Sunday, March 20, 2005

Wallflowers for years, Frank Lloyd Wright homes are a tough sell


The spacious old house in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood seemed to be an attractive property.

The 90-year-old brick and stucco structure is 2,700 square feet, has four bedrooms and 3 1/2 baths and sits on nearly half an acre - a large lot in the city. It also has the cachet of being designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, widely considered America's greatest architect.

But it seemed nobody wanted to buy the house, which had been on the market for about a year and a half. Until the owner took the unusual step of selling it at an auction.

The owner had discovered a hard truth about Wright homes in this era of big, open living spaces and spa tubs: They are difficult to sell.Home buyers today are in search of huge master-bedroom suites, expansive kitchens and large family rooms, none of which are standard in Wright houses, mostly built from the late 1890s until his death in 1959.

With the added cost of preserving an older historic home and the premium price tag placed on Wright houses, many languish on the market for years."

Many people are interested in Frank Lloyd Wright properties. But not everybody really wants to live in one," said Jan Kerr, a real estate agent in Oak Park, Ill., site of many Wright homes, who has sold seven in her 26-year career.

Just ask Arlene Moran of Galesburg, Mich., about 160 miles east of Chicago. Moran's three-bedroom, two-bath home designed by Wright, on which she spent about $180,000 for renovations, has been for sale for two years."I've begged people to call me back after they've seen it and tell me what they consider not desirable," Moran said.

She has set a firm price - $375,000 - to recover her costs, but Moran has refused offers from people who planned to use the house as a bed-and-breakfast or time-share vacation home.

"You need to have somebody who's going to take care of it," Moran said. "These people were interested, but I wasn't interested in them. These things should not be done to a work of art."

The owner of the Wright home in Rogers Park decided to put it up for auction as a last resort after the house failed to receive any offers, said Ken Goldberg, executive managing director of Sheldon Good Brokerage and the broker for the house during its last two sales.

People who wanted to live in the house thought the bedrooms were too small, and half of the prospective buyers were developers who thought the limitations on future development on the large lot were too restrictive, he said."It's been a very tough sale because it's overpriced.

Secondly, the Frank Lloyd Wright house doesn't belong in East Rogers Park. It's out of place there," Goldberg said. "Had it been in Oak Park (Ill.) it probably would've sold 10 times. We took the price from $2.5 million to $1.9 million, and we still had resistance."

Some Wright home sellers have unrealistic expectations when setting their price and believe that a Wright-designed home entitles them to a 20 percent markup, said Ron Scherubel, executive director of the Chicago-based Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, which tracks the sale of Wright homes.

The owner of the Rogers Park home is Chicago-area restaurateur and developer Reza Toulabi, who bought the home and adjacent lot in 2000 for nearly $700,000, according to property records.It sold at auction last week in eight minutes, for several hundred thousand dollars above the opening bid of $750,000.

That sale marks the second known time that a home designed by Wright has been put up for auction, Scherubel said. The first was in the Cincinnati area, and it sold for $400,000 in 2003 - half the price of the opening bid of $800,000.

The Rogers Park home, in the 7400 block of North Sheridan Road, was built in 1915 for Emil Bach, a Wright enthusiast who co-owned a brick company. The structure reflects Wright's transition from the Prairie Style to his Usonian period, during which he created moderately priced homes with more open floor space.The home has an adjacent yard that is zoned for low-density development, such as a two-flat or townhouses, which has been used as a selling point. The new owner does not have plans to build on the yard next door.

Several Wright enthusiasts said any development on the side lawn would not honor the architect's design.Frank Miller, 36, a banker whose family lived in the house from 1969 to 1978, said building a structure next door would change the way light filters into the home.

Miller's father spearheaded the effort to landmark the home in 1977."The windows are designed to see certain things or have a certain view," Miller said. "The more you build around it, the more you take away from a piece of the puzzle of who Frank Lloyd Wright was."

The house's landmark status means city approval is required before any major changes can be made to it.Along with historic-preservation laws and challenges by conservationists, Wright homes face another hurdle when they go on the market: They seem outdated to some potential buyers.During Wright's career, most families spent time in the living room, and for some, servants cooked meals in far-off kitchens - a style of living that is out of step with today's demand for big, centrally located kitchens.

Maintenance costs for Wright homes also add up, with the newest houses about 50 years old."Anything you do to a Wright house is rather unique," Scherubel said. "Fix-up costs are marginally, incrementally higher in a Wright house because they're custom jobs. You don't go to Home Depot."

Yet while owners of Wright homes may find it takes longer to sell than a typical house in the suburbs, there is still a niche market, said Tim Quigley, board president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy."Interest in Wright's work continues unabated," Quigley said. "It's a mating game, just finding the right people for these houses is a bit of patient search, that's all."

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