Frank Lloyd Wright Homes Need Buyers

wrightinkankakee.In Kankakee, Illinois, activists trying to save one of Frank Lloyd Wright's early Prairie-style homes have less than half of the $170,000 down payment needed by June to buy the $1.9 million gem -- one the priciest properties in the town of around 27,000 people.

While Wright supporters rally in Kankakee, the house (left) is the next in a string of Wright originals struggling to find a buyer with deep-enough pockets.

In February, the price of Los Angeles' palatial Ennis House was slashed to $10.5 million. Owners of a Wright-designed masterpiece in Pasadena, dubbed "La Miniatura" knocked over a million-and-a-half off the sales price from $7.7 million to $6 million since it hit the market. In Oak Park, Illinois, the city where Wright lived for the first 20 years of his career, the Thomas H. Gale House owner (which has been on the market since 2006) shaved $200,000 off its asking price to $1.1 million this month.

Prior to the housing bubble, buyers, who deem Wright's designs on par with collectible art, scrambled to get their hands on a limited number of properties and sometimes paid costly premiums to land one.

In better economic times, Chicago realtor Judy Demetriou considered buying a small, Frank Lloyd Wright for herself, but was too slow on the draw. "When I was thinking about it, someone bought it," she recalls.

Even amid the recession, Wright advocates say demand has stayed constant, and that real estate bearing the esteemed architect's name is still being sold at above market prices.

Wright-designed homes are fetching a 20 to 30 percent premium, according to Janet Halstead, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, a nonprofit helping preserve the 400-some Wright houses still in existence around the country.

"The supply is constant and the number of people who are interested grows," says Jim Peters, president and executive director of Landmarks Illinois. "That's why you see the price go up."

However, other insiders question the validity of an across-the-board premium attached to owning a Frank Lloyd Wright original and whether the inflated price is preventing Wright owners from selling and discouraging interested buyers from getting in the game.

Tom Rodgers, a Chicago appraiser, says premiums can fluctuate greatly from house to house and that the price is ultimately dictated by real estate values in the area.

"That's a hard sell for Wright enthusiasts, but I think that's reality," says Rodgers, adding: "It does [homeowners who need or want to sell] a disservice to make them think they could sell it for more."

One such example is Rick Easty, an owner of a general contracting business, who bought Oak Park's Thomas H. Gale House in 2006, believing he could make $40,000 to $50,000 by flipping the historic property.

This month, he reduced the price from $1.3 million to $1.1 million faulting the home's location on the busy Chicago Avenue and the economy for the scant number of prospective buyers.

"I thought it would fly off the shelf at that price," he says about his recent price change, but instead, Easty is finding that buyers are slow to move and he wants out.

Aside from high prices in a recessionary time, other factors halting sales range from the condition of the Wright homes, some of which are approaching 100 years of age, and the ongoing difficulty in obtaining jumbo mortgage loans for higher-end real estate. (While there are Wright homes priced in the hundreds of thousands, most begin around the million-dollar range).

Back in Kankakee, after a head-to-toe restoration and unsuccessful attempts to find a buyer on the market, the owners are ready to sell, too. But this case is the exception -- even without a buyer in sight, there's hope that with the help of activists and patrons, Wright's masterpiece will live on.

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