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Sudden Changes in Wright House Fight Cause Public Uncertainty

November 16, 2012 by Connor Descheemaker

Victories in Phoenix are rarely certainties, especially in the realm of preservation.

In a state which takes its private property rights so seriously, and the development dollar trumps all regulation, vigilance is the most vital of characteristics in an historic-building advocate.

For a brief weekend in late summer, the David and Gladys Wright House was opened to the public, exhibiting the home’s profound character and design sense for all to see. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

Just last week, architects, preservationists and designers the world-over were engaging in a collective sigh of relief, with the announcement that a “preservation-minded” buyer had been found for the David and Gladys Wright House. After nearly six months of frantic work among preservation advocates, public hearings, threats of demolition and negotiations in the Mayor’s office, it appeared that the public could breathe once more, knowing that an historic house would be in good hands.

Then suddenly, on Veterans’ Day, while the home was in escrow, everything changed.

The anonymous buyer, found by Robert Joffe and 8081 Meridian, had rescinded his offer, citing it an unwise business decision, wishing the property well going forward.

All the months of work were once again for naught.

In the wake of the initial buyer announcement, Mayor Greg Stanton and the City Council made the decision to delay voting on the building’s Landmark status, wishing to make contact with the new owner first, and get him or her on-board with the historic designation. Also during this time, the buyer contacted Grady Gammage, Jr., a locally-renowned land-use lawyer and water expert, preservation advocate and son of the namesake for one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most notable Arizona designs, Gammage Auditorium on ASU’s Tempe campus.

The score seemed to finally be coming together, and this mysterious figure was playing all the right notes with the Wright fighters. Now, with the Landmark City Council vote delayed till the beginning of December, and the House still in the erratic hands of 8081 Meridian, what the future holds is anyone’s guess, and the overall fight has taken a baby-step backward.

Even though the final vote was ultimately delayed, last week’s Phoenix City Council meeting still featured the powerful testimonies of Janet Halstead and Larry Woodin, the Executive Director and President of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, respectively, who had each scheduled their visits to Phoenix before the buyer was announced. The two’s thoughtful speeches, alongside letters from the Director of the Guggenheim New York (a building also designed by Wright), Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (architects of the Sears Tower in Chicago), and Barry Bergdoll of Columbia University and the Museum of Modern Art, served to seal any uncertainties as to the design significance of the David and Gladys Wright House.

Following the announcement of the deal’s failure, some sources close to the preservation fight claimed that the Wright Building Conservancy still had multiple buyers interested in pursuing purchase of the property. Though none have publicly owned up to the reported interest, some found solace in the promise of future offers on the property.

Meanwhile, on the Internet, the community grew restless. The failure of the deal and delay of the Landmark vote worried many as to the long-term viability and power of preservation in Phoenix as a whole.

Individuals with no personal stake in preservation efforts began proposing solutions of their own, with particular interest being shown in the idea of a cooperative purchase of the property, with potentially thousands donating a few hundred dollars and gift the House to the Wright Building Conservancy, or another like-minded group to preserve the space for the public.

(Connor Descheemaker/DD)

But despite that idea’s immediate interest, those with the greatest stake in preservation took great pains to express the associated difficulties with such a purchase, urging interested parties to continue their advocacy efforts. That way, the home’s physical future could in the hands of professionals already making waves, who have long been in talks with both the City of Phoenix and the property owners at 8081 Meridian.

With tensions and anxiety reaching a fever pitch among those clamoring to save the David and Gladys Wright House, focus must be kept now more than ever. As the search for a new buyer continues, the City of Phoenix and the thousands of avowed supporters of preservation must push forward in taking all due measures to protect the house.

First and foremost, that means designating the house a Landmark in Phoenix, guaranteeing it protection from demolition for three years, providing vital time to find an agreeable buyer. But more than that, it means focus and calm.

If Phoenix wishes to get serious about preserving its past, there is no better litmus test than the preservation of one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most acclaimed and sentimental designs in the David and Gladys Wright House.

An educated, united front is all that can protect history, physical or otherwise.


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