Preservationists and admirers of Frank Lloyd Wright may recall the colossal bullet dodged just three years ago by the David and Gladys Wright House, a rather curious-looking residence that the famed American proto-starchitect designed for his son and daughter-in-law in the early 1950s.

Long story short, the 2,250-square-foot home, located in Phoenix’s fruit tree-studded Arcadia neighborhood, was nearly erased from the desert landscape by a much-vilified developer who threatened to split the lot, raze the home and erect high-end McMansions in its place unless someone stepped in to buy back the home at a jacked-up price of $2.7 million.

Said developer, 8081 Meridian, bought the 2-acre property from a previous owner in early 2012 for $1.8 million. That owner had purchased the home — historian Neil Levine describes it as one of Wright’s “most innovative, unusual and personal works" — in 2009 for $2.8 million from the great-granddaughters of Wright, who could no longer afford to keep up the prohibitively-expensive-to-maintain structure.

While David Wright died in 1997 at the age of 102, his wife Gladys continued to live in the home until her death at the age of 104 in 2008. The home is considered by historians to be a direct precursor to Wright’s similarly spiraling Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1959.)

Throughout much of 2012, a heated and rather urgent battle — a battle complete with name-calling, dashed hopes, several false alarms, a heap of petitions and, ultimately, a happy ending — raged on between preservationists and the developer in this upscale corner of northeast Phoenix situated at the foot of Camelback Mountain.

At the end of 2012, with the David and Gladys Wright House’s future looking more and more grim, an anonymous buyer stepped in and saved the day. Working with an embattled — and no doubt, exhausted — Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy, the buyer’s intentions were true: to preserve, not bulldoze, the David and Gladys Wright House while pursuing landmark designation. 

The David and Gladys Wright House, Phoenix The concrete home's distinctive spiraling design is reminiscent of Wright's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

The concrete home's distinctive spiraling design is reminiscent of Wright's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. (Photo: David Crummey/flickr)

Turns out, Phoenix’s very own preservation angel was Zach Rawling, a former Las Vegas custom home builder with a law degree who grew up not too far from the David and Gladys Wright House. A longtime admirer of Wright, Rawling currently lives in Arcadia. "Ultimately, the David and Gladys Wright House is an expression of the love of a father and son. It is a story that I hope resonates with everyone," explains Rawling. "For me, the house is a reminder of the love of my parents, my childhood and the memory of my father. It feels like home, and that is what I love about the place.

A couple of years in, Rawling’s intentions are still very much agreeable. He recently formed the nonprofit David & Gladys Wright Home Foundation to preserve the home and has already commenced extensive restoration work on both the home and the grounds. Basically, the guy is a preservationist’s dream.

However, the 33-year-old has also managed to stir the proverbial pot with plans to expand the property and turn it into a world-class architecture attraction complete with an “underground museum,” café, gift shop, expansive gallery and performance spaces and other attractions. Rawling envisions the property being home to a wide range of education- and arts-based programming and special events including concerts and dance performances. A limited number of private events such as weddings are a possibility as well.

In addition to the David and Gladys Wright Home, Rawling has also purchased adjacent residential parcels with plans to raze the existing homes and expand the Wright property.

Construction on any new facilities on the property would be a ways off, occurring after the necessary funds are raised and the Wright home is fully rehabbed.

Transforming this once-obscure late-period Wright design into the centerpiece of an open-to-the-public attraction that would rival Taliesin West, Wright’s winter studio-turned-architecture school in Scottsdale, would potentially bring a huge amount of traffic into relatively sleepy Arcadia. A projected 100,000 annual visitors would, in the opinion of local residents decrying the proposal, prove to be a massive and noisy disruption for the area.

A website, PreserveArcadia.com, has been launched in opposition of Rawling’s plans. (The site’s tagline? “One Wright Doesn’t Equal Many Wrongs.”)

And so, once again, the David and Gladys House is thrust into the public spotlight as a new battle over its ultimate destiny begins.

The irony is that many of the NIMBY-minded neighbors rallying against Rawling’s plans for a tourist-friendly attraction, are of course, the same ones who rallied against 2012’s plan to demolish the home.

“The preservation was simply a pretext,” Peter Sperling, an Arcadia resident, recently explained to the New York Times. “There will be several hundred thousand visitors a year to this property, which in my opinion completely disrupts the long-term semirural character of the neighborhood.” Sperling, among the richest individuals in America, is the son of University of Phoenix (yes, that University of Phoenix) founder John Sperling.

Rawling described the backlash as being “a small group of neighbors who are well funded trying to make it as difficult as possible.” Rawling, who serves as the president of the David and Gladys Wright Home Foundation, has referred to his proposed arts and architecture center as a “part of the fabric of cultural life in the city.”

The David and Gladys Wright House. Located near Camelback Mountain in a wealthy residential section of Phoenix, the late-period Wright design is surrounded by incredible scenery.

Located near Camelback Mountain in a wealthy residential section of Phoenix, the late-period Wright design is surrounded by incredible scenery. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

At the end of April, the David and Gladys Wright Home Foundation sent out a mailer to Arcadia residents outlining Rawling’s vision. It also included quotes from supporters, including Karen Goldblatt who writes: “The incredible vision of those saving this national treasure should be applauded and supported.”

Others, including members of the Wright family, the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy, Arcadia residents and both local and national preservationists, have also voiced their support for Rawling’s preservation-goes-public scheme.

Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, so active in helping to save the home from demolition in 2012, isn’t reluctant to share which side of opinion he falls on: “Restoration is welcome. The commercialization they talk about in this latest mailer is not, and sets a terrible precedent for every neighborhood in Phoenix,” he recently told the Phoenix Business Journal.

One fired-up Arcadia resident, John Garofono, even drags FLW himself into the debate: “To think that his philosophy would have led him to support the massive disruption of a long-standing residential community seems to go against everything you ever hear and read about the architect,” he says.

Sperling, through the legal firm he’s hired to represent him in the fight against Rawling's Wright-honoring project, has expressed interest in helping the city move the hulking concrete structure outside of Arcadia “to an area where outside visitors and commercial activity will be more appropriate and compatible."

It’s a preposterous idea for sure (8081 Meridian proposed something similar back in 2012) and one that has generated to-be-expected ridicule. “Moving it would be like transplanting a thumb where the little finger goes. It's just nonsense. As is most of the opposition to making the house a museum celebrating the Valley's most famous architect,” recently opined the Arizona Republic's Robert Leger.

Lots more over at the Arizona Republic on what Rawling has already done — and plans to do — with the David and Gladys Wright House, a residence that he refers to as a “defining work of Frank Lloyd Wright’s career.” There’s also plenty more insight into why deep-pocketed detractors of the project are so intent on shutting it down. And with the special permitting process to kick off later this month, the drama over this distinctive desert home is only going to get hotter.

What do you think?

Via [AZCentral.com], [New York Times]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.