Doing the Wright Thing

I was struck by a sense of irony this morning reading on AZCentral the latest episode in the saga of the David Wright house at 5212 E Exeter (actually faces Rubicon) in Arcadia.

In case you have not followed this story, a couple of would-be developers of the property essentially bought it for the 2 acres of land for a price of $1,800,000. Probably not bad for a lot that size in Arcadia.

At only 2250 square feet, the 1951 block construction house is pretty small by current standards of the area. But, as they say, “Location, location, location.” It is not uncommon for vintage homes in Arcadia to be scraped to the ground to make way for new “McMansions,” as locals often derisively refer to this type of redevelopment.

However, the real controversy arises from the home’s architect, David’s father Frank Lloyd Wright. As you probably know, FLW had a winter home and architecture school in what is now Scottsdale at Taliesin West. I’ve written about it before on ScottsdaleTrails, and there has been some recent controversy about the sale of the Taliesin archives to Columbia University’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Preservationists got wind of the plan to demolish the David Wright home through an application for a lot split, which seeks to yield two homes of new construction. The City of Phoenix Planning Commission initiated a rezoning for historic designation. This may or may not invalidate a demolition permit issued prior to the beginning of the rezoning. It will be an interesting battle between preservation and property rights.

Purchase of the property by a preservation-minded buyer has been floated as a possible solution. Obviously, the current owner hopes to make money on the property somehow, so we’ll see if the free market (perhaps influenced by the hassle factor of possibly having to sue the City of Phoenix) will influence a preservation-friendly outcome. If so, we’ll find out the free market value of preservation!

The irony for me is that the home is less than a mile-and-a-half west of the Scottsdale city limit. If it had been on the other side of that boundary (as is the easternmost portion of Arcadia), it would probably have been gone long ago. Unlike our neighbor to the west, Scottsdale city government and elected leaders only pay lip service to the past. History has become nothing more than a Chamber of Commerce marketing slogan for tourists (“The West’s Most Western Town”), and they aren’t even too keen on that these days.

There’s a slideshow of the home on the AZFamily website, and another on AOL Real Estate.

This description of the home appears on

The David Wright Residence was the designed in 1950 by Frank Lloyd Wright for this fourth son from his first marriage. Intended as a Desert Dwelling, the residence is lifted off of the desert floor in a spiraling design, a ramp-way provides access; all terminating in the master suite. Such design allowed for systems placement and concealment as well as to catch a gentle desert breeze.

A reinforced concrete floor cantilevers the space and the interiors are of Philippine mahogany. A beautiful home, it gracefully curls on itself, while maintaining a subtle elevation above the landscape that provides stunning views of Camelback Mountain, intentionally placed at a height above the surrounding citrus orchards, now all but gone or built-out with residences.

Mr. David Wright was involved with the design, manufacture and marketing of concrete block so the original design was modified slightly in planning by Mr. Wesley Peters to accommodate the block construction. A custom concrete block frieze adorns this graceful gem. The David Wright Residence was the last FLW-designed home continually used by the family of Mr. Wright in Arizona.

There is an effort afoot to petition the Phoenix Planning Commission in support of preserving the property. The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy published this information on their petition:

One of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most innovative, unusual and personal works of architecture. Built in 1950-52, it is the only residence by the world-famous architect that is based on the circular spiral plan of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, whose construction followed it by six years. When the house was first published in 1953, it was stated that no other Wright house since Fallingwater was as praiseworthy and remarkable. Since then its reputation has only increased and several architectural historians and architecture critics consider it to be among the 20 most significant Wright buildings. The spatial design, the processional movement through the patio and along the spiral ramp, the custom-designed concrete-block detailing, and the total interior design all give this house a spectacular expression especially appropriate to the desert environment.
                             -Neil Levine, architectural historian and Harvard professor

For almost 40 years no intact Wright building has been intentionally demolished. The Conservancy works every day to avoid deliberate destruction or demolition by neglect of Wright’s built work.

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    1. I was just explaining to my 8-year-old daughter this morning as we drove by the Wright house that the debate here is between preservation of historically significant architecture and private property rights, both of which I support. The real solution is to do historic zoning and historic preservation BEFORE it comes down to a fight to save something from demolition.

      Not unlike the forward-thinking Scottsdale General Plan, vs. throwing it out the window and doing spot rezonings, degrading neighborhoods one-at-a-time.

  1. Thank you for the geographical accuracy in this post. The New Times continues to erroneously report that the house is in Scottsdale, and the Arizona Republic confuses people by putting coverage of the issue and even its own editorial in the Scottsdale community section. In this case, the border between Scottsdale and Phoenix is about more than just geographical nitpicking. It matters not only because of differences in laws, as noted above, but also because when citizens are urged to contact elected officials and attend city meetings, it’s important that they know which city has jurisdiction.

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