By Emily Rinaldi
In 1933, Frank Lloyd Wright made his first of what would become an annual trip to Phoenix, Arizona, to wait out the winter in the warm desert climate. In the years that follow, Wright would leave his mark on the Phoenix landscape, successfully constructing a number of his designs, the most famous being Taliesin West, Wright’s winter home and architectural school. After Wright’s passing, Phoenix continued to celebrate the architect’s legacy, posthumously constructing the Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium in 1962, erecting the Scottsdale Spire in 2007, as well as renaming a portion of the city’s main east-west arterial road, “Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard.”
In a place where the architect’s memory and work are actively preserved, it is even harder to believe that a developer is threatening to tear down one of Wright’s later works, the David and Gladys Wright House, built 1950-1952. The 8081 Meridian Corporation recently purchased the property and hopes to construct a new housing development on the site. Wright built for his son, David, the circular house from concrete blocks that features an exterior spiral ramp, much in the vein of his later Guggenheim Museum in New York. While at first the company released a public statement saying that it would preserve the house, it now appears that 8081 Meridian has rescinded this promise, stating that the “creativity is in the design” and not in the built structure.
The David and Gladys Wright House is not the first Wright structure threatened nor if 8081 succeeded, would it be the first work demolished. While some of Wright’s designs were demolished during his lifetime, those that were demolished after his death include (with date of demolition): the Oscar M. Steffen’s House (1963), the Imperial Hotel (1968), the Albert Sullivan House (1970), the Lake Geneva Hotel (1970), the Francis Apartments (1971), the Francis W. Little House (demolished 1972), the Arthur Munkwitz Apartments (1973) and the Francisco Terrace Apartments (1974). Most recently, a developer in Grand Beach, Michigan tore down the William S. Carr House in 2004 in order to build a new four-bedroom home.
Arguments used to justify the destruction of buildings like the David Wright House and the William S. Carr House are the same arguments used against buildings like Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center. The aesthetic of architects like Wright and Rudolph differs greatly, as well as how the public receives and appreciates the legacy of their work. Despite these differences, the reasoning behind demolishing a Wright structure is the same reasoning behind tearing down a work by Paul Rudolph. Aesthetic, size, functionality, cost of upkeep, and cost of restoration are all arguments developers levy against the preservation of old buildings. Wright’s reputation and standing in architectural history does not universally protect his work against activities by companies like 8081 Meridian.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy along with the local organization Phoenix Modern are campaigning against the destruction of the David and Gladys Wright House and is petitioning the city of Phoenix to grant historic preservation and landmark designation to the house. The city’s Planning Commission voted unanimously in mid-June to initiate the process of preservation designation that would delay the approval of a demolition permit, but not protect against it. The Conservancy and its partners are hoping to secure a preservation-minded buyer of the property as the City of Phoenix continues the process of approving the landmark designation of the structure.