Preservation for a Price

Preservation for a Price

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Millard House in Pasadena is looking for a buyer.
Scott Mayoral

The Millard House, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed landmark tucked into its own lush dell near Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, has been on the market for more than a year. But realtor Crosby Doe, who specializes in houses of architectural significance, said he was not very worried. Even in better economic times, architectural masterpieces like the Millard House often take longer to sell than other upscale properties of less historic provenance. Now with an unusually large inventory of other early- and mid-20th Century landmark houses for sale in the LA area, Doe believes it will take time to find a buyer with the right taste and pockets deep enough to approach the current $5.9 million asking price.

The textile block house with a Mayan flavor, also known as La Miniatura, combines the stunningly beautiful spaces and the eccentricities of other Wright residences. Plus, there are landmark rules governing what a new owner can change plus the prospect of Wright fanatics peeking at the surprisingly un-gated property and jungle-like garden. “I would say that architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and John Lautner created houses that were so singularly unique to the client who hired them,” said Doe during a recent tour of the Millard House built in 1923. “So the challenge now is to find somebody who not only loves it aesthetically as many people do, but someone who says ‘this is the lifestyle I want to live.’”

Inside the Mayan-inflected Millard.

Scott Mayoral

Another Frank Lloyd Wright textile block design—the larger 1924 Ennis House in Los Feliz—is also for sale. The foundation that owns it could not afford upkeep even after government and private sources funded millions in earthquake and storm repairs. Houses by Rudolf Schindler, Richard Neutra, Rafael Soriano, Ray Kappe, as well as more Lautners and Wrights are also in need of interested buyers.

In some cases, now is the time to buy as asking prices are coming down. The Millard House started at $7.7 million. The Ennis House in early February dropped from $15 million to $10.495 million. Schindler’s 1925 Howe House in Silver Lake—a Los Angeles city historic cultural monument like the Ennis House—went on the market for nearly $5 million in fall 2008 and is now priced at $2.79 million. Lloyd Wright’s 1922 Taggart House, another landmark in Los Feliz, dropped from $3.2 million to $2.6 million. Neutra’s 1951 Logar House in Granada Hills is $999,000, down from $1.5 million.

Neutra’s Logar House, built in 1951, is one of many modernist homes whose price is falling.

Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, said that the large number of important houses for sale may also reflect general economic uncertainties and the sense among potential buyers to wait for better deals. Dishman, who serves on the board of the Ennis foundation, said the buyers need enough additional resources to repair and maintain the properties.

Aaron Kirman, of Hilton & Hyland realtors, one of the listing agencies for the Ennis, acknowledged that “architecturally significant houses aren’t immune from the rest of the market,” but he also said that he has sold a number in the past year—including a 1942 Neutra in Westwood that sold recently after six months on the market at $1.8 million, just 14% below its original asking price. Most buyers at that level are unaffected by the mortgage tightening, he said.

Lautner’s Hatherall House, built in 1957 in Sunland, came on the market for $1.595 million but is now asking $1.35 million.

Jan-Richard Kikkert

One concern among preservationists is that landmark houses might decay if they are not properly maintained while waiting out a sluggish market. Dishman said most sellers have a vested interest in maintenance to protect a property’s values. But finding that ideal steward is not easy. The 1950 Hollywood Hills house has been on the market for about two months at $2.49 million. Offers came close but deals died when Heller realized the buyers wanted to drastically alter the house.

A recent tour given by Doe of the three-story Millard House in Pasadena revealed such treasures as the double-height living room with a gorgeous redwood ceiling and balconies inside and out. And, since it was raining, a few buckets were on hand to catch small leaks. “Although, there are always compromises of living in a great work of architecture,” Doe said, “what it gives back to you is more than it ever takes.”