Thursday, January 06, 2005

Frank Lloyd Wright Homes a Tough Sell

By JAMES PRICHARD Associated Press

OKEMOS, Mich. - Imagine having a dream home in a private, peaceful, bucolic setting - and being unable to sell it because it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Some owners of one-of-a-kind houses conceived by the iconic architect are discovering it's not easy selling them in an era when cathedral ceilings and easy commutes are on the wish lists of many prospective purchasers.

But the sellers are also concerned about finding the right Wright buyers - ones who will cherish, not demolish, his creations.

After pouring tens of thousands of dollars into buying, repairing and renovating her Wright-designed house, Arlene Moran hasn't received any serious offers despite its pedigree. She's asking $375,000 for the three-bedroom home in Galesburg, about halfway between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek.

"It's going on two years and I'm desperate," said Moran, 70. "I refuse to lower the price. I put in $180,000 (worth) of restoration. I would like to have my money back." But, Moran said, "I can't have just anybody" buy it. She considers her home, which she never has lived in, a work of art.

Don Schaberg is ready to sell the Okemos house he and his late wife commissioned Wright to design, and where they lived happily for four decades. Schaberg realizes it won't be easy finding someone willing to spend $1.6 million for a 3,800-square-foot ranch without a garage, but also said he's under no real pressure to sell and doubts he will come down much on his price.

"I'm just certain the value is going to increase," he said, calling the house and its six acres southeast of Lansing "the closest thing to heaven on earth." "Everybody thinks it's one of the warmest and most peaceful places they've ever been in," Schaberg said of the window-filled ranch that overlooks a tree-lined meadow.

Schaberg first contacted Wright in 1949 and construction was completed in 1958, a year before Wright's death. It was done during Wright's "usonian" period, when the architect, in his final years, focused on more modest homes for families on a budget.

Schaberg said his ideal buyer would be interested in obtaining "one of Mr. Wright's last, practical, family houses," while fully appreciating it as a work of modern art.

Susan Sweetow, a real estate agent in Scottsdale, Ariz., who for two years worked as a tour guide at Taliesin West, Wright's sprawling, 600-acre winter home and work campus near Scottsdale, said "the market is narrow for his homes and limited to people who appreciate a work of art and a piece of history. It's important the market be geared toward that target market."

She said modern home buyers want big garages, large kitchens and spacious bathrooms - features not generally found in Wright's usonian homes. "You have to find the right buyer who will appreciate the qualities that were in his homes," Sweetow said.

Moran's southwestern Michigan home is part of a 72-acre association featuring four Wright-designed homes and one designed by a Wright apprentice. A unique feature shared by the five houses is that each sits on one circular acre of land, with the remaining property jointly owned by the members of the association.

The retired high school art instructor said no matter how enticing an offer she may receive, she would not sell to someone who would demolish the home. Moran, who lives in the Chicago area, has tried advertising in local newspapers and in the Chicago Tribune. She has listed it for sale on the Web site of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy.

The Chicago-based group is dedicated to preserving the architect's 400-plus structures that still stand. The group was caught off guard weeks ago when a dilapidated Wright cottage in Grand Beach, on Lake Michigan near the Indiana border, was purchased and razed by its new owners to make way for a new home.

Ron Scherubel, the conservancy's executive director, said that as in other real estate transactions, there are a few important basics to keep in mind when buying or selling Wright homes: price, location and condition.

While many of the grand homes from Wright's "prairie" period of the early 20th century were built in or near large cities, his smaller usonian homes - such as those owned by Schaberg and Moran - often ended up in remote rural settings, which was part of the appeal.

"Many of these are still located in nice, scenic, country areas but they're not convenient for today's buyer who has to work in the city," Scherubel said.

Ken Goldberg, a real estate agent trying to sell one of Wright's prairie homes built on Chicago's north side, said he expects a developer to purchase the 90-year-old structure. The asking price for the well-maintained house, which has been on the market for about six months, recently dropped from $2.5 million to $1.9 million.

Its view of Lake Michigan shrank over the years as taller buildings went up around it, but the property includes two adjacent lots that offer room to build. "We're appealing not only to the individual owner but somebody that's a developer, an investor that could build townhouses adjacent to it or condominiums adjacent to it," he said. "It's really a multiple-use home. It's more than just something for your family to own and live in."

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