The property was neglected. The building in disrepair. The new owner/developer saw easy profit in building new homes. City permits were filed, processed and approved. They took aim.
Demolition was scheduled for a Monday morning in May, 2012. The David and Gladys Wright House was to be no more.
And yet the House still stands.
How did this masterpiece survive for the world to enjoy? Though the term masterpiece is often overused, there is little doubt about its use here. It even bares the rare Red Square indicating its architect believed it was one of his best.
We can thank two very different individuals for the continued existence of the David and Gladys Wright House. Unrelated and unknown to one another, each played a separate, courageous, and essential role in the home’s preservation.
This relatively unknown story is both troubling and compelling.
Arizona, in many ways, is still the Wild West. It has long been a place the ambitious come to explore, innovate, rise, fall, and rise again. The year was 1928 and Frank Lloyd Wright, arguably America’s greatest architect, found his career threatened by scandal and controversy. There was no work. Fortunately, an important resort commission brought him from Wisconsin along with 30 apprentices to the desert Southwest. He fell in love with the Sonoran landscape, recognized its untapped potential and began a second home / studio school integral with its unique Arizona site. He called it “Taliesin West” (1938) . He was seventy years old and starting over. The work he did over the next two and a half decades certainly contributed to his stature. In 1991, Wright was recognized by the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time.”
His move to the “Valley of the Sun“, as the Phoenix Metro area is called today, would mark the beginning of an astounding personal reinvention. In a 25-year time span, Wright would complete many of his most notable buildings. These 20th century icons vary in scale from New York’s spiraling Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1959) to a spiraling 2500 square foot house for his son David and his wife Gladys (1952). Mr. and Mrs. David Wright would remain in their uniquely beautiful home until their passing: David at 102 (1997) and Gladys, 104 (2008).
It is absurd to think how close this masterpiece came to destruction.
The entire two acre property, located in the affluent Phoenix neighborhood named “Arcadia”, was willed to the grandchildren. They, unfortunately, could not afford to renovate or maintain the house. They sold the home in 2009 to a sympathetic buyer for 2.8 million dollars. While the global recession’s financial consequences still lingered, the house sold again in early 2012 for $1.8 million to developers intent on a highest and best use land investment.
Not surprisingly, they filed for a City of Phoenix demolition permit. It was approved. The gun was loaded and the complacent architectural community slept.
Alexander H. Malatesta was 44 years old in 2012. He is self-educated and started his tree and landscape maintenance company “right after graduating high school with only a chainsaw, a pickup truck, work ethic and a vision that has left him in business for almost 30 years.” Known as a skilled heavy equipment operator, the developers chose him to pull the trigger and be the Wright house wrecking ball. As he tells it, he was prepared to fulfill his contractual obligation. The paperwork was complete and, more importantly, it was legal.
Like most non-architects, Alex knew the Frank Lloyd Wright name but not much more. Nevertheless, something made him uncomfortable. He could not shake the elusive, heavy responsibility of destroying an historic home. He was aware of the growing community concern BUT he had made the deal and he always honored his commitments.
Metaphorically, his Dozer was parked in the Wright driveway, motor running.
Yet intuition told him this home was something more than a rundown circular composition of concrete block. Once the Wright House came down, there was no going back; no plan B; no replacement.
So he made a municipal phone call… “Phoenix, are you sure you want me to do this?”
Fortunately he reached a city employee wise enough to put him on hold and alert upper management.
Phoenix said STOP.
Dodging bullet number one was close!
Although Alex lost his contract and the associated income, he has no regrets.
It was Mr. Malatesta’s second thought and unselfish act of restraint that created space for the next showdown.
Following the suspended demolition permit, as expected, the developer partners invoked their individual property rights. They had a legal permit to clear the land, divide the property, build two Tuscan “villas” and fill their pockets without remorse. Although the elimination of an historic landmark is an obvious cultural loss, the city council was locked in a Wild West partisan split, typical of Phoenix.
Seemingly at an impasse, the developers jacked up the property’s price to $2.7 million and threatened to sue the City unless someone stepped up to buy it back.
Thirty thousand support letters poured in from around the world. The Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy tirelessly searched for a potential buyer. No one came forward. Mere days before the city council vote, a young Zach Rawling stood up when no one else would.
He bought the house at the inflated price and the vilified developers walked away.
Dodged bullet number two.
In May 6, 2016 Matt Heckmann of the “Arizona Republic” articulated what many of us were thinking: “Turns out, Phoenix’s very own preservation angel was Zach Rawling, a former Las Vegas custom home builder with a law degree who grew up not too far from the David and Gladys Wright House. A long-time admirer of Wright, Rawling currently lives in Arcadia.” Rawling explains in the Heckmann piece “Ultimately, the David and Gladys Wright House is an expression of the love of a father and son. It is a story that I hope resonated with everyone.” The purchase was culturally significant but also deeply personal for Rawling. “For me, the house is a reminder of the love of my parents, my childhood and the memory of my father. It feels like home, and it is what I love about this place.”
Heckmann continues: “he recently formed the nonprofit David and Gladys Wright Home Foundation to preserve the home and has already commenced extensive restoration work on both the home and the grounds. [Fig. 6] Basically, the guy is a preservationist’s DREAM.”
Malatesta and Rawling may be from different backgrounds and each took a stand in a different way, but they are both true heroes – angels – to those of us who value great design and cultural treasure. Their bold and selfless actions have saved a rare example of great architecture. It is the hope and purpose of this submittal that their accomplishments will be honored in a formal and substantial way.
Edward M. Jones