Last month the foundation that owns Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed Ennis House in LA’s Los Feliz neighborhood announced that it was putting it on the market for $15 million, potentially taking it out of the public realm. According to the Ennis House Foundation, a study it commissioned evaluating potential preservation approaches showed it didn’t have the resources to maintain the house on its own.
According to the foundation, the study confirmed that it “would need to generate significant philanthropy to operate at a sustainable level for future years, given the house’s ongoing repair and restoration needs,” with the foundation concluding that, “despite many conversations with potential funders, we haven’t found the resources required.”
COURTESY the Ennis House Foundation
Since the announcement the preservation community has struggled over the strategy, and some have even speculated that the significant work that went into saving it (The Ennis House Foundation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the LA Conservancy helped fund a $6.5 million restoration of the house beginning in 2005 after it had suffered earthquake and water damage) would go to waste.
Ron Scherubel, Executive Director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy confirmed that he had found several items in preservation blogs complaining about its move into private hands (although he was quick to note that the house had never been open as a public museum before). One particularly outspoken poster on the site Lottaliving.com, put it this way:
“Frankly, I’m disgusted by the sale of this property from the public sector back to the private-sector. We are not just talking a typical historic building here. Millions of dollars of public funds went into the previous repair of this property, and it was never mentioned that the building could go back to a private owner. Like many, I donated money…and I certainly would have never done that had I known the property would be closed again to the public, which barely had time to visit the property during the short time it was open between repair campaigns.”
But according to a number of preservation groups involved, the Ennis House Foundation and the Wright conservancy among them, there was simply no choice, despite their own misgivings. Preserving the house came first.
“It was certainly a difficult choice,” said Anthea Hartig, Director of the West Coast Regional Office of the National Trust, and also a Board member on the Ennis House Foundation. “The financial models that work with house museums, even the best of them, would never bring in enough revenue to sustain the foundation,” she said, especially in this economic climate. She added that the house still requires at least $6 million more for stabilization, reconstruction, and interior work.
The foundation had also come under pressure from neighbors, who had threatened lawsuits to stop the house from crowding their small, winding street with visitors. The neighborhood is not currently zoned to contain a private museum.
Hartig insists that the work that the National Trust for Historic Preservation did will not go to waste, and that historic agencies will ensure that it stays in good hands. “The trust is very proud and pleased to be part of the great work that was done,” Hartig said, adding that without the work the house would now have probably deteriorated beyond repair.
Jim DeMeo, President of the Ennis House Foundation, noted that a preservation easement for the house will likely requires that the new owner open the house to “some level of public access,” at least a few times a year, which could be that through tours or special events.
He noted that the Ennis House Foundation board would have to sign off on any potential owners. Hartig said that the real estate agents, Christies’ Great Estates LA affiliates Hilton & Hyland and Dilbeck, would cooperate in finding a well-suited, respectful owner.
“They have a very thorough pre-screening process. They understand how unique the site is and what a real treasure it is,” she said. “All we can do to ensure that the right person and right set of tools so owner knows all that has to be done and all that can be done. No one is going to give up caring about this site. It’s an international icon.”
“Our experience is that anyone who buys a Wright House does so because they like architecture, and they’re interested in protecting the house,” added Scherubel.
Meanwhile, according to DeMeo, the house has attracted significant interest among buyers. Noting that the foundation has had “a number of showings” of the house (he would not say how many), DeMeo added that “there are parties that are seriously considering this property; both nationally and internationally.” He would not name any of these parties, but said that none of them so far were part of public institutions.
DeMeo said that if the home were to be sold the proceeds would likely go towards paying off the home’s Mortgage.