Bulldozing a Modernist Landmark
If a man’s home is his castle, why can’t he tear it down? The new owner of a Frank Lloyd Wright cottage in Glencoe, Ill., has posed that question in the most acute way by applying for a demolition permit. People are usually surprised to learn that America’s historic buildings, no matter how significant, go unprotected unless there is a local preservation ordinance. Even those ordinances are typically toothless, since they can be overruled for reasons of “hardship,” a category so elastic that the inability to maximize the profit potential of your property can count.
As it happens, there is a preservation ordinance in Glencoe, but the Sherman M. Booth cottage has been given only “honorary” landmark status. That means that demolition can occur, but the town can mandate a 180-day stay of execution. For the moment, the cottage still stands; behind-the-scenes negotiations might save it yet.
There is no question that the Booth cottage (1913) is significant. It marks the beginning of Ravine Bluffs, the enclave fronting Lake Michigan that was Wright’s first suburban subdivision. Booth, the promoter of the development, was a classic specimen of Wright’s clientele of young free-thinkers: His father was an abolitionist who served time in prison, his wife a dynamic suffragette, and their daughter one of Illinois’s first woman lawyers. Booth was also Wright’s personal attorney and handled his first scandalous divorce (picking up the pieces of Wright’s own energetic free thinking).
For all Booth’s brave dreams, his development failed to thrive; only a handful of these “marvelously beautiful houses” (as they were described in the original advertisement) were built. One was a large one for himself; after that was finished, he sold his cottage and moved it to the edge of the development. Still, the cottage was prophetic. Built of wood on a three-foot modular grid, it prefigured the Usonian houses, the compact and informal dwellings that are Wright’s most enduring contribution to the American suburb. According to David De Long, a noted scholar of Wright, the 882-square-foot nutshell of a cottage shows his ability to “reduce a house to its essentials while still retaining a sense of character.” But in today’s real-estate climate it is that most endangered of objects, the tiny house on a big lot.
Wright’s name—the only American architect’s name known to the general public—has always given his buildings a value greater than that of the land on which they stand; his prestige has survived every oscillation of fashion over the past century. According to the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, which keeps careful watch, approximately 380 of his buildings survive, most in private hands. Since 2004 only two have been demolished; the Booth cottage would be the third. This is hardly the Sack of Rome.
Still, the very fact that someone could buy a Wright building as a teardown is troubling. A generation ago, first-time home buyers were delighted to find intact historical houses that still had their brass hinges and glass doorknobs. Their children entering the market today are not as interested in old buildings. If they do buy an old house, real-estate agents tell me, they are likely to perform an architectural root canal, stripping the walls down to incorporeal white, relieved by the odd granite counter top. To be sure there are exceptions, but in general the changing rhythm of contemporary life is veering away from historic buildings crammed with old things. In recent years old furniture, even family heirlooms, has become impossible even to give away, let alone sell. Interviewed by the Philadelphia Inquirer, one antiques dealer observed that his millennial customers would “rather have a top-of-the-line iPhone than a grand piano.”
The great irony of all this is that the Booth cottage—with its clean, simple lines, sheer planes, and relaxed open plan—is in harmony with this taste. After all, the Midcentury Modern craze that has millennial home buyers so smitten today is itself to a great extent the creation of Wright—reinforced by the back-eddy of his European admirers. Of course, if one does not care for history in the first place, claims of historical pedigree will count for little.
In a certain sense, there is nothing new here. The pendulum of fashion never stops swinging. In 1963 New York lost Penn Station, around the same time that Philadelphia, in a trifecta of demolition, razed the three great downtown banks by Frank Furness, architect of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Belated recognition that these were masterpieces of world architecture, hiding in plain sight, helped to bring the preservation movement into being. Having casually discarded a substantial part of our pre-modern heritage, what a tragedy it would be to repeat that mistake and now send the bulldozers after the modernists.