Frank Lloyd Wright House update

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Acting Historic Preservation Officer for the City of Phoenix Michelle Dodds talks about the City’s efforts to preserve a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house that’s up for sale.

Richard Ruelas: In June a development company bought house in the Arcadia neighborhood of Phoenix near Camelback Mountain. It planned to demolish the house and redevelop the two-acre property. Plans changed once the public found out the house was designed in 1952 by master architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Now the house, which belongs to wright's son, is up for sale, they are looking for a buyer who wants to preserve it and restore it. Meanwhile the Phoenix city council may designate the house as historic in December. Here to explain what it takes to guarantee the house is saved is acting historic preservation officer for the City of Phoenix, Michelle Dodds. Thanks for joining us this evening.
Michelle Dodds: Happy to be here, Richard.
Richard Ruelas: Let's take a little history on the historic preservation for the Frank Lloyd wright house. When did this come to the city's attention? How late in the process did the city become aware of the possible demolition of this property?
Michelle Dodds: Richard, it was in June that we were contacted by the Frank Lloyd wright building conservancy, who alerted us to the potential sale of the property. And then when they learned of -- that it was threatened, they requested that we initiate historic preservation landmark designation.
Richard Ruelas: Is that -- what would have been the optimum time for you to hear about the potential sale or potential demolition?
Michelle Dodds: Well, you know, we always prefer to try and be proactive. We have a very large city and so we do have a survey and designation plan every year that our historic preservation commission approves. We try to designate properties through our rezoning process.
Richard Ruelas: But around the time the commission got involved there was a demolition permit that had been pulled?
Michelle Dodds: Actually when the Planning Commission first initiated the potential designation, a demolition permit had not been pulled. The city had approved conditionally a lot split. It was apparent looking at the way the lot was split that the house was threatened.
Richard Ruelas: I guess a lot of public reaction helped the developers come to the city and try to work something out. Tell us about the house. We just showed some images of it. What is special about this property?
Michelle Dodds: As you mentioned, Frank Lloyd wright designed it specifically for his son David and wife Gladees. It has a unique spiral design. It sits perfectly in the southwest desert and takes advantage with the design of all the views all the way around the house of Camelback Mountain, for example, as a mentioned earlier.
Richard Ruelas: There seem to be, just looking at it again, there seem to be things that reference other Wright developments.
Michelle Dodds: Well, it was a pre -- the design was a precursor to the Guggenheim museum. I'm sure you've heard people mention that, a similar spiral design.
Richard Ruelas: To this house was a residential property that people lived in, and then as time goes on, it gets sold. When should the city step in and say, this one is worth saving?
Michelle Dodds: Well, unfortunately, sometimes we don't step in until we realize that the building is threatened. I know that the -- our family considered designation at one point in time, but it remained undesignated. I think a lot of people saw it who would demolish such a wonderful structure.
Richard Ruelas: The way it would work best is if I, as property owner, go to the city and say, here's where I'm living. It looks pretty great, do you want to designate it historic? We will work together for that designation? Is that the path of least resistance?
Michelle Dodds: Richard, yes. We would love to work with property owners as early on as possible to designate properties, rather than reacting to a possible demolition.
Richard Ruelas: How often does it happen in that dream scenario I described?
Michelle Dodds: We aren't approached a lot by homeowners to designate their homes. We do have 35 residential districts in Phoenix and over 200 individually listed properties. We have survey work we have to do prior to consideration of designation. When you're looking at an entire district, then that work is a lot more extensive.
Richard Ruelas: I would imagine the district designation has fewer restrictions than a property designation?
Michelle Dodds: Well, the historic preservation overlay, whether it's a district or an individually listed property, still has to meet the criteria for establishing an historic preservation overlay. Generally speaking, it is over 50 years of age, it is deemed significant, and it also has integrity. We couldn't designate just any property that might approach us, and say, when we look at designation, we evaluate it based on those criteria. Then we move forward through the process.
Richard Ruelas: Is a house in the Willo District treated differently than a historic house in the Willo district?
Michelle Dodds: Well, right. When you have a historic district with a couple hundred properties in it, not every house in that district will be a contributor to the district itself. So that when properties come through our design and review, that's one of our considerations, whether the house is a contributor to the district or not.
Richard Ruelas: And there are restrictions on what the property owner can do, as far as adding five garages or another story.
Michelle Dodds: People can still make additions to the house and we're making sure that the fabric, the character of that house is maintained and it doesn't lose that contributing status. We will evaluate it based on even within one district, you could have things to look at when you're doing your review.
Richard Ruelas: I guess if you're looking at that house and putting some restrictions on it, there's property value questions, rights questions and the voters kind of handcuffed you a little bit. How did the private property initiative the voters passed a bit ago affect historic preservation work?
Michelle Dodds: In 2006, when the voters passed prop 207, it did affect our designation of properties, when you're looking at a district with telephone homes it's very hard to get 100% of homeowners on board for the designation. When it's an individual property we're looking to designate, then it's generally one owner we're trying to convince. We've had the policy, our council has had the policy since the package of prop 207 to not designate without the consent of the property owner. That's in their policy.
Richard Ruelas: Which would mean you're trying to avoid a court battle or have a property owner saying that the city's action affected my property value. And back to the house, you need to have whoever buys the house agrees to have it designate the historic?
Michelle Dodds: It's a policy of the city's not to designate without that consent. Not that the city cannot do that. The policy has been not to do that.
Richard Ruelas: Has there been a fight when you've designated something historic over objections?
Michelle Dodds: We have done that in the past prior to prop 207. We've always had a takings appeal process, even before prop 207, where property owners, if they felt aggrieved, could request that hearing.
Richard Ruelas: Since this proposition came into law, you have not made something historic that the owner didn't want historic?
Michelle Dodds: I believe that's correct.
Richard Ruelas: I guess that's the goal here, to make it happen without going --
Michelle Dodds: We would love to have the owner's consent. So if the preservation minded property owner does purchase the house, and they are willing to consent to the designation, that would be wonderful.
Richard Ruelas: Phoenix gets a bad rap, and this being part of it, in this not being part of the city's history. What does the city do to go looking for historic properties to save.
Michelle Dodds: We do some surveys to look and see what's available. Right now we're looking at post World War II properties. A lot of Phoenix was developed post World War II. We are doing a study right now to look to see what properties might meet that age criteria we talked about before, the 50 years of age. We're looking at the significance of those, which have significance. And then lastly, which have integrity. We have to do some boots on the ground work to see if those homes still have that original character when they were constructed.
Richard Ruelas: I guess we could start to see historic districts move where the city moved, into Maryvale and other parts of the city from the 1950s.
Michelle Dodds: I believe we will find some treasures in other parts of the city. But I will tell you that there might be other things to consider other than a local designation on the Phoenix register, given prop 207 constraints. We could end up looking at some possible national designations, as well.
Richard Ruelas: I guess you hope when you knock on the door of those homes the person says, great, I was hoping you would show up. Let's designate this history.
Michelle Dodds: We want to educate people first, and let them know about the unique character of their -- it makes them proud and want to preserve it.
Richard Ruelas: Michelle Dodds, good luck on the Frank Lloyd wright house and future work with the city.
Michelle Dodds: Thank you very much.
Richard Ruelas: Wednesday, Arizona Corporation Commissioner Kris Mayes and colleagues talk about efforts to grow Arizona's renewable energy industry. And we'll take a look at the winners of the Governor's Celebration of Innovation awards, Wednesday evening at 4:30 and 10:00 here on "Arizona Horizon." I'm Richard Ruelas, have a good night. Thank you.

Michelle Dodds:Acting Historic Preservation Officer, City of Phoenix;

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