Will KC’s Frank Lloyd Wright house fall into the wrong hands? Preservationists sweat

The auction of one of the most architecturally distinctive homes in Kansas City — the Sondern-Adler house, designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright — has preservationists worried.

What if, following the sale at 2 p.m. Monday, the stone, low-slung Wright house, by some twist of fate, goes to the wrong buyer, someone who one day, gulp, decides to tear down the 80-year-old home?

Or maybe they’ll want to gut it, rip away parts of its cypress interior to make way for a bigger bathroom or modern kitchen.

Impossible, you think? It’s a Frank Lloyd Wright home. It’s historic and protected.

That’s not entirely true, say preservationists. It’s exactly why people like John Waters are worried.

Waters is the preservation programs manager at the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in Chicago, an organization dedicated to preserving Wright’s contribution to architectural history.

He is one, among many Wright aficionados, who will be closely watching Monday’s auction, set to take place by phone, online and on the front lawn of the property, tucked in the sylvan landscape of Kansas City’s Roanoke neighborhood, 3600 Belleview Ave.

“One statistic for you,” Waters said Friday. “At this point in time, half of all Frank Lloyd Wright buildings could be demolished legally without any real protections.”

About 380 Wright structures still stand in the United States, according to the conservancy. Some 280 are single-family homes. About 60 have been demolished.

As for the Sondern-Adler house protections:

The home is not part of the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places. Even if it were, that lends it no legal protection from demolition or renovations.

As stated by the park service, “Owners of private property listed in the National Register have no obligation to open their properties to the public, to restore them, or even to maintain them, if they choose not to do so. Owners can do anything they wish with their property provided that no Federal license, permit, or funding is involved.”

The Sondern-Adler home at 3600 Belleview Ave., designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, features a 2,000-square-foot addition Wright designed for the home’s second owner. File photo by Roy Inman Special to The Star

The house — built at 900 square feet in 1939 for Clarence Sondern and his wife, and then expanded nine years later to 3,000-square feet for its second owner, Arnold Adler — is part of Kansas City’s Roanoke Historic District. As such, owners of all houses in that neighborhood who would like to change the exteriors must have those changes approved by Kansas City’s Historic Preservation Commission.

But Brad Wolf, a historic preservation officer for Kansas City, said that, by commission rules, those who are turned down by the commission need only wait three years from the time of denial. After that, they can make the exterior changes that were originally denied. The commission has no authority on interior changes.

The owners of some Wright homes enter into agreements with nonprofit preservation organizations, offering them easements. That means that the nonprofit must give permission before any future owners are allowed to change the interior or exterior to a Wright home. But the Sondern-Adler house has no easements.

“No,” said Eric Bradley, spokesman for Heritage Auctions, which is selling the Wright house. “This is not a protected site. There are no restrictions on the house, making changes or whatever. In this situation, they are completely free to do whatever they like.”

The hope among preservationists, of course, is whoever purchases the home will want to keep it as is.

“Buildings of this caliber should be considered in the same class as a Picasso or Renoir painting, or a Calder or Giacometti sculpture,” said architecture critic Alan Hess, a California author of four books on Wright including, “Frank Lloyd Wright: Houses.” “They can certainly be appreciated, and add to the quality of life of the owner and the public in the same way as a piece of fine art.”

Guggenheim Frank Lloyd Wright(4)
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed more than 1,000 buildings across the country. He died in 1959. AP

Hess called Wright’s work, “part of our common heritage.”

“But we more often than not rely on individual owners to maintain them,” he said, noting that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently acquired a house designed by a Wright student. Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas moved a Wright house from New Jersey to the museum grounds and has it open for tours.

Longtime arts patron Richard J. Stern bought the Sondern-Adler house for $30,000 in 1963. The Nelson-Atkins acquired it from him in 1983 but sold it to its current owner, Jim Blair, in 2003.

Last September, Blair put the house up for sale for $1.65 million. Preservationists hoped that such a price would dissuade anyone other than true Wright lovers from buying the home.

It has not sold in 11 months. It is now being auctioned with “no reserve,” meaning no minimum price.

Anthony Alofsin, an expert on Wright and author of a new book, “Wright and New York, The Making of America’s Architect,” said that the Kansas City house is an excellent example of Wright’s Usonian vision, designing pleasing homes that meld with nature for middle-class America.

“In terms of the future, longevity, one hates to lose them, especially when they’ve got some life in them and represent his vision as well as this one does,” said Alofsin, who is both a historian and architect.

He said the Sondern-Adler house was created using a pattern of 5-foot-by-5-foot square modules at a time when Wright also began to design houses with more complex angles, that “in some instances are more challenging for people to live in and more difficult to sell.”

“If you look at the floor plan, it is very straightforward and very effective and appealing,” Alofsin said.

Any trouble selling, he said, probably has less to do with the house than with the real estate market and what people feel they want for $1.65 million, whether that is three-car garages, massive bathrooms and kitchens or walk-in closets. Some buyers, he said, criticize Wright houses as difficult to maintain, although he thinks they are often no different from other houses of similar age.

“People with money, they get accustomed to certain kinds of things — bathrooms of a certain size, closets of a certain size — things like that, that just aren’t part of this house,” he said. “It just depends on what people want.”

The home, with three bedrooms and three baths, is on 1.5 wooded acres.

“It may be that there’s nothing wrong with this very fine house. It’s probably just overpriced,” Alofsin said. “I hope that the house finds a nice owner who will take care of it and enjoy it. It looks like a pretty good one.”

To register or for more information on the auction, go to ha.com.

Wright’s other local designs include the Bott House, on a bluff north of downtown overlooking the Missouri River, and Community Christian Church on Main Street near the Country Club Plaza.

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Eric Adler has won more than 50 state and national journalism awards for his reporting that often tell the extraordinary tales of ordinary people. A graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in NY, he teaches journalism ethics at the University of Kansas.