Sunday, July 31, 2005

Frank Lloyd Wright home faces costly repairs

Associated Press

RIVERSIDE, Ill. - A half century ago, Carolyn Howlett and her husband saved a dilapidated Frank Lloyd Wright carriage house from demolition, filled it with their own paintings and photographs and restored it with loving care.

Preservationists say the home in this village just west of Chicago likely would be long gone were it not for Howlett - now a 91-year-old widow suffering from Alzheimer's disease. But now the structure's hallmark clay tile roof needs to be replaced, and Howlett does not have the nearly quarter-million dollars needed to restore it.

The public guardian with legal authority over her estate has proposed a solution that local preservation societies say would mar the structure's historic integrity: a $14,000 asphalt roof.

The situation has put preservationists in an awkward spot. They want to keep the home's design, but they don't want to displace Howlett.

"Everybody would much rather ... see the right kind of roof on a Frank Lloyd Wright house," said David Bahlman, president of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. "(But) it's hard to tell her ... that she's going to have to sell the house to someone who can afford to put the right roof on. You can't do that either."

It is the first case in which a Wright-designed home in need of restoration is under the financial control of a public guardian, according to Audra Dye, program director for the Wright Conservancy. The nonprofit organization works to preserve Wright-designed buildings.

Typically, when the owner of a Wright home cannot afford expensive restoration work, the residence is sold to a nonprofit landmark group, which has a better shot at getting grant money from preservation societies.

But Howlett's closest living relative, nephew Norm Sobol, said he does not plan to sell the house, which is part of a large estate built by Avery Coonley, heir to an industrial fortune.

Public Guardian Robert Harris earlier this month petitioned the Riverside Preservation Commission to put on the asphalt roof. The commission, which must approve major changes because of the home's landmark status, has yet to decide the issue.

Three local preservation groups say they hope to present Harris with alternatives to the asphalt fix.

"We'll talk about creative ways to solve the problem," said John Thorpe, a board member of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. "Nobody's got a quarter-million dollars sitting around."

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