buyers: celebrity homes are like celebrity marriages. They take a lot of work.