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Wright’s priceless visions are costly | TribLIVE.com
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Wright’s priceless visions are costly

Tribune-Review
| Thursday, June 25, 2009 12:00 a.m

Another Frank Lloyd Wright house has been falling down. No matter, it won’t hurt his reputation. He’ll always be fine with critics for defying the standards of ordinary people.

Wright’s famous Ennis House overlooks – that is, it might fall into – Los Angeles.

Perched on a hilltop (what drama, what a view!) it can’t be afforded anymore by the nonprofit foundation that’s stuck with it. Far more than the original purchase price of 1924 is needed for repairs, $7 million maybe. That’s on top of substantial bills already paid to save the masterwork from the slippery slope. It’s hoped that a new private owner will step up at a coming auction. Asking price: $15 million.

Which could be cheap. The word “priceless” often attaches to a Wright house. The most famous, much closer to Pittsburgh, is Fallingwater in Fayette County, where retailing magnate Edgar Kaufmann in 1936 merely wanted a nice summer and weekend place. Wright amazed him, amazed the world, by stretching the woodsy retreat over, not alongside, a tumbling mountain stream.

Trouble is, some years later, the masterpiece threatened to become Falling Into Water. It took millions to get it re-engineered and properly anchored. Had Kaufmann foreseen such headaches, he would have sent America’s most famed architect back to the drawing board.

Likewise the family on the L.A. hilltop, you can bet. The Ennis House of 6,000 square feet used 27,000 “textile blocks” of concrete, Mayan in style. Which was sort of surprising. The ancient Indian culture of southern Mexico never got within 1,000 miles of L.A. And Wright (1869-1959) always affected to rebel against venerable traditions.

So he gave the Ennises a temple. And over the years came earthquakes and mudsliding rains, not exactly unforeseeable in California. Shifting ground showed no respect whatsoever for art. By 1980 the last heirs had had enough. They turned the unaffordable splitting level over to a public trust. Fallingwater is similarly entrusted.

It seems the great architect occasionally muffed the basics of his craft. His other western Pennsylvania gem, Kentuck Knob, also in Fayette County, features a bedroom with a doorway a foot wide.

Wright also tended to spout opinions as skewed as his measures. He once told leaders of Pittsburgh to tear the awful place down and start over. (Yet aren’t our most eye-appealing buildings old rather than new?) Another time he proposed containing an entire metropolis in a skyscraper a mile high. Original! But who’d want to live there•

“The roof is leaking on my desk,” the owner of a new building once complained to Wright. “Move your desk,” the great one replied.

But a house that needs millions more in rehab than it cost to build in the first place• Perfectly forgivable. He was a progressive.

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