Why the Wright House Preservationists Deserved an AIA Arizona Award

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Many of us will have, in the new year, to resolve to stop complaining about how no one cares about Phoenix’s architectural history. The largesse of local preservationists is gaining national recognition, most recently by the American Institute of Architects Arizona award of distinction to Zach Rawling and Alexander Malatesta.

The award typically goes to a builder, but neither Rawling nor Malatesta is an architect. They are the men who have ensured that Frank Lloyd Wright's David and Gladys Wright House remained standing. And depending on how things go with the neighborhood where the peculiar and distinctive building resides, the Wright House may be open to the public next year sometime.

The house, which Wright designed and built in 1952 for his son David, is built on late-period Wright principles of spirals and connected circles. Its complete curves continue in the home’s interiors, where round rooms are the rule. Each offers an impressive view of nearby Camelback Mountain and other expanses of desert.

It was saved from the wrecking ball by Rawling, a Nevada-based developer who in 2012 outbid Meridian, another development company that planned to tear down the FLW residence and build McMansions on the site. Rawling purchased neighboring lots and launched a plan to create a Wright-specific public place where seminars and performances could take place. Arcadians concerned about increased traffic and noise put the kibosh on that, but Rawling has stood firm in his plan to restore — and not remodel — the home, which he’ll then open for public tours.

According to Arizona Preservation Foundation board president Jim McPherson, there’s a revised plan for the property’s use. Architect Victor Sidy and landscape architect Chris Winters, McPherson wrote in a recent letter to Mayor Greg Stanton, “will maintain the original, enlightened vision for the building's preservation and create a landscape and view corridor that everyone – neighbors, residents, and visitors alike – will benefit from and enjoy for decades to come.” McPherson notes that both Sidy and Winters are Taliesin West-trained, referring to the Wright foundation’s school of architecture.

Earlier this month, City Council voted 8 to 1 to withdraw the building’s landmark designation request, a status initiated in June 2012. This sounds like a bad thing; a step backward that would put the house in peril again. Not so, according to Realtor and preservationist Sherry Rampy.

“From a preservation point of view, this is really good,” she says. “That landmark designation was on a smaller parcel that included the house, and was initiated to save the property.” By moving forward with landmark designation on a larger parcel that includes neighboring lots purchased by Rawling, he can move forward with potential educational partners. “That was the original plan,” Rampy recalls. “To be able to create a place that included an education component, which this larger-lot designation will allow for.”

Given the efforts of these preservationists and City Council folk, why is Malatesta, a landscaper who was originally hired to raze the building for Meridian, being honored? Because his inspection of the property led to behind-the-scenes activism on behalf of the historical structure. He knew, according to superstar architect Eddie Jones’s AIA nomination, that this building was significant, and he did some poking around at the City of Phoenix. The resulting investigation by principals at Historic Preservation led to the revocation of the demolition permit.

Rawling then purchased the home, and has gone on to become the president of something called the David and Gladys Wright House Foundation, much to the chagrin of his new neighbors, who were counting on more chicken-wire-and-plywood faux Italian domiciles.

Will there be fallout from AIA’s precedent-setting curtsy honoring a pair of guys who aren’t industry fellows? Possibly. But both survived the nonsense from “concerned” Arcadia residents. It’s likely they can take on a handful of angry architects.

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