Column One: Dramatic, historic and prices slashed, yet no buyers are biting

For sale signs are out on two of four textile-block homes built by Frank Lloyd Wright, but both are languishing on the market.

August 27, 2010|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times

You don't need to be an architect to understand how La Miniatura in Pasadena, the first of Frank Lloyd Wright's extraordinary and experimental textile-block homes, was put together. It's a form of masonry: rows of patterned concrete blocks serving not just as decoration but as the supporting walls of the house.

So it's easy enough to picture how La Miniatura could be taken apart, block by block, to be rebuilt elsewhere. Which is exactly what Crosby Doe, the veteran Los Angeles real estate agent, says could happen.

After slashing the listing price over the last two years from $7,733,000 to $4,995,000 and not finding a buyer, Doe says he's "talking to an international art dealer with Japanese art-collector clients who might be interested in buying the house."

"With my position in the preservation community, I will probably be crucified for saying this," says Doe. "But we have to consider all options. We moved the London Bridge to the Colorado River. Why couldn't we move this house to Japan?"

Doe is not the only real estate agent in town offering a textile-block house by Wright. The firms of Hilton & Hyland and Dilbeck Realtors have partnered with Christie's Great Estates to try to sell the Ennis House, Wright's largest and showiest textile-block edifice, perched on a hill in Los Feliz. After extensive restoration, the house went on the market last summer at $15 million. The price has since dropped to $7,495,000, not counting a projected $6 million the buyer should have on reserve for future preservation.

Considering that Wright built only four textile-block homes, all in Southern California, having one reach the market is something of an event. Having two languish on the market for so long is something of a mystery and raises questions about the region's cultural heritage: Who in the current economy is going to step forward to become the buyer-caretakers of these historic homes? And would the new owners allow public access?

Clearly, these houses are not for everyone. Neither is occupied. La Miniatura is owned by television commercial producer David Zander, an architecture buff who also owns a Greene and Greene home nearby. The Ennis House belongs to a foundation formed five years ago to rescue the house when it seemed in danger of sliding down the hill.

Both houses have maintenance issues beyond Frank Lloyd Wright's notorious leaking ceilings. And they don't have high-end comforts for high-end buyers such as spa-style bathrooms or chefs kitchens.

Then there's the rugged style, influenced by Mayan architecture. Some say the concrete-block houses feel like modern temples, with perforated blocks allowing light to dramatically pierce the walls. But for fans of the open-plan, glass-walled midcentury look, the rooms might simply feel too dark.

Still, many in the architectural community are surprised that the homes have not found buyers. "There's still a lot of money in this city. It's hard to believe that someone isn't stepping forward to support these houses," says Ken Breisch, who oversees USC's preservation of the Freeman House, a textile-block house by Wright that was given to the university in 1986 by Harriet Freeman. "Taken as a group, these houses are one of Wright's biggest accomplishments."

One historic preservation expert, designer Steven Lamb in Altadena, says he's surprised La Miniatura has been on the market so long. "If I had an extra $5 million, I'd buy it right away. The dirt alone is worth a million dollars in that neighborhood," he says. "And there's something sweet, almost mystical and musical about that house. It has a way of drawing you in and making you want to care for it."

Jeff Hyland of Hilton & Hyland says buyers are "excited by" the Ennis House as well. "We've had many people look at the house who own other Frank Lloyd Wright houses. We've had Italians, some English and someone on the Forbes top-20 list who brought his famous architect, or starchitect, along," he says.

"I'm just not sure why the house hasn't sold yet," Hyland says. "You would think it's an exotic Bugatti or Ferrari, and people with that kind of money would just snap it up."

The architectural significance of the four textile-block houses, all on the National Register of Historic Places, is well established. Built in rapid succession from 1923 to 1925, the houses represent a new direction for Wright during a mid-career lull: an attempt to transform cheap, lowly concrete (a "gutter rat" in his terms) into material fit for sculpting a building.

The first, La Miniatura, was designed in Pasadena for Midwest transplant Alice Millard, who sold rare books and Renaissance furniture out of the dramatic living room. Never one to refrain from complimenting himself, Wright later said, "I would have rather built this little house than St. Peter's in Rome."

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