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Pizza Czar's Eye for Architecture Demands Only the Wright Stuff

September 06, 1987|RICK HAMPSON | Associated Press

NEW YORK — The Monaghans' first family vacation was Tom Monaghan's dream trip: to visit as many Frank Lloyd Wright-designed houses as could be reached in three weeks.

So, as Margie Monaghan and the four girls waited in the family motor home, Dad knocked on front doors in five Midwestern states and introduced himself as "the world's No. 1 Frank Lloyd Wright fanatic" in the hope of being invited in.

"If they invited me in," Monaghan recalls, "I'd talk about Wright as long as they were prepared to hear." Outside, Margie and the kids knitted and played board games.

A decade later, more and more Americans are hitting the Frank Lloyd Wright trail, and Tom Monaghan--owner of Domino's Pizza and the Detroit Tigers--is spending a large chunk of his $250-million fortune to promote the architect's emergence as a culture hero.

"The longer the guy is dead," Monaghan says of Wright, who died in 1959, "the more people appreciate him."

Wife Admires House

Margie Monaghan, after weeks of forced knitting, has started to come around. She admits she likes Wright's Fallingwater, a house built on a waterfall in western Pennsylvania.

She is not alone. Last year, Fallingwater was chosen as the nation's best building in a poll of the American Institute of Architects' senior members. Their top 10 buildings also included two other Wright designs--the Robie House in Chicago and the Johnson Wax building in Racine, Wis.

Wright long has been regarded as the greatest American architect, but in recent years, "it's gradually beginning to dawn on people that he's probably the greatest artist this country has ever known," says Scott Elliott, a Chicago art dealer.

Attendance is up by a third at Wright house museums such as the Dana House in Springfield, Ill. At Hollyhock House in Los Angeles, four visiting days had to be added to accommodate the crush. A Wright-designed living room has become one of the most popular exhibits at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Private houses designed by Wright also get visitors. Nick Sahlas, owner of Coonley House in Riverside, Ill., came home one day to find a man on a ladder measuring the tiles on the side of his house.

"People come up to me while I'm working in the yard and want to go inside," he said. To get his work done, "I have to tell 'em I'm only the caretaker."

Sales of a new line of home furnishings based on original Wright designs are said to be brisk, although prices range from more than $12,000 for a cherry dining table to $120 for a pair of crystal candlesticks.

An exhibition on Wright's design principles is to open in Dallas early next year and travel to museums in Washington, Chicago, Miami and San Diego. Visitors to the show will walk through one of Wright's "Usonian" homes--modest, one-story houses designed for easy reproduction--which will be put up and taken down at each stop.

The surest measure of the Wright revival is found at auctions. In June, a New York gallery bought a Wright dining room table and eight chairs for $594,000, the highest price ever for 20th-Century furniture or decorative art.

To win a nine-drawer Wright chest, Monaghan's agent had to come up with the highest bid ever made for a single piece of 20th-Century furniture: $264,000.

That was $114,000 more than Monaghan's prearranged price limit, but he has a rule for his bidding agents: "Better to ask forgiveness than permission."

In slightly more than a year, Monaghan, 50, has amassed the world's greatest collection of Wright artifacts--more than 300 pieces with an estimated value of $10 million.

He bought a Wright bedroom for $500,000, a disassembled Usonian house for $117,500 in a public television auction, a side chair for $198,000--the most ever paid for a 20th-Century chair--and 34 windows from the Coonley Playhouse in Riverside for $3 million.

Wright and Monaghan make an odd couple: an architect obsessed with the idea of integrating buildings with nature and a businessman obsessed with getting pizza to the customer's door within 30 minutes.

"I've been evangelizing Frank Lloyd Wright all my life," Monaghan said. "I've never met anyone yet who hasn't been impressed."

Monaghan, says architect Gunnar Birkerts, "is addicted to Frank Lloyd Wright."

The addiction dates back to the day when young Tom Monaghan, the best at drawing in his class, opened a book about Wright in a Traverse City, Mich., library.

He was only 12, but was "completely taken with the pictures," he recalls. "All these buildings, so beautiful yet so different, all by the same man. I wondered, 'Who is this guy?' "

Wright was a self-described visionary who believed that buildings should enrich the lives of those who used them and that the "box" in which man had dwelt since classical times should be dismantled. "To make a dwelling place a work of art, this is the American opportunity," Wright wrote.

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