Nebraska bidder buys KC’s Frank Lloyd Wright house at auction for $920,000

A bidder from Nebraska paid $920,000 at auction Monday for the Sondern-Adler house, designed and built in Kansas City by iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

The name of the new owner is being withheld, but Eric Bradley, a spokesman for Heritage Auctions, said the bidder plans to honor the integrity of the home.

“I can say this,” Bradley said. “I can say the winning bidder realizes the gem he just purchased, and I think the residents of Kansas City are going to be very pleased with what the bidder plans to do with the home. He plans to keep it a national or regional destination, and, like Frank Lloyd Wright said himself, he intends to keep it as a gem for Kansas City.”

The home, at 3600 Belleview Ave., had been on the market for 11 months at $1.65 million. At the 2 p.m. auction, bidding began at $450,000, Bradley said. Bids quickly soared to $775,000 with the Nebraska bidder on the phone going head-to-head with a local bidder who was represented by a Realtor at the auction, in the home’s living room.

The winner wanted to remain anonymous for the time being. The auction house receives a 10 percent fee, bringing the total purchase price $1,012,000, far below the original asking price.

A number of potential buyers flew into Kansas City over the weekend, Bradley said, to assess the home for possible purchase. At least 10 serious bidders preregistered for the auction. A number of others were turned away from the home because they had failed to register prior to the 2 p.m. deadline.

The new owner of the Frank Lloyd Wright house in the Roanoke neighborhood promises to keep the integrity of the design. Tammy Ljungblad tljungblad@kcstar.com

Auction agents staffed three telephones inside the home to take remote bids. The auction took less than 40 minutes.

“Buildings of this caliber should be considered in the same class as a Picasso or Renoir painting, or a Calder or Giacometti sculpture,” architecture critic Alan Hess, a California author of four books on Wright, told The Star in the days prior to the auction. “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.”

Jackson County records show that the home, with its flat roof, yellow exterior brick and interior of dark cypress, is assessed at about $500,000. The current owner, Jim Blair, paid taxes of approximately $7,000 in 2018.

Assessment does not take into account the historic value of the home, which was built in Wright’s “Usonian” design at 900 square feet for the original owner, Clarence Sondern and his wife. The second owner, Arnold Adler, expanded the house to nearly 3,000 square feet nine years later with an addition also designed by Wright.

Longtime Kansas City arts patron Richard J. Stern bought the house for $30,000 in 1963. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art acquired it from him in 1983 but sold it to Blair in 2003.

Preservationists had worried about the house when the auction was announced. The house is in a historic neighborhood, but it largely remains unprotected from renovation or even a full gutting by laws or covenants.

The home is not on the National Register of Historic Places, but even if it were, that designation does not protect it from either interior or exterior renovation.

The house is part of Kansas City’s Roanoke Historic District, a sylvan neighborhood on the west side of Southwest Trafficway. 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.

Several Wright fans toured the home before the auction.

“I wanted to see the property. I’m a great fan of Frank Lloyd Wright,” said Stephanie Sabato, 64, a designer living in Brookside. “The history of the house, the history of Kansas City is something I am really passionate about, so I loved being able to come see the house. It’s a really fine specimen.

“I hope someone gets it that has a great appreciation for this as a beautiful historic artifact, and that they will be good stewards of the home. That’s my big hope and prayer for the property.”

Tom Harper, a Realtor from Lawrence and the founder of the architecture group Lawrence Modern, which pays homage to mid-century architecture, also toured the home before it was sold.

“I’m certain someone will purchase it who appreciates it, so future generations can enjoy it,” he said before the auction. “It’s just beautiful. It’s really an honor to tour these homes. The lines of the roof are just fascinating. The interior spaces with all the natural light, yet the coziness of the wood: Really, it just feels good.”

Harper, as a Realtor, added a prophetic financial note:

“It if didn’t sell for $1.6 million, then it’s not worth that,” he said. “Today, we’ll truly find what the value is.”

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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.