What You Need To Know Before Bidding On Kansas City's Frank Lloyd Wright House | KCUR

What You Need To Know Before Bidding On Kansas City's Frank Lloyd Wright House

Aug 8, 2019

Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Kansas City's Sondern-Adler Home went on the market last year for $1.65 million. No one bought it, so it's going up for a no-reserve auction, with no minimum starting bid, on August 12.

Knowing the challenges that lie ahead is important for any buyer, says John H. Waters, an architect and preservation programs manager at the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in Chicago.

"For us, a knowledgeable buyer is the best buyer," Waters says. "We don't want people going in, you know, without an understanding of what would be involved with owning a house like this."

The Usonian-style residence at 3600 Belleview Avenue includes Wright designs for two different owners. Originally, Wright designed a 900-foot home for Clarence Sondern in 1939, with lush tidewater cypress and clerestory windows that allow light into the house.

Nine years later, Wright was commissioned to expand the dwelling for Kansas City clothing retailer Arnold Adler. The additional 1,900 square feet included an expanded deck, a step-up dining room and large living room.

Large windows surround the main living room. Red tidewater cypress covers the ceiling and appears throughout the home.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

Waters' organization monitors the 380 remaining Wright structures in the United States (different organizations count Wright buildings in different ways; some say there are 500 Wright buildings). The Conservancy serves as a resource for building stewards and potential building stewards, and tracks protections on all Frank Lloyd Wright buildings.

"It's interesting to note that half of the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings have no effective prevention from them being demolished," says Waters. "Many of them are on the National Register of Historic Places, which is an important designation. But ultimately that does not provide any real legal protection against alteration or demolition."

The Conservancy respects the privacy of people who own Wright properties. Even so, the no-reserve auction on the historic house in Kansas City raised some alarm.

"These transition moments for these houses is the most risky time for them," Waters says. "Regardless of the format in which they're changing hands. I think this is a particularly risky format. I think we've been encouraged by the amount of attention this has gotten and we certainly encourage all serious, preservation-minded potential buyer to engage in the auction."
 

Wright designed this dining terrace when Arnold Adler commissioned him to expand the original home in 1948.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

Waters says finding the right steward for a Wright house can be a lengthy process.

“All vintage houses require some time and patience to find that person or people or family that is the right match for that particular house," he notes.

There are two private homes designed by Wright in Kansas City. If bidders want advice on the challenges of preserving a Wright home, they need to look no further than architect Homer Williams.

Time and patience were the watchwords when Williams bought the home Wright designed for Frank and Eloise Bott in 1957. It sits in the Briarcliff Hills, with spectacular views of the city and the Missouri River Valley. It's one of the few Wright homes in the U.S. that still has all the original furniture and the original color, signed architectural drawings, all painstakingly preserved first by the Bott family and then by Williams.

When Eloise Bott decided to sell her house to Williams decades ago, she made it clear that ownership brought responsibility, Williams told KCUR in 2016.
 

Kansas City architect Homer Williams has maintained the Bott House since moving here nearly three decades ago. He says he grew up in an era that revered Frank Lloyd Wright.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

"We were good friends," he said of Bott. "She knew what I could undertake and she made sure that I was able to do it. She was quick to add that, ‘You are going to have two or three times that cost in taking care of it,’ which has been pretty accurate."

Any potential bidder of the Sondern-Adler home should know about certain problems with Wright houses, particularly those of the Usonian period.

"This will shock you: They generally have to do with water," Waters says with a laugh.

Even during Wright's lifetime, his projects were prone to leaking roofs.

 

A large patio area expands living space during summer months.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

For all the challenges, the payoffs are extremely high, says Waters. He says owners of Wright homes often wonder whether the architect planned everything, even the magic.

"Did he know that the light was going to fall on this particular point?" says Waters. "Sometimes yes. Sometimes it's just about creating the setting that can allow for a wonderful thing to happen."

Jim Blair, who currently owns the Sondern-Adler home, spoke to KCUR in 2017. He said he often took for granted the home's everyday beauty.

"It's totally just wonderful when people first walk in here," Blair said. "People are always just in awe. There are all the little details he has done. Yeah, I take it for granted because it's always just been like that."

Waters says people focus on Wright for good and obvious reasons.

"He's such a well-known name," says Waters. "Anyone who has the spirit to take on an historic property and be true to it will face not exactly the same challenges but will face challenges. So I kind of like to put that in perspective."
 

Wright connected indoor space with the outdoors in creative ways. A tranquil koi pond sits just steps outside the living room.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

Williams said owning a Wright-designed home takes a special kind of care.

"The kind of fixtures that you have here, you don’t buy off the shelf," he said. "These are designed for here. So when a lavatory quits, you don’t just call a plumber and have it fixed, you call the plumber, they come and then they go to the machine shop to have the part made. And then they come back and fix it."

Williams told KCUR that when he's ready to sell the Bott home, he's determined to pass the torch to someone who will respect the spirit of the house and its furnishings.

"You know, I sure wouldn't want to see somebody come in and add another bedroom or enclose the garage," says Williams. "There are a lot of things that you might want as an owner, but shouldn’t happen here."

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.